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Album Reviews

Anderson.Paak - Oxnard

Hannah Morrison

By Jared Rubin

Brandon Paak Anderson, better known as Anderson .Paak, stylized with an out of place period (which I will get to later), has become paramount to today’s West Coast R&B sound. Paak rose to prominence after appearing multiple times on legendary cali artist Dr. Dre’s 2015 album Compton. However, he entered differently into the music scene than most artists of his genre, starting out as a drummer in sixth grade. He went on to drum in a church band as a teen, and eventually became the drummer in the band of American Idol contestant Haley Reinhart. Paak’s affinity for percussion is evident in his music which is often carried by a unique drum pattern. Oxnard proves that there are still unique sounds to be made and new directions that R&B can move in.

Although Paak grew up hanging out at his church as opposed to experiencing the violent gang tendencies common to the Cali rappers before him, he still faced tough times and loss. When he was seven he had to call the police on his father after seeing him attack his mother. His father subsequently went to jail for fifteen years, and that was the last time that Paak saw his father until his funeral. Hard times returned when Paak was working on his self funded, self produced debut album, and was fired from his marijuana farm job. He was put into a situation of mass debt due to recording costs, rendering him, his wife, and their infant son homeless. He persevered, scoring a job as a studio assistant, where he was able to finish his album on the side. The album, titled O.B.E., Vol. 1, released in 2012 under the name Breezy Lovejoy, received little to zero mainstream success. Yet as music reviewer Anthony Fantano put it, “it’s hard to imagine living in a world where this man would not eventually become famous.” Two years later Paak went on to release Venice, the relaxing first installment of his beach album trilogy. This was followed two years later by the second installment Malibu, which finally earned Paak mainstream recognition. Malibu received a Grammy nomination for Best Urban Contemporary Album and Paak was further nominated for Best New Artist. On top of these nominations, Paak signed a contract with Dr. Dre’s Aftermath record label. Hot off of mainstream recognition, Paak put out the final chapter of the beach trilogy, titled Oxnard in late 2018.

Oxnard is a perfect illustration of Paak’s lively disposition together with his unique approach to making music. “The Chase” opens up the album, bursting with cinematic drums, horns, strings, and organ, reminiscent of an L.A. based blaxploitation inspired film such as Jackie Brown. After a minute, Paak begins his melodically rapped verse, characterized by the signature tinge of rasp in his voice. The ninth track of Oxnard, “Brother’s Keeper”, has instrumentals that possess the same cinematic ambience as “The Chase”. A jazzy guitar riff contrasted with a more electronic drum beat backs up a Pusha T verse that wasn’t particularly different from other verses lent by the seemingly out of place GOOD Music crack dealer turned rapper. However, Pusha T ironically raps about how it’s a challenge to change our ways, no matter how devious, with on the nose lines such as “It’s hard to leave your foundation” and “I’m still rhyming ‘bout the you know” (Oxnard, 2018). This tendency to indulge in illicit behaviors contributes to one of the main themes of Oxnard, which is embodying a spirit of youthful mischievousness.

Paak’s affinity for funk, soul, hip-hop and everything between is evident throughout the album. For example, the track “Anywhere” serves as a tribute to 1990’s G-funk, a genre born from the marriage of West Coast gangster rap and 1970’s funk. And who else but Snoop Dogg, a father of this sound, could supply the first verse, where he confirms “This the beat that make reminisce on G-funk”? Snoop leisurely raps over an equally laid back beat consisting of smooth high hats and a funky bass line. Paak develops his neo soul/contemporary R&B sound on songs such as “Who R U?” and “Mansa Musa” which may serve as a trailblazer for other top artists of the genre such as Frank Ocean and The Weeknd. Along with subdued hip hop and jazzy R&B, these songs feature futuristic tones such as the echoey bounce of synth in “Who R U”. Similarly, “Mansa Musa” features a pleasant electronic tone that thumps like a pulsating, muted tuba as the backbone of the beat. The experimentation of “Mansa Musa” is balanced by the old school flow of none other than hip hop pioneer Dr. Dre, who also serves as executive producer of the album.

