When Anderson .Paak broke through onto the mainstream hip-hop stage last year, appearing on no less than 6 tracks of Dr Dre’s comeback album Compton, the story told in the press was one of a master handing on his legacy to his new protégé. Dre was 50 after all, and given the tortured recording process that his third studio album had had, and the finality with which it arrived, a fourth was looking pretty unlikely. Compton, some said, was his chance to pass on the baton to the current generation of MCs, who weren’t weighed down by memories of their former glories. But while there’s no doubt .Paak’s music showcases much of the same lyrical nimbleness and musical dexterity that defined the best of Dre’s early work, he’s anything but unburdened.
On ‘The Dreamer’, the album’s closer, .Paak sums up his childhood in Oxnard, California, through the lens of the cable TV that was piping old reruns into his living room. It’s a fitting culmination for an album that constantly feels like it’s moving backward, hurtling toward this point in time, this microcosm of youth, reflected back at .Paak through the eyes of his children. .Paak’s story goes to the core of what it means to be a person of colour in a predominantly white country; with a family notable only by their absence, a father behind bars, a mother addicted to gambling, identity crises, destitution and homelessness. It’s heavy stuff, but .Paak sells it with aplomb, his voice, with its incredibly rare timbre, giving the music a warm yet defiant tone, lulling you with its elegiac quality, not singing, not rapping, merely emoting.
As his forbear Dre would attest, it takes skill to talk about real pain without diminishing it. But whereas NWA’s anger animated their experience injustice, .Paak takes a different outlook. ‘We never had to want for nothing/ All we ever need was love,’ he sings, with unerring conviction, on ‘The Bird’, displaying a belief in the power of human feeling that harkens back to Gaye’s famous, ‘Only love can conquer hate.’ Like Gaye, .Paak seems to see hardship as integral to our experience of love, testing it, challenging it, but not obscuring its real beauty. It’s why, after starting off talking of his beginnings, .Paak turns his attention the present, allowing his compositions to drift as he does, in and out of the moments that have enlivened his slow climb to success in the music industry. On ‘Without You’ in particular, .Paak plays out a fight that he’s had with a lover, trading lines with the artist Rapsody, before deciding that if he can’t have love he’d rather not feel at all, because ‘What good is a heart if it can break?’.
Ultimately it’s this heart-on-sleeve emotion, grounded as it is in the deeds and misdeeds of the past, that makes .Paak’s music essential, especially when played against the backdrop of a US that is at once angry and eerily soulless. It’s a nation which, more than ever, needs this music, not just to recount everyday inhumanities, but to provide an impetus for change. From Killer Mike’s social activism, to Black Lives Matters protesters chanting Kendrick’s ‘Alright’ at rallies, musicians like .Paak finally have a chance to make a statement with their art, and they’re taking it with both hands.