The sudden announcement at the end of February of a new album for Anderson .Paak, “Ventura,” was met by many with curious surprise. It had been only months since last fall’s “Oxnard,” his third album, which came after a nearly three-year wait from “Malibu,” a sprawling modern classic that saw him emerge fully and spectacularly formed as an artist and land him an attention-getting 2017 Grammy nod for best new artist. It was this build-up that perhaps partly resulted in the somewhat middling reception of “Oxnard.”
News of a rapid-fire followup, its title moving one SoCal town over to “Ventura,” was met with perhaps more tempered hype. Yet this one actually lives up to the heightened expectations of last fall — and while the new release was ostensibly made simultaneously alongside “Oxnard,” this time, Paak offers a near-180 in sound and theme.
On the lean 11 tracks that make up “Ventura,” Paak leans back into the sandpaper soul of a voice on which he made his name, recapturing his essence with a newly sunny vibrancy and maturity. If “Oxnard” was the gassed-up victory lap in his return to his hometown, “Ventura” is the romantic, clear-eyed reprioritization of what matters after the comedown.
Paak indicates as much from the outset, beckoning for his love on the opener, “Come Home,” an arrestingly beautiful, crescendoing love song that includes a virtuosic flow from Andre 3000, who only further cements his sterling history as a feature. “I’m beggin’ you please come home / Nobody even begs anymore,” Paak sings on the track’s chorus — a proper introduction to an album that largely eschews Paak’s recent slick-talking, rap-heavy turns and instead relies, in part, on the earnest tenderness of old school soul.
As if noting this transition, from lothario to a newly grounded man, he sings on “Winners Circle”: “Cause if I know I can get it, then I’ve already had it / I’m cool.” Even a moment of infidelity on “Good Heels,” a short interlude-like track featuring Jazmine Sullivan, has the simmering warmth of a dimmed-lights affair.
On the standout “Make It Better” (the album’s second single, after “King James”), Paak pairs up with Smokey Robinson for a breezy lovelorn reflection on keeping a timeworn relationship intact. Paak manages to borrow from Robinson’s Motown sound while making it feel startlingly new. Similarly, the disco aura of “Reachin’ 2 Much” echoes, particularly in the song’s second half, elements of Michael Jackson’s “Rock With You.”
On “Ventura,” there’s an immediately natural ease with which Paak returns to his singing voice, but one that feels strengthened now by a sudden worldliness and understanding — and in turn a hearkening back to the soul traditions that carry this experience. The album has the collective vibe of “Malibu’s” stellar penultimate track, “Celebrate,” in the song’s sunset groove and strain of knowing wisdom.
“King James,” for instance, sees Paak as a soulful statesman, deftly making a case, alongside a warped bass and buoyant trumpets, for a kind of sunny defiance and resistance: “What we’ve built here is godly / They can’t gentrify the heart of kings.” And on “Yada Yada,” his message-to-the-haters song, he concludes by speaking to his child: “Lo and behold, my little one / I’ve been gone for far too long / If I ever take this life for granted / You show me just how dumb.”
Paak still raps, but his more seldom verses only make his efficient, sticky flows, as on the backends of “Winners Circle” and “Chosen One,” shine in the right places.
The album’s only pure low point comes toward the end in the confusion of “Twilight,” which carries a playfully bouncy, thoroughly Pharrell beat that is strangely mismatched with Paak’s romantic vocals — the two elements are individually strong, but feel almost accidentally combined. The track is quickly forgotten, though, when followed by “What Can We do,” a sweet and buttery, sitar-backed duet between .Paak and the late Nate Dogg that serves as the album’s pitch-perfect closer.
All this stands in contrast to last fall’s lesser “Oxnard,” the first record since Paak signed with Dr. Dre’s Aftermath Records. The 2018 release’s production was handled by the good doctor himself, resulting in a bold new direction, heavy with G-funk and raps that exuded a kind of braggadocious bombast, in comparison to the wearied soul of “Malibu.” While showcasing further sides to Paak’s versatility, the record has, over the subsequent months, come to feel like a slightly forgettable foray — a capable album, to be sure, but also overbaked, containing somewhat off-putting leaps, and ultimately anticlimactic.
The fact that he has so quickly rebounded with — or simultaneously created — an entirely new direction is reason enough to come back greedily for more from the uber-talented .Paak. On “Ventura,” he returns with such a loving, alluring verve, it perhaps serves as an appropriately contrasting second half to what might have been a planned double album alongside “Oxnard.” “Ventura’s” concise 11 tracks, though, leave a far more defined impression than the loudly packaged, stunting heft of “Oxnard.”
It’s perhaps pointless to wonder if this is .Paak’s best work. Whether or not they should be made, comparisons to the breakthrough opus of “Malibu” — a different album from a different time, with the personal, spiritual grit and sweeping vision of an artist on the come-up — will perhaps forever be attached to anything he releases. But on “Ventura,” .Paak manages to both evolve and remind us why we’ve always loved him in the first place.
Producers: .Paak, Jairus “J.Mo” Mozee, The Alchemist, FredWreck, POMO, Vicky Farewell Nguyen, The Free Nationals,Dem Jointz, Kelsey González, Callum Connor, Kiefer, Pharrell