If there is a negative that comes from releasing a piece of art that is both critically and commercially successful, it is that it comes with high expectations. There is a good reason that the term “sophomore slump” sticks in the cultural lexicon. With that in mind, Anderson .Paak’s new album Oxnard is one of the most anticipated new releases for many. Now, technically, this is not a sophomore effort, as this is his third album under this name (along with some self-released music as Breezy Lovejoy). But if you take into account that 2016’s Malibu was seen as his debut into the mainstream, this is the first album from him that people were clamoring for and anticipating.
On Oxnard’s opening track, “The Chase,” there is immediate hope that Paak would capitalize on his previous work, involving different styles and forms to give us a whole that will be memorable. The track opens with music evocative of Blaxploitation scores from the likes of Curtis Mayfield or Isaac Hayes. The track itself is not terribly memorable but could lead into something excellent as the album plays out. Sadly, this was not to be.
Oxnard, as a whole, never really comes together. Anderson .Paak seems to rely on hip hop conventions on this album, including some stereotypical half skits and a questionable reliance on guest artists. This hamstrings Paak, who is basically a musical virtuoso, now trapped in this limited box. It is unknown whether this is the influence of his first album on Dr. Dre’s Aftermath Entertainment, or simply success breeding complacency. This is not to say that Oxnard is a terrible album or uncomfortable to sit through. For many other artists, this might be a top tier album, but more is expected.
Those guest artists previously mentioned (including Snoop Dogg, Kendrick Lamar, J. Cole, Pusha T, and Dr. Dre) all seem to take the lead on their tracks. This is a major problem as the artist we came to hear takes a back seat. The music itself is of the high quality that you would expect, but the lyricism is where Paak turns in a disappointing performance. Quite honestly, most of these tracks are more likely to blend into background noise than they are to make you stand up and take notice. The first track that might wake you up, “Tints,” is a song that evokes both the need to escape and the effects of fame on his privacy—“I can’t be ridin’ round and round that open strip/ I need tints.” Later in the album, “Anywhere” (featuring Snoop Dogg), attempts to capitalize on nostalgia for those of us that remember the G-Funk era. Snoop even name drops Warren G and Nate Dogg. Unfortunately, “Anywhere” feels like a track that would be forgettable on a Snoop album in the late ‘90’s.
Oxnard also features one of Anderson .Paak’s first forays into social issues, with “6 Summers.” Although this may be an honorable attempt, he is also not saying anything new. It feels dated, despite mentioning Trump and the need for gun reform. “Pop-pop-pop goes the shooter/ Reform, reform shoulda came sooner.” The most genuine part of this track is his (and maybe our) need to use substances to “just cope with the pain.” But that is basically a throwaway line, and not the focus of the bulk of the lyrics. “6 Summers” stands out only because it seems to come out of nowhere. And that is another issue that Oxnard has, and maybe most of the music world does, too. It is especially difficult for Paak to create a cohesive album as opposed to searching for hooks that will land and maintain fame on charts. That difficulty comes from his talent and his willingness to combine different styles from track to track.
But despite the negative tone of this review, all is not lost. There are a handful of solid tracks that will make it into your personal rotation, including “Tints,” “Who R U,” and “Mansa Musa.” But all of these pale in comparison to the real reason to not only check out Oxnard, but also to have hope for Anderson .Paak’s next album. Easily the best track on the album is “Cheers.” It ranks among the best work that Paak has produced, on any album. At first listen, it feels like a party track and is functions perfectly as just that. However, on repeated plays when you tune in to the lyrics and the message, Paak is attempting to process his own grief and loss. The honesty of not only the sadness, but the anger that comes with it hits home both musically and emotionally. This is the only track with a guest artist in which Anderson .Paak is at the forefront and dominates. As a matter of fact, Q-Tip, who is featured here and is an unassailable legend of hip hop, could be edited out and the track would not suffer.
So, although Oxnard is a disappointment, it is by no means a bad or unlistenable album. Anderson .Paak is still one of hip hop’s greatest talents and this still gives us a few tracks that are worthy of both your time and his talent. Despite this step backwards, there is hope that he will again turn in performances that will be closer to Malibu than Oxnard in terms of quality, as well as the cohesion of an album that is not focused on singles and monetary success.
Follow Anderson .Paak on Spotify.