ANDERSON .PAAK: JUST COMMIT
photography by theo jemison
Malibu is by no means Anderson .Paak’s debut, but to the wider world, it’s probably something of a revelation—a full-length follow-up by the surprise stand-out on Dre’s Compton. But .Paak has been a fixture in L.A. for years, with deep and real connections all across the city and a polymathic capability (drummer, singer, rapper …) to fit in any place he can make the space. Raised in Oxnard with his father and then his mother in prison—a childhood he explores on Malibu’s very first song—he turned out to be a merciless drummer, but as he grew up, he says, he found out that talent itself wouldn’t be enough. From there—from periods of homelessness and couch-surfing, at one point—he changed his name from Breezy Lovejoy, climbed a famously diverse series of collaborations that dominated 2015 and culminated with Compton and carefully put together what’s basically his third true solo album. Malibu’s release this month caps off a blow-out year that fast-forwarded .Paak from local notable to worldwide up-and-comer, and as usual for .Paak, he’s made the absolute most of the timing and the opportunity—it’s a pocket epic of an album, positively bristling with detail and personality and presenting .Paak as an artist ready and able to go anywhere. This interview by Chris Ziegler and sweeney kovar.
Is it true that the only people who talk shit on Ringo Starr are people who never played drums?
Anderson .Paak: Man—maybe! I fuck with Ringo. I love Ringo. Although I heard a rumor it was Bernard Purdie on some of those records, but I don’t know how true that is! I heard he was ghost-drumming. I think Ringo’s one of the only artists where the way he drums was just like how people write lyrics and talked. His drumming parts where just as important as the vocal parts. You remember them just like lyrics.
I know you’re learning to surf—are you the kind of person who doesn’t mind practicing in public? Or do you like to practice in secret, so you can appear fully formed?
Anderson .Paak: I don’t mind a crowd but it’d be better if there’s not. Take your board out and hit the waves—that goes hand in hand the way you deal with life, the way you deal with those waves on the board. How you adapt to catching a wave. It’s all part of life. Surf culture is huge in Southern California, and that whole mindstate is with the people—a lot of the people I’m around, too.
You already have that mindstate—your whole career has been making yourself ready to catch the wave when it comes.
Anderson .Paak: It’s about preparation. You are what you prepare for. When you’re out there trying to figure out how to surf and nobody’s paying attention to you, that’s the most important times. When nobody’s looking and the spotlight’s not on you, what are you doing? That’s what you’re really going to be good at when it’s time to execute. So if you’re just fucking around in the water, fucking with girls, watching TV, whatever … then that’s what you’re gonna excel at. When people weren’t paying attention—for the most part—and I was just couch-surfing and taking the bus and doing things like that, I was very adamant about wanting to be the best at my craft. And really being someone people talked highly about—a consistent reputation. That was my goal for a while. Years before it got to this point. When it was time to execute, I felt like … I just did what I had been preparing for. That time in the studio with Dre or Premier or any of these people, I’d just been in a mode where this is what I do. Fortunately for me, the pendulum came around to where people are ready for what I was doing. It wasn’t always like that. I had to develop my sound and everything—I’ve done different things kind of like to no avail. So when it came around where people were ready to receive what I was doing, all I had to do was just commit—put it down when I had the chance. That’s what I look forward to. I love being in that position. The challenge of trying to figure out a tune or being on the spot, it’s … interesting to me. That’s how I handled that—preparing when people weren’t watching.
You take my favorite risk: you don’t do things the way you’re supposed to. You’re a generalist, not a specialist who can only do one thing. But I think things work out more easily for specialists. If you can do a lot of things, it can take longer for people to figure out what to do with you.
Anderson .Paak: Any time you have an artist like myself where the thing they do is not so concrete and not so straight-ahead, you can’t put them in a clear-cut box. And it’s gonna take a little time for people to adjust and be ready. I can’t be too concerned about that. At this point I wanna continue to get better and put the best art I know that I wanna put out. I don’t have any interest in following trends or doing what the next person is doing, even if that means I might not be selling out stadiums. There’s a bigger picture, for me. I know it pays off eventually. And I’m looking for that fanbase where they’re not just into one thing. That’s me and that’s my team. I grew up with so many different influences. You listen to Michael Jackson, Stevie, Bowie, the Beatles, Snoop … all across the board. That’s what comes out in my music naturally. What I wanna continue to do is get that across the best as possible, so I can essentially like create my own lane. And open up something new for other artists that kinda feel the same—there are other generalists who don’t just specialize in one thing, and that becomes a theme. We wanna blaze a trail for that. It might concern people, but it’s more concerning for the labels and businesses and the corporate situations that wanna box you in. As time goes, fans are ready for it—for artists like myself who aren’t just boxed into one thing. It’s growing to a point where people are ready. Marvin [Gaye], Stevie [Wonder]—that’s it. That’s the goal. Hendrix. Setting their own standards and doing what they want to do. People would call them crazy at one point.
