The smoky, silky rasp of Anderson .Paak's voice boasts a soulfulness beyond his years. Though he's only 32, the California native has done more living than many musicians do in their whole lives, and he has the war stories to prove it.
He grew up playing drums in church, watched his family torn apart by domestic abuse and prison stints, worked in an assisted living home, engineered for a punk band, followed a woman to L.A., and formed his band, The Free Nationals, while attending music school — all before the world knew his name. But even through his rocky moments, making music and going back to his hometown have remained two constant factors in his life.
"I don't know if it was faith or anything, but, naturally, I always had to be doing something creative or musical," .Paak says. "I couldn't help it. Even when I was saying I quit, I was always doing something — writing a little bit, or recording, helping somebody out."
After years of grinding in the L.A. music scene, .Paak made a splash in 2015 on Dr. Dre's Compton and quickly followed that up with his own 2016 album, Malibu -- mixing '70s funk, speakeasy soul and R&B elements with intricate, immersive (and sometimes hilariously raunchy) songwriting. Now, two years and a couple world tours later, .Paak is back.
Oxnard, out Nov. 16, is an ode to the artist's formative years growing up in Oxnard, Calif. and something of a homecoming, as the first album released under Dr. Dre's Aftermath Entertainment. With features from J. Cole, Kendrick Lamar, Snoop Dogg and Kadhja Bonet ,and his mentor's fingerprints all over the beats as executive producer, .Paak probes topics from unceremonious breakups to his own position in the music industry.
.Paak joined NPR's David Greene in-studio — over cups of "champeezy" — to discuss finding his confidence as a performer, getting through unstable times and Oxnard's overarching themes. Hear the radio version of their conversation at the audio link, and read on for more that didn't make the broadcast.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
David Greene: Whatever it is about you that strikes people — that other musicians are like, "You've got to be out there, you've got to play music" — where do we hear it on this new album?
Anderson .Paak: You hear it in the production. There's so much great drumming; there's so much great musicianship in there.
Why is that the distinctive Anderson .Paak sound?
I don't know if it's distinctive, but there's a way that I say things, relationship-wise, that I think is just unique to myself and really honest — making it simple but still not on the sleeve.
In [the song "Smile/Petty"] in particular, I'm actually talking about a situation that happened to my guitar player, where he got kicked out of his house and she put all his stuff in the street. He was trying to FaceTime her before he was on the plane, and he was like, "I just got that stuff." He was trying to talk to her as we were pulling off, then he just loses reception. It was great material for me to write about.
Probably not good for his belongings.
Yeah, but it made for a great song. Being able to put what's going on in my life and everyone's life into a way that everyone can relate to, that's what I really love. And that song in particular is definitely about that.
Dr. Dre produced this album, right?
Yeah, he mixed the whole album. He was the main producer. That doesn't necessarily mean that he was making all the beats and everything, but me and him were running the train. ... Some artists, everything's laid out for them. They get to the studio, song's ready. "Here's your song, just do it."
What's your relationship like?
Just two Aquariuses going at it: two control freaks, perfectionists that just can't stop working on a project. I love it. It's amazing, man. We met a few years ago, — they were working on his album Compton, and some writers over there really liked my song "Suede"... and they were like, man, we want to get you on this Dre project. I went over there, not thinking I was gonna meet Dre or anything, and I walk in and he's like the first person I meet, him and [rapper and Death Row Records co-founder] D.O.C.
Was that intimidating?
A little bit. He's super tall. Like, everyone was tall in the '90s — I don't get it. But yeah it was great, and he threw me all over the album. The dope part was that [when] he put out his album, I wasn't signed to him yet or anything like that, and I had Malibu almost done. After he put out his album, I put out Malibu — and signed to Dre after that.
Do you feel like you've made it? I just think about the rocky journey, and moments where you gave up music, and your parents and the uncertainty. Is this album a moment for you, where you feel that you've come through and you don't have to worry?
I mean, dude, I could eat sushi every day if I wanted to. It's dope not having to worry about my phone bill and stuff. But it's always something next level. I'm always around people that are on that next level, and I want to aspire to do that. But this definitely feels like a welcome home — like, "Dang man, I'm proud of what we did." All these different people we met. I've gotten to see the world, I've gotten to share all these experiences with people in my hometown and introduce my hometown to the world. It just feels great. This is what we dreamed of.