Anyone paying attention to .Paak’s rise throughout 2015 knew from the get-go that this was the first AOTY contender we had before Kanye West’s The Life of Pablo had us occupied throughout February and again in March when he updated it. But there was a sad lack of dialogue around Malibu because it had to contend with (1) the fact that Anderson .Paak was a relative new talent, which is hard to get anyone invested in if they hadn’t already been won over by his voice in his growing resume up until that point; (2) David Bowie’s death just a few days before, which meant everyone was discussing the ridiculously overrated Blackstar instead; (3) the fact that this summer album was released in the dead of fucking winter.
And I truly mean the get-go: “The Bird”’s electric guitar’s counter-point; the lovely horn that comes in to vividly paint the line (“A bird with the word came to me…”); the bass pulse. Simply put, a gorgeously understated opener that made me running to the Wiki page to see who produced it – surprised to learn it was .Paak himself. And that’s not even discussing Anderson .Paak’s unique voice; a few people have compared him to Kendrick Lamar, and that’s not a heady namedrop – like Kendrick, he sounds wise beyond the years; like seeing too much has forever charred his voice (it gets to the point that when he says “I’m a product…” on closer “The Dreamer,” I keep expecting him to follow it up with “…of the late-80s”). But a better comparison might be Drake, based on how he slings from rapping to singing at the drop of a hat, sometimes casually inflecting the former with slight melodies. Yet, if Drake had .Paak’s voice, he would’ve sanded away all the edges.
Highlights are everywhere: Rapsody contributes a show-stopping verse on “Without You” (“Heard your mama cheated on ya daddy, you just like her / Come-a-come around, remember what happened to Tiger”) which makes up for Anderson .Paak grabbing Action Bronson’s “blow like a Nintendo Cartridge” (see “The Symbol”); Dem Jointz, who worked with .Paak on .Paak’s coming-out party of Compton brings some really underused but peppy horns in the pre-choruses of “Silicon Valley”; the washed-out piano loop of “Room in Here” (“Maybe there’s too much smoke in here” indeed) that sprang the Caretaker’s – of all things – work to mind.
Elsewhere, “Room in Fire” opens with a drum intro that settles immediately into the album’s best groove, before Anderson .Paak emerges from the smoke: voila (even if that’s apparently not what he actually says). Even ScHoolboy Q, who has a tendency to slide into drug/sex-induced stupidity, surprises: his flow is more song-y than anything he’s ever dropped before, and it settles nicely into the groove and contrasts well with .Paak’s voice. And for the record, no, he’s not wrong. That would’ve made for a solid song by itself, but producer POMO – whom I’ve never heard of before – reveals that’s he’s been sitting on an ace card this whole time, throwing a catchy horn loop into the mix.
And .Paak manages to get excellent beats from both some big-name hip-hop producers. Madlib returns the favor for Anderson .Paak elevating “The Strip” on Bad Neighbor with “The Water”, giving us another excellent bass-line while .Paak drops some of the best verses on the album (“Volume one was too heavy for you frail niggas / So I got leaned like codeine and pills”) and delegating the singing to the feyer BJ the Chicago Kid. 9th Wonder (who handed in the utterly forgettable Indie 500 with Talib Kweli just the previous year) produces the first part of “The Season | Carry Me,” whose indelible keyboard loop brings to mind summer days near the baseball field of the park (and second part, “Carry Me”, has another great loop!). And speaking of people who have worked with Talib Kweli, Hi-Tek supplies a great bass-line for “Come Down” (which does just the opposite; “Hey, now you, drank up all my liquor, come on! / What I’m supposed to do now?”). It gets to the point that my head is spinning thinking about how .Paak would do over a Dilla beat.
Opener aside, .Paak produces or co-produces three other tracks here, and while they’re all second-tier on the album, they’re good enough proof that if he ever – God forbid – decides to quit singing/rapping, he’ll have a lucrative career as a producer to fall back on. The throw-back “Put Me Thru” has some nice flecks of electric guitar spraying colour over the syncopated beat and notable bass (two elements that are also present on “Celebrate”), while “Parking Lot” has a groove that sounds like a sun kiss fed through a video game.
It’s not perfect – even brushing over some of the minor tracks (especially the forgettable “Water Fall (Interluuube)”), this is how .Paak starts “Silicon Valley”: “Yeah, all of that ass you carrying / You gotta be shitting me” (which the hyperbolic folks over at Genius describe as “some clever wordplay”), and his answer to “What’s behind them tig-ol-bitties” is “They say the heart is underneath”, which is just bad poetry all around. Furthermore, while that song might have the best choruses on the album, he could’ve held certain words just a hair of a split-second longer to improve the phrasing: “Open your heart, X spots the mark / Don’t-turn a frown”; it’s a distracting jolt that suggests there’s still room to grow for him, as a singer. (And as opposed to the forthcoming Yes Lawd! with Knxwledge, the T&A-drooling of “Silicon Valley” is balanced by the spoonerisms in the choruses.)
And I guess both the Game and Talib Kweli’s verses aren’t much to shout about, though neither are particularly bad, even considering the Game thinks all Asians are Thai and Kweli wastes time by repeating a great chunk of his verse. And yet, that being said, the closer is, without a doubt, my favorite track here: the way you can tell the children’s choir’s chorus of “Don’t stop now, keep dreaming” is as much directed to you as it is to .Paak himself. And it floored me to hear how well-delivered .Paak’s “Mama always kept the cable on” is, both the melody and the context with the rest of the song, as if to say that a television was a good enough substitute the lack of a father and hence why it wouldn’t have surprised me if he did sing “I’m a product of the late-80s.”
Bottom line: great album. A flawed, but great album; the first one we got this year, and one of the best after it’s all said and done.