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Imagine it: You grew up in Oxnard, Calif. Your dad went to prison for beating your mom. You had a kid with your second wife. You lost your job, and a place to live. You were homeless.
Your friends looked out for you. You slowly picked yourself up. You changed your name: Breezy Lovejoy became Anderson .Paak. You gained some traction, partly by redoubling your focus on your vocals, leaving the beatmaking to producers you trusted. Some Soundcloud hits followed, some friendships with well-connected rappers, a sophomore album, Venice, on which your voice had gone from a blunt instrument to a swiss army knife, able to do 15 different things at once.
And then you got the call. From Aftermath, Dr. Dre’s label. A representative was checking to see if you were interested in the American dream, California rap edition—in working with an icon you’d been listening to since you were six years old. You made it.
Channel that experience, .Paak’s own recent past, into a single song, and you might come up with something like “Livvin,” the first proper song off Yes Lawd!, his new joint album with the beatmaker Knxwledge. “Livvin” is triumph incarnate, a new entry in the tradition of “ashy-to-classy” tracks like “Juicy” and “Touch the Sky.” .Paak preaches the gospel of success in between rolling drums, mellow horns, and a church choir. His voice’s inextricability from the music is a testament to his chemistry with a producer steeped in the tradition of the beat scene godheads, Dilla and Madlib. (.Paak and Knx, whose real name is Glen Boothe, have merged their names into NxWorries, an apparent nod to the definitive Stones Throw duos, Jaylib and Madvillain.)
.Paak’s sudden stardom, largely due to his work with Dre and to this year’s Malibu, his extraordinary third album, might tempt listeners to give him the credit for Yes Lawd!’s many successes. But the record, which includes tracks recorded between early 2015 and March 2016, is first and foremost a beat tape, stacked with beautiful little donuts, most of which don’t pass the three-minute mark. Knx was raised on church music, hip-hop radio, and J Dilla, and the rich instrumentals here are loaded with tributes to all three. “Sidepiece” offers .Paak a chance to sing the lyrics of “Won’t Do” from Dilla’s posthumous album The Shining: “One won’t do and two is not enough for me, no,” while “Can’t Stop” is a zoned-out moment of musical reverie that intimately recalls Jay Dee. The beats are the soul of the album, and .Paak serves as a faithful instrument, the organ at their core.
Producers have fallen hard for .Paak and here, he shows several reasons why his stock has risen so quickly. He’s uniquely aware of the flexibility of his voice as an instrument and is one of the more emotive rappers I can remember hearing, on a level with DMX or Young Thug. On “Best One,” even as he expresses gratitude for a woman who’s taken him in, you can hear urgency, and empathy, in his voice: “You know I could be leaving in a moment’s notice/You telling me to stay to the morning/You know a nigga homeless.” On “Lyk Dis,” he channels no one so much as Erykah Badu, riding the beat with gravelly, percussive verses delivered in short bursts.
In the past, Knxwledge has had trouble focusing on a particular sound for too long, but it’s his focus that holds the record together through 19 tracks, even as he shows off his range. On “What More Can I Say,” one of the prettiest songs here, mournful violin strings engage in a duet with a quiet bass rumble, and their interchange makes for some of the most moving music on the album, particularly when the horns arrive. (If you pride yourself on recognizing samples, this album will offer up a form of exquisite torture at least a couple of times, as you attempt to track down lovely little fragments.) The shuffling beat on “Link Up” is one of the more subtle offerings here, but its winding rhythms and muted sample make .Paak sound as if he’s singing from the middle of the dancefloor, appropriate for a song about nocturnal pursuits.
Many of .Paak’s songs are about going out, and particularly about women, and it’s in their lyrics that Yes Lawd! reveals one of its only issues, a lack of lyrical substance. While an artist like Drake comfortably straddles the line between rapper and R&B singer, .Paak is more of a crooner than a rhymer. There are too few moments like the clever little lyrical elaboration on “Best One”: “I could leave it at a drop of a fedora/But damn it girl I want you.”
And what we get instead can be ugly. On “Livvin,” .Paak sings about the feeling of ascending the ladder, but on some songs, it seems like he’s pulling it up behind him. The sentiment toward other strivers on “H.A.N.” is stingy, and .Paak’s portraits of his relationships are often shallow—a fact that the final track “Fkku” seems to acknowledge, giving a woman’s voice the record’s final kiss-off. The worrisome thing here is not that .Paak can be sexist. It’s that there’s nothing to counter or contextualize his attitude. On “Suede,” .Paak makes an explicit effort to justify the slurs he frequently uses: “If I call you a bitch/It’s cause you’re my bitch/And as long as no one else call you a bitch/Then there won’t be no problems.”
The records that .Paak and Boothe admire, the classic Stones Throw collaborations, found two artists working at the absolute height of their talents. Madvillainy, in particular, was a perfect match between an internal rhyme genius in Doom and a beatmaking savant in Madlib. That album, released in 2004, remains a high water mark in Stones Throw’s history. .Paak and Knx are both so talented that it seems fair to hold them to that standard. And what’s astonishing here is the way they manage to forge a sound nearly as rich and original as that of America’s most blunted. One of the few disappointing things about the largely terrific Yes Lawd! is the way that Knx outdoes .Paak, but the rapper/singer is at the beginning of a bright career in which he’s already demonstrated his ability to write rich lyrics—this record, which includes some of the most beautiful songs he’s made yet, has far more to be proud of than not. It’s another major accomplishment in .Paak’s continued rise.Share