“ … with a look in his eye that I know too well and that I can only call the American look, the look of someone who, though he has seen right through it, still can’t take his eyes away—one of us, despite it all.” —Adam Gopnik, Paris to the Moon.
Attention is the most valued currency. Every day, upcoming and legacy artists are vying for our eyes and ears on social media where anything goes and ridiculousness and reactionary thought is rewarded. It’s a media circus, and it’s an engaging one at that. We can’t take our eyes away because we’re encultured to love the mess, but certain artists know how to lift that same spirit from the timeline and lace their album with a gripping show of personality and tact. To master this practice is to understand the art of pacing.
The pacing of a record is often what makes an album an immersive, classic, and storytelling experience. Poor pacing can also reveal a record to be a drab collection of tracks, wherein even a short tracklist feels eons long. Or worse yet, poor pacing can reveal an album to be nothing more than playlist fodder ready to be gutted and never heard in its entirety again.
But better yet, superb pacing can elevate albums from simple exercises in mood or vibe and turn them into roller coaster trips through cardinal emotions. Look no further than Anderson .Paak’s discography to discover an artist so dedicated to pacing, that his obsession with singularity and tone becomes the furthest point of critique. Where the idea of mood music is often used to lash an album, to describe it as simply one long song, Anderson .Paak’s spirit and attentiveness to sequencing and momentum hold our attention the same way meticulously market-tested viral content holds our attention.
Yet, .Paak’s approach across Venice, Malibu, and his Knxwledge collaboration Yes Lawd! is far less malevolent than planned virality. Anderson .Paak is something of a tonal maestro, which is as impressive as it is dangerous. Instead of allowing his music to get bogged down by his sonic obsessions, .Paak taps into the frenzies and content loops that make social media such a trip and uses them to turn his would-be atonal discography into a quiet and enticing whirlwind.
Venice is a well-strung project, an album built on chords in the thematic sense. We open with “Waves” and the attractive heat that is laden in their breaking, and this carries throughout the track listing, enlivening album standout “Milk n’ Honey” and even later informing the nylon acoustic ballad “I Miss That Whip.” As the waves roll in on “Milk n’ Honey,” as does the heartbeat of the album: the inspired and finely etched percussion lines. There’s a spastic static and bubbling electronic influence that brings the song to life on every downbeat. Five minutes in, and we’ve discovered the brilliance of Venice: texture.
While the main mood of Venice is sensual, slapdash summer traipsing, Anderson .Paak avoids exhausting his motifs by overloading the record with textures that tie together the album while giving the body of work minor and major peaks and valleys. The “Waves” motif brings us relief several times across the record, submerging us in a cooling trance before we’re ushered off to the next track. The skits, too, are thoughtful and tension-cutting tools that also build the universe of Venice as it relates to scalding California life-and-times.
There’s a coasting energy to Venice that could easily leave us lost at sea, but Anderson .Paak knows his limits. The seductive dip of “Might Be” hikes up to a sandpapery drum loop and “Miss Right” slowly unfurls as the album’s funk landmark. Not to mention, by “Miss Right,” .Paak’s delivery is breathless and seeking. Venice is set on the constant upward crank of the best ride at the pier. There are no jolts here, no tricks to shock us back into the palm of .Paak’s hand. Rather, it’s the consistent yet subtle turbidity of the production that keeps us hooked.
Fatigue eludes Venice entirely. The winding highs of the production, the world-building skits, and the “Waves” motif bring us to “I Miss That Whip” with relative ease. Sneaking a slow and leering ballad in as your ninth track is a bold move, considering the halfway mark is typically when fans are hoping for a banger to keep them going. .Paak carries us through this deep breathing exercise with more spirited percussion and craftily arrives at the one-two combo of “Paint” into “Drugs.”
Everything about Venice is deliberate and reactionary in the best ways. We end on the same high of sun, lust, and gratification that we began, but somehow we’ve also experienced a gamut of emotions while remaining on the needlepoint of sound. That’s Anderson .Paak’s specialty: taking us everywhere without lifting a finger.
Malibu doubles down on the brightness of Venice, going so far as to lace the personal and sprawling in with the textured and sexually charged. With the addition of layers and character development from 2014 to 2016, ballistic drums and EDM dreams aren’t enough to ensure Malibu escapes the trap of droning summer music. When every artist sounds vibrant, full, and soulful, Anderson .Paak must evolve to stand out. And evolve he does, with Malibu furthering his understanding for sequencing and form, and among other things, Malibu gets right what Venice overlooked: features.