Did you get called crazy?
Anderson .Paak: Yeah—that was a part of the whole shift from Breezy Lovejoy to Anderson .Paak. I had a mentor at the time. I was doing a lot of different things. Running around, playing drums for different artists, doing my thing, rapping, singing—kind of all over the place. He sat me down like, ‘I realize you’re super talented but we gotta work on the rest of it.’ That’s when it occurred to me that I wasn’t gonna just get everything I wanted just from being talented. I needed to buckle down and figure things out—at least get a clear vision for what I wanted. That’s when I sat down and recorded a bunch of tunes, all different kinds. And a handful of the tunes that were really good I kept holding on to them til Malibu—songs like ‘The Birds,’ ‘Celebrate,’ ‘Put Me Thru,’ these are songs that I recorded years ago. And ‘Parking Lot.’ In the midst of hundreds of tunes that I recorded.
So the actual instant of the birth of Anderson .Paak is in those four songs on the brand-new Malibu?
Anderson .Paak: For sure. I was finding myself and what I wanted to do. But I couldn’t do that with being afraid to just go in and explore. People sometimes, they get caught up. Some people get signed early and they don’t get that opportunity to get an artist-development phase where they get to put music out, see what works, see what doesn’t work, try different producers … I’ve been doing that for years, man. They say this is my sophomore album but this is probably my sixth project I’ve done. I’ve recorded and put out music—this whole process—a lot of different times. Each time I’m trying to do something different. And at one point people were definitely calling us crazy. I had these same songs years ago and nobody was biting. I remember the last project I put out, I didn’t want it to get slept on so I was like, ‘Well, I’m just gonna keep making music and I believe in the music and I’ll keep making music until the people are ready and I put it out.’ I had those core songs and things started transpiring—the Dre thing and everything—and I added songs to it and built the album around those songs. And that’s what ended up happening. Now it’s like people are so wide-open for it—a lot of people are doing the same shit! Whether it’s hip-hop or R&B, a lot of people all sound the same. There’s no greater time. The most important thing is being original and standing out—how you gonna stand out? That’s it.
You’ve been very close to having nothing in your life, and now you’re in a position to really make some moves. What part of you did you have to leave behind to go from one to the other?
Anderson .Paak: There was a part of me that lacked work ethic. And drive. At one point I thought I was entitled to get what I wanted because I could do all these different things. And I didn’t have to work as hard as the next man because I could do more. That wasn’t the case. There was a part of me that thought I deserved to smoke and drink and party without having any music done. That part of me that didn’t know how to prioritize and did not know how to … really focus on day-to-day, and making sure I’m 100% in fulfilling the steps that I need to take to get to the next level. There was a part of me that didn’t work with the simple goals that I wanted to meet for the year. That was a part of me I had to leave behind. Especially when I started having a family—started seeing everything I do affects my family. So what am I gonna do? They deserve a better life. Just because I’m lazy doesn’t mean they have to suffer. So I’m either gonna strap up my bootstraps or slip. I could go get a 9-to-5, but they can live better than that. So I just got sick of it. That was the part that I had to leave behind.
This makes me think of that moment in ‘The Season / Carry Me,’ where you open the fortune cookie and it says ‘Keep dreaming.’ Is that supposed to be encouraging or sarcastic? Like you know how it is when things are bad, and you get some a fortune like that: ‘Fuck you, “Keep Dreaming!”’
Anderson .Paak: That’s the whole thing about fortune cookies. It is what you make it. When you open a fortune cookie and you’re having a shitty day and the cookie gives you something like that, it’s like … man, gimme something to work with! Like, ‘What the fuck is this? “Keep Dreaming!”? Yeah, alright, thanks a lot.’ It’s in the midst of all these different things. I’m seeing people in my family falling apart, seeing disastrous things … and in the back of my mind I know that I’ve been blessed to know … it’s a weird duality when you know what you were meant to do on this earth, but you are having a lot of distractions that are put in front of you that are making it hard for you to commit and take that stand. And believe in yourself. That’s torture. In the back of my head, I know I need to keep dreaming and doing these things, but it’s like … fuck. How do I even stay afloat out here? And now I got a family to take care of? How do I keep my composure? That’s what I was getting at on that part.