Production is another place where Oxnard stands out because Paak had a lot to do with it. This should be no surprise though—seeing how creative of an artist he is, it makes sense that he has an active role in his music’s production. This responsibility that Paak puts on himself is a testament to the period that he stylizes his name with (I told you I would get to it). He said in an interview with NPR that “The dot stands for detail” and serves to remind himself and others that he would always pay attention to detail when working on his craft.

There are, however, moments in Oxnard w here I personally feel Paak could have paid a little bit more attention to the detail. Musically, I believe this album is fantastic, but certain styles and ideas in songs such as “6 Summers”, and “Left to Right” let me down. It pains me to criticize “6 Summers” as it is one of my favorite songs off of Oxnard to listen to, but as a political anthem it is lacking in significant commentary. The song starts with Paak belting a line involving Trump’s hypothetical lovechild, who Paak hopes is buckwild, sips mezcal, and kisses señoritas. It is a playful metaphor, but offers little serious commentary on our country’s political climate. In addition, the song contains lyrics that criticize capitalism—but Oxnard was released by Aftermath Entertainment, founded and run by Dr. Dre, who’s arguably one of the most successful rapper turned billionaire entrepreneur of all time. My final criticism is on the last song of the album, “Left to Right”. For some reason Paak sports an artificial Jamaican accent throughout the entirety of the song, and it’s cringeworthy. The beat of this song is as pleasing as any other from Oxnard, but Paak’s rude boy alter ego creates a dissatisfying conclusion.

Despite my aforementioned personal judgements of Oxnard, I still believe this is a high quality album that showcases the talent and versatility of Anderson .Paak. This album may not be monumental in itself, but it shows what Anderson .Paak is capable of, and has the possibility go down as monumental in Paak’s career. In addition, Oxnard shows that there is a new direction that this particular subgenre of R&B can go towards, and it sounds damn good when Paak takes it there.

Earl Sweatshirt - Some Rap Songs

Hannah Morrison

By Jack Hernstadt

On Some Rap Songs, Earl Sweatshirt strives for simplicity. As he explained in an interview with Vulture earlier this week, “Incomplete sh*t is really stressful to me, and the concept of unsimplified fractions is really stressful to me.” This philosophy explains the minimalist title, but does the music on the album follow suit? Despite its fragmented nature, SRS still manages to feel complete, honest, and pure.

While this album has very little single power, as a front to back listen it is perhaps Earl’s most focused artistic statement to date. It is comprised of fifteen songs, but clocks in at a brief 24 minutes long. Each track acts as a tiny window into a musical landscape where the listener must take in as much as they can before the song vanishes in a haze.

Very few songs on the album feel resolved, usually ending with a vocal or instrumental sample that sounds like it was cut off a few seconds too soon. This takes away any feeling of resolution from even the catchiest songs, like Ontheway! and Cold Summers. When listened to all the way through, however, this creates an interesting effect, like mindlessly surfing through radio frequencies. It also echoes the style of one of Earl’s biggest influences, M.F. Doom, specifically his classic Madvillainy.

In stark contrast to the crisp, electronic production that dominates the popular sphere of hip hop, the songs on SRS are muddy and smeared, refreshingly human and organic. There are very few musical detours, with each track generally revolving around a single loop or sample. The lo-fi production proves to be detrimental to some songs, like on the second track, Red Water. On this song Earl’s vocals are muffled, dampened and ultimately overpowered by the loop he is rapping over.

  This album’s feeling of completeness comes chiefly from its beautifully raw bars. Earl has cut out all the fat, with his usually tongue twisting and image laden verses largely missing from this project. Instead, Earl delivers painfully intimate and piercing lyrics concerned with mental health, addiction, and family relationships.

Some Rap Songs stands as an unflinching personal document of the mind of Thebe Kgositsile. While at times dark, this project is an undoubtedly inspiring and therapeutic listen. While Earl Sweatshirt brings his inner turmoil to the surface for all to hear, the listener comes away from these songs with feelings of solidarity and catharsis: the signs of a truly effective piece of art.