Anderson .Paak said it best himself on the humblebrag at YouTube Music’s SXSW showcase at Copper Tank Events Center. “We had a few shows last year,” Paak said after his riveting opener. “But this year we got just a few more.”
To call that merely an understatement would be preposterous. Just a little over seven months after being the most prominent guest on Dr. Dre’s Compton, Paak has made the right moves. Hell, it seems like he’s made all the moves. Cosign after cosign from Dre, Kendrick, the Game, Schoolboy Q, and numerous others from the old and new West, over 65 shows since Compton dropped, and he’s been enjoying every bit of it. Paak’s been preparing for this surge in popularity since he was Breezy Lovejoy kicking it with his K-Town underground affiliates in LA, and he has no plans of slowing down. Make no mistake, this is work, but Paak clearly gets so much joy and excitement from the lights, cameras, swoons, fans throwing his lyrics back at him, and just jamming with the homies.
That delight organically transferred to his YouTube Music crowd. Not one move feels feigned or contrived, though he’s done a variation of this show 10 times already this month. The Free Nationals are obviously well-rehearsed, and he is a stringent ban leader, but their jam sessions come off freewheeling and carefree. He doesn’t let them coast, and he leads by example. Up-and-down and back-and-forth between the drum set and front-and-center, working the crowd, dancing, drum solos, sound levels — no detail is too small, and no gesture too big.
I had a chance to speak with him before he launched his watch-me-as-I-blow-up web series A N I M A L. He has a very easy demeanor, and knows exactly how much to give without revealing too much. He’s poised to make even more major moves if he keeps going at this rate and the funk/soul revival is as long-lived as it seems it will be. But he also has the versatility to transform into whatever genre he wants, or just add dashes and spoonfuls of several different genres and make a recipe all his own.
As Breezy Lovejoy he was more traditional R&B and straighforward rapping, but his first project as Paak, 2014’s Venice, had a tapas sampler of everything. The synth-soaked, electro-shaded opener “Milk & Honey” fell seamlessly into the strictly R&B “Miss Right” and the late-’90s Aaliyah-esque “Might Be.” Fast forward to this year’s supremely excellent Malibu, which is so damn funky and soulful that it seems he can pimp any sound he wants to.
I used the word pimp for a reason. He’s received a lot of comparison to Kendrick Lamar because of his black, retro-leaning soundscapes. Sonically, the comparisons are slightly warranted, but that is where they should end. To Pimp A Butterfly and recent performances were wrought with Lamar’s inward conflict adjusting to superstardom, contemplation if he’s worthy of being the black messiah of this generation, and confrontational worry and anger about the black present and future in America.
Paak is the other side of that coin. He seems to be well adjusted to the fame he’s received thus far and well-equipped to take on more. He doesn’t have to be the activist that Kendrick is. Malibu and this SXSW performance was mostly pure fun and energy. His music and persona embodies the covetable aspects of being black in America — a style, swag, and cool despite the negative connotations and systemic oppression — and that makes him much more approachable and inclusive. Less “We gon’ be alright” and more “Pimp pimp…hooray!” Lines like “Who cares your daddy couldn’t be here/ Mama always kept the cable on” come to life when you see the diversity of the crowd engaging with Paak’s every move.
I don’t highlight Paak’s easy accessibility to say he’s some bubblegum dude that’s looking to propagate palatable blackness to as many people as possible. All of that fun and sultry energy he emits still has a certain amount of gravity to it through the generations of black sonics he deftly incorporates into his music, and he doesn’t let people completely off the hook with his lyrics. But his aesthetic gives listeners a choice of which part of the experience to engage. He is probably closer to J. Cole than K Dot in that respect. The ease and grace he brings to his live shows make for a truly enjoyable experience no matter what level you choose to engage with, and that will be the source of his longevity.
On Malibu’s “Come Down,” .Paak sings truth in the statement “So hard to be doing what you’re really meant for,” and then poses the questions “Don’t I make it look easy?/ Don’t I make it look good?” Yes, man. Yes, you do.