Why is the album called Malibu? I know you grew up in Oxnard and now you’re here in L.A., and Malibu is geographically right between those two places. Is this album about what you went through to get from one place to the other?
Anderson .Paak: Essentially, yeah—for sure. The first step was [previous album] Venice. I knew when I did Venice … we did ‘Drugs’ and I’d seen the momentum of that song. I had all these songs, like ‘The Birds’ and ‘Celebrate’ and ‘Parking Lot,’ and I wanted to put those out at the time, and then I saw how much traction ‘Drugs’ and other stuff was getting and I was like, ‘You got to be kidding me—I literally have to sing about drugs to get some kind of attention?’ So I was like … ‘OK, this is what we’ll do if this is what they want. We’ll start in Venice and we’ll start with the bass frequency and the lowest of the gutter, and we’re gonna bring the people out of that. For all the fans that already know what’s up, they’re gonna be cool with me trying different things. And for the fans that don’t know any better, we’re gonna teach ‘em.’ So when I started Venice, we were gonna different things—hip-hop, trap, R&B, more modern sounds. Then we’re gonna work our way up to Malibu in this journey. We’re going to upgrade our palettes. And heighten our senses. I wanted to take everybody on a journey and show the growth—not abandon the fanbase like that but gradually show how much range and dynamic I have and that I can actually make really good songs, with real musicianship. My fans are patient. They’re trusting—they trust me to go through the different levels I go through. I have a lot of respect for them. I’m very into like, ‘OK—where should we go now?’ Where’s natural for us to go? What feels right for me and what makes sense for them, too? Part of this generation’s type of artist—I’d be lying if I didn’t say I was paying attention to what the people are saying. It’s like the ability to do that now. It’s in your face now! You can see what works now and what doesn’t. They’ll let you know! And it’s just about the balance of taking it where you wanna go, and not being afraid to take it where you wanna go, but also understanding what the people want. I don’t think you should be a slave to it—but it’s important to be aware.
This album feels like it’s got a lot of love, but also a lot of sadness—‘Celebrate’ ends with the lyric ‘Let’s celebrate … while we still can.’ That’s the heart of the record for me.
Anderson .Paak: That’s a huge part of it. At the beginning of the record, I talk about my pops passing away, my mom being sent to prison … it’s pretty heavy. I was torn when I was sequencing the album and the best way to go about it. Do I wanna start so dark at the begnning and brighten it up as it goes? Or start light and go from there? I decided to start dark and brighten it up, just like how the day is. When I first started this, my mom was locked up for seven and a half years, and I got to see her come out. She had a new appreciation for life and so did I, after seeing that whole process of what she went through. I put the song ‘The Dreamer’ at the end, with all my nieces, to come full circle. People are afraid to have that positivity in their music now—and love. There’s a void for these things. I naturally want to go toward those voids that people aren’t hitting, and it’s natural to me too. It’s just the place where I’m at—how it felt. Two sides of the spectrum. When she got out, that’s just how I felt. I really like the last half of the album.
You say there’s no positivity in music now, but I see a lot of positivity out there—except it’s this really naïve positivity, like a school-spirit ‘Hooray, isn’t stuff great!’ positivity. The moments of joy on Malibu are there in contrast with these darker moments, and that makes them feel more real. So is that what you don’t think is out there? That realistic positivity?
Anderson .Paak: You still have to make a good song. Some people are putting out a message but it’s preachy, and they forget the song aspect and the song isn’t good. You’re like, OK, I can’t knock it—it’s got a great message. But I’m not gonna listen to it. The songs in the 60s and 70s were political, they were talking about stuff AND they were funky and half the time you were like, ‘Damn, I didn’t even know he was really spitting some real shit. I just loved the tune!’ That’s what I was going for on these tunes. It might have a positive message but we’re not even thinking about that really. I’m always focused on the groove, making sure the song is all the way written—that’s what’s important to me first. I’ve never been a super political dude or aimed to preach that much of a message. I just wanna make music with substance and range and dynamic and that feels good. The lyrical content is the natural situation that comes out. If you don’t stress so much about the message, it’ll come. If you focus on making good songs first, that comes with it.
What about ‘Animals’ from Compton? That’s a political song. With a song like that, do you feel you need to be a mirror for what people are experiencing? Or a lens?