Here’s a take from a former Daily Arts writer: Why do we tend to gravitate towards an artist’s pre-fame albums rather than the ones made once they’re signed to a big label? Shafii originally used Chief Keef’s Finally Rich and Playboi Carti’s Die Lit as examples, but Anderson .Paak’s Oxnard, also falls into this category and simultaneously complicates it. Months before the album came out, when “Bubblin’” was released as a single, it was obvious .Paak was headed in the direction of “I’m rich now.” Everything about the single plays into extravagance and ostentation: “I been, broker way longer than I been rich so until it levels out / I’ma take your mama to the Marriott and wear it out.” He’s wearing a fur coat in the music video and straddling an ATM. He models himself after Salvador Dali while spraying cash. But the thing about .Paak’s excessiveness is that it’s fun. You can’t be upset about his cheekiness when the music and the rapping reaches towards perfection.
Despite three singles which continually raised the stakes for this album (“Bubblin,” “Tints” and “Who R U?”) Oxnard doesn’t meet the standards .Paak has set for himself. Malibu — his second album, which he independently released in 2016 before being signed to Dr. Dre’s label — was a masterpiece, and because of its commercial success, the world was finally introduced to .Paak’s signature rasp and R&B. This was his come up, and combined with his debut Venice, .Paak drew attention from Dre as well as countless other artists whose songs he’d soon have features on. But Oxnard, no longer his come up but his claim to fame, he tries to do too much, making the 14-track album drag on rather than breeze through.
There are high points to Oxnard: The opening track, “The Chase,” is a breathlessly beautiful combination of neo-jazz and soul that has .Paak stumbling over his words as a chorus of drums and flutes unfolds in the background. We are eased into “Headlow,” “Tints” and “Who Are You?” seamlessly, and the direction .Paak is taking with the album is clear. There seems to be a break down of his traditional R&B sound. His flow is slower, he’s taking his time on these tracks, but the payoff is still sultry and smooth. “6 Summers,” one of the high points of the album, takes on the role of the album’s most overtly political track: “Trump’s got a love child, and I hope that bitch is buckwild.” Even at his most serious, Cheeky Andy remains cheeky, and these are the lyrics that will be following the presidency around for the next six summers or until Trump is out of office.
It’s after these first few tracks that the album starts to dip off. “Saviers Road” and “Smile/Petty,” while incorporating more funk-styled influence than we’ve heard from .Paak in the past, seem to hold .Paak back from what he’s good at. He never hits his stride with them, and the same can be said for “Mansa Musa.” Between the Dr. Dre and Cocoa Sarai features, the song comes across as more of a “King Kunta” pastiche. There are points when it feels like .Paak is going to hit the flow that both made Malibu a triumph and, more recently, made “Bubblin’” a summer essential, but he never quite gets there.
It must be said that in comparison to the flawless features .Paak always delivers to other artist’s music, they don’t do the same for him. For such a feature-heavy album, there are only a few who seem to match .Paak’s rhythm and vocals. Kadhja Bonet, Pusha T and Snoop Dogg deliver, while J. Cole, Q-Tip and BJ The Chicago Kid fall and falter. On “Brother’s Keeper” Pusha T brings Daytona to Oxnard. The guitar and drums fall heavy, leading to an immersive and sprawling track that sets it apart from the light-hearted songs to come before it. But from the heaviness comes a breath of fresh air: “Brother’s Keeper” which ends in .Paak’s desperate voice calling, “How I ever, ever let you go?” takes a left turn and sends us straight into Snoop Dogg’s “blunts.” Hand him his mink, .Paak.
Is this a going to be a bad take? Maybe, but I genuinely think that the Snoop Dogg feature on Oxnard is the best of them all. In the Pitchfork review, Torii MacAdams calls Snoop Dogg the Willie Nelson of rap music these days. And, despite this being an extremely Pitchfork claim to make in a hip-hop review, it holds some truth. Snoop comes through on “Anywhere” and immediately lightens the mood, and beside Kendrick Lamar on “Tints,” he seems to be the only collaborator on the album who can match .Paak’s smooth lyricism. It’s the California double-feature the second half of this album needed to stay afloat.
Where .Paak succeeds on this album, his collaborators appear to fail and vice versa. “Trippy” is a funk-infused, sprawling song that has potential until J.Cole comes in with no regard for the tone of the song and marrs it. The Q-Tip feature places him second to Snoop and sounds, if anything, uncomfortable. But even when .Paak isn’t doing his best, he’s still doing better than most. We saw him on his rise, praised this new R&B sound a Cali-raised boy gifted us with on Venice and Malibu and expected even more from an album born and bred in .Paak’s nouveau riche lifestyle. In trying to do too much though, in trying to bring this “I’m rich now” extravagance to Oxnard, .Paak falls short.