An outside verse or perspective is a gift to mood music. Done right—without any upstaging or ball dropping—the presence of features can act as obvious breaths of fresh air for fans, but also promises of creative freedom for lead artists. On Malibu, that’s exactly what we get. Anderson .Paak sounds all the more confident and secure in his sound. There’s no longer a need for a heavy-handed opening motif or an electric soundscape to carry us from track to track. In 2016, .Paak took center stage without a second thought, and the music was all the better, but also all the more languid and involved.
As Anderson .Paak improved, his sonic focus sharpened and though that might sound like his sound narrowed, what it really meant was .Paak turned fringes into floodgates. On Malibu, the instrumental is more earthy and inspired, and the limber spirit of Venice is far from lost. In two years’ time, Anderson .Paak’s drumming ability has tripled. The rolls on “Heart Don’t Stand a Chance” and “Am I Wrong” boast the mania of Venice, but are injected with an organic touch that is nothing if not irresistible.
Even a minor touch like having your silkiest offering (“The Season / Carry Me”) split into two songs is wonderfully methodical. Where Malibu leans luscious, .Paak knows how to send out pockets of air that feel nothing like lifelines, but rather welcome breaths as we move through one of the slickest albums of the decade. Though the album is preoccupied with sunny days, Anderson .Paak is well aware that clouds are dynamic and rays get blocked and somehow the shine must remain in our minds. That’s the magic of “Lite Weight,” where his vocals barely touch down, but the vibrant energy persists.
The cheek on this album helps as well. Where Venice sounded serious and burdened by the weight of an artist hoping to make it and get lucky, Malibu is more willing to sneer at gravity altogether. Think of the hook on “Silicon Valley” or the simple humor of dubbing “Water Fall” an “Interluuube.” These little flourishes hold our attention just as well as .Paak’s drumming and the piano-forward instrumentation. Malibu is grand and gluttonous with its happiness, which, when contrasted against the velvety base of the album, makes for a unique take on the same textures that kept Venice from dragging.
Yes Lawd! (2016)
The brilliance of Yes Lawd! comes by way of its pointed and purposeful stutter. Albums that amble and relish their lover boy and bad boy status are quick to summon a “We get it!” reaction unless they’re whip-smart in their approach. That’s Yes Lawd!, an album that balances icy wit with sex and the slick, smug heat that orbits Anderson .Paak and Knxwledge. Yes Lawd! is hot as hot can be, and the implicit staccato of the short tracks serves as a necessary breeze.
Critics have accused the album of being underdone by way of its choppy presence, but .Paak’s technique here is both purposeful and rewarding. Yes, only five of the album’s 19 tracks break the three-minute mark, but for Yes Lawd! to truly be underdone, it would have to have failed to leave an impression. The album makes a statement—statement after statement, in fact. If anything, Yes Lawd! is a freight-training series of pulpy declarations made with the listener in mind. These are summer flings personified.
The structure of Yes Lawd! is both thoughtful and literary, bringing to mind the A-B form of Pulitzer Prize-winning author Anthony Doerr, who wrote his long-form opus in short, searing chapters because, as he said, “I think this structure is a way to give a reader breathing room. I’m asking a reader to follow two adolescents here, through a lot of places and timelines, so I wanted her to be able to take a breath between chapters—to see some white space and be able to let down for a moment before falling back in.” As we flit down Anderson .Paak’s Rolodex of women and scandal, the brevity of the tracks provide much of the same.
By now it’s becoming clear that Anderson .Paak, by in large, sings about the same things—like most artists. He’s honed his craft and knows his pocket well, but pressing play on an Anderson .Paak album never feels like a chore. While certain artists have understood their pocket to be an absolution of growth, .Paak focuses his energy of reinventing the format of his albums. As a result, his pen never feels tired and we’re always peering over the edge of his tracklist tinkering.
Anderson .Paak proves that the art of pacing is about subtlety and reward long before it is about shocking us to attention. With his forthcoming album, Oxnard Ventura, it’s only a matter of time until .Paak once again impresses us with his equal passion for mood and momentum.