THIS YEAR HAS SEEN the loss of two of our greatest and most visionary performers—David Bowie and Prince represented a disappearing art, in which songwriting was innovative, musicianship was paramount, and singing was transcendent. But this year also saw the unanticipated success of Anderson .Paak, a relative newcomer and arguably the most worthy heir to Bowie and Prince’s legacy.
Many soul singers come out of the black Baptist church, but few have taken such an unorthodox path to stardom as Brandon Paak Anderson. Born in Oxnard, California to a Korean mother and an African American father, .Paak honed his skills as a drummer in his neighborhood church band, then went on to take work anywhere he could find it—as a session and touring drummer, producer, and marijuana trimmer in Santa Monica. Both of his parents served stints in prison for different crimes, and for a short time in 2011 he was homeless with his wife and their newborn boy. With the help of friends in the LA music scene, he released two little-noticed albums of jazz-inflected funk and hip-hop under the ill-advised moniker Breezy Lovejoy. Rechristening himself Anderson .Paak (“the dot stands for detail”), he released Venice in 2014—an impressive but overeager album.
If Venice was the work of a young musician still developing his sound, last January’s Malibu is the work of an artist fully in command of his craft. Though it features such high-profile producers as Madlib, 9th Wonder, and Hi-Tek, with instrumentation from his longtime band the Free Nationals, Malibu is unmistakably .Paak’s achievement, from the front-and-center boom-bap drums to his raspy flow. Like fellow church-raised, neo-soul master D’Angelo, .Paak’s gospel upbringing is evident in his music, backed with funk, R&B, and hip-hop. The swagger from his younger days is still evident, but on Malibu .Paak also takes time to address his traumatic childhood and personal struggles. Rather than wallowing in self-pity, .Paak uses his story as a source of motivation for himself and inspiration to others. “We came up in a lonely castle/My papa was behind them bars,” he sings on opening track “The Bird.” “We never had to want for nothing/Said all we ever need is love.”
Anderson .Paak, like Bowie and Prince before him, has lived a life of constant reinvention and identity-shifting. He may have suffered more hardships than most, but where—or even who—he has been is not as important as where he’s going.