SURGEON GENERAL’S WARNING: Musical authenticity has perhaps never been under greater scrutiny than at this very moment. On the whole, this is a good thing. Correlating an artist’s life struggles directly with the value of his or her respective art is an enticing trap of pure critical laziness and does disservice to both artist and listener. This review shall endeavor to avoid any appearance of such.
Let’s just begin with what we know: If Anderson .Paak’s interviews are any indicator, dude has done some living. On Malibu, he speaks and sings with a gravity that certainly sounds hard-won, easily outpacing his 29 years. Paak is something special: Not many emerging artists could boast an album with guest verses running the gamut from The Game to ScHoolboy Q to Talib Kweli. Paak’s earned his hip hop bonafides, writing and performing on six tracks for Dr. Dre’s 2015 Compton, where he served as the Frank Ocean foil to Dre’s Tyler, The Creator. Both his lyricism and intonation flirt with poetry in ways that would make Erykah smile, and Paak’s vintage throwbacks (“Put Me Thru” and “Celebrate”) do Saadiq proud.
The expressive range and emotional breadth of his voice (see: “Silicon Valley”) remains Paak’s greatest strength. His sound travels from wounded to triumphal often in the space of a single song—Check the bawdy “Silicon Valley,” where Paak trades off between lusty gigolo and fervent lover. Sure, he playfully toys with his lover’s double D’s, but he’s just as interested in probing the heart that lies beneath them.
Malibu is Paak’s third album (his 2012 debut came under the moniker Breezy Lovejoy), and his first big swing at the majors. It lands hard: a worthy demonstration of Paak’s charm and breadth of talent. Yet Malibu is hardly a one-man show. Paak enlists an all-star production lineup (9th Wonder, Madlib, Hi-Tek, DJ Khalil, and Dem Jointz), who flesh out the album out with textural sophistication and place this album firmly in the here-and-now. On “The Waters,” Madlib and Paak dip into D’Angelo’s bag of tricks, reproducing the slinky basslines and piqued falsetto of the Vanguard’s frontman. And Hi-Tek’s trademark funk breaks on “Come Down” push Paak’s rapping into the raspy range of (who else?) Kendrick Lamar.
As with Venice, Malibu‘s title declares itself a West Coast album. Throughout, quotes and snatches of conversation from a long-lost surfing documentary serve as the Greek chorus, affirming his connection to the Golden State. Unfortunately, the interludes wear thin over the course of a sixteen-track album, moving from a cute diversion to heavy-handed gimmickry. We don’t need to hear an old surfer prattling on about the crucial balance of the old and the new, to grasp that Paak feels the same. That’s plenty evident in the songs of Malibu.