Anderson .Paak is part of rap's new wave

For rap’s first few decades, the rapper’s artistic parallel was the stand-up comedian. The early eras of rap, like comedy, were about one artist and their words. A rapper’s relationship with their beat was a spectrum, varying from artist to artist, much like that of a comic and their audience. The comic’s job is to write funny jokes and put them in the right place for their audience. The rapper’s job was to write dope rhymes and put them in the right place on their beats. As rap has grown, it has evolved past this parallel. In the post-”My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy” landscape, the rapper’s role has grown more similar to that of a film director. It’s no longer enough to write amazing verses and pick amazing beats. To make a classic rap album, one must feature a multitude of characters, perspectives, and voices. A universe must be created on an album in the same way it is created in a movie.

The great albums of this era — “Yeezus;” “Summertime ‘06;” “Acid Rap” — have all done it in their own way, and they all had visionary directors at their helm. Kanye has the scope of Stanley Kubrick; Vince Staples has the raw intensity of a young Spike Lee; Chance the Rapper has the bold style and experimentation, along with the quirk and uniqueness of Danny Boyle.

Anderson .Paak made it clear he was the next in this lineage with his 2014 album “Venice.” It’s a moody, beautiful, dark and joyous record bursting with ideas and vision. He rode this brilliant record into six guest spots on Dr. Dre’s “Compton,” a credit which cast a long shadow over the rest of his resume. Wasting no time in the spotlight, he has unleashed “Malibu,” the first major rap release of 2016.

“Malibu” is an obvious sequel to “Venice” given the title and the cover art; but the spiritual and musical connections are limited. The vision, ambition, versatility, and almost superhuman musical sense Paak sported on “Venice” remains on his new record. But the kinetic energy and conflict pulsing throughout “Venice” are gone, and are sorely missed.

“Malibu” finds Paak in a much more stable place. It is a triumphant album, for reasons completely understandable given the place in his career he finds himself and the title of the album; you don’t set a story in Malibu if your protagonist is meant to struggle.

The mood isn’t the only thing that’s changed on the rapper’s third album though. With “Malibu,” Anderson .Paak seems intent to travel back in time. Whereas the original was a remarkably modern album, filled with massive beats reminiscent of Disclosure, the sequel sports a much jazzier aura, mostly utilizing more traditional instrumentation.

Paak seems interested in the old-fashioned in his vocal performances as well. He sings even more on this record than the previous, a welcome progression given his talents as a singer. “Venice” constantly blurred the lines between R&B, pop, and rap, often being so melodic that it blurred the line between singing and rapping completely. Paak makes this divide much more clear on his new album, turning himself into an impressive blend of Kendrick Lamar and Frank Ocean: excellent rapping quickly transitions into soulful singing.

The biggest flaw in the album is just how similar it sounds to a Kendrick record at times. While Paak clearly proves he is a comparable talent to Lamar, his complete co-opting of Kendrick’s style on tracks like “Your Prime” or “The Season I Carry Me” — where K.Dot is explicity referenced — dilute the superior voice he expressed on “Venice.”

It takes a few listens, but once you move this album out of the large shadow of “Venice,” it’s quite a good record in its own right. It’s a romantic, funny, and heart-warming ride filled with what are sure to be some of the most inspired musical moments in 2016.

The composition of every track is layered and constantly changing. With Paak confidently in the driver’s seat, he swerves each track through different moods and styles, bringing in different voices while also contorting his own to fit his vision. “Am I Wrong” sports a pretty traditional structure and a consistent style before the track is broken up by a completely mood-altering interlude from Schoolboy Q. Paak returns to ride an expansive horn section to the end of the track.

It’s often hard to tell whether you’re hearing a hook or a verse given Paak’s indisputable ear for melody and knack for genre-bending. The best example is likely “Come Down,” a euphoric jam where Paak spazzes over a sizzling bassline. There’s a clear call-and-response hook, but every tangent taken is so catchy and exuberant it essentially becomes one long chorus.

There’s more than enough to love on the record that is likely to propel its star into the stratosphere. It’s a wonderful universe to live in for an hour, and one worth revisiting regularly. Anderson .Paak wouldn’t be the first visionary to unleash his best work before the world started to take notice. With this record, he makes it clear he will continue to innovate now that people are, even if “Venice” may be too high a watermark to reach again.