I genuinely can’t remember the last time I’ve been this excited about a musician. Anderson .Paak, the wildly talented singer/rapper/drummer/producer/musical superhero from Oxnard, CA, is poised for a career takeoff and I’m practically giddy. For most, .Paak is only known for his multiple features on Dr. Dre’s well regarded 2015 album Compton, if at all. .Paak’s slinky rasp and wry storytelling added warm textures and poignant observations to Dre’s swan song; inclusions that Dre was wise to welcome. The Dr. Dre cosign has launched several megastars (see Ice Cube, Snoop, Eminem, and Kendrick Lamar) and .Paak has spent the months since launching rocket after rocket from his new cultural launchpad.
In the interviews following his high profile work with Dr. Dre, .Paak has been quick to point out that his breakthrough was years of hard work in the making. He came to Dre’s attention (and mine as well) through his collaboration with producer Knxwledge – together known as Nxworries. Their single “Suede” is a jaw dropper: a sleek slice of street philosophy told with disarming wit and candor. .Paak makes it all seem simple, and his back catalog shows the labor it took to do so. Based on his bandcamp site, .Paak has no less than four complete albums to his credit, including two self-produced releases from 2012: the incredible O.B.E. Vol. 1 and LOVEJOY, both recorded under the name Breezy Lovejoy. In 2014 .Paak released Venice, an uneven but promising ode to Southern California.
The most interesting – and telling – release in Anderson .Paak’s impressive back catalog is the lone freebie, a six song EP of remakes called Cover Art. According to .Paak, he decided to undertake the project after reflecting on black music that was replayed and made popular by white singers in the 1950s. Cover Art is .Paak’s attempt to turn the tables by choosing six compositions from “your favorite stringy hair singers” and re-imagining them with “soul, jazz, hip-hop and even electronic funk and r&b.” In the process, .Paak lays out his stellar music toolkit, which includes his remarkably emotive – if limited – voice, imaginative arrangements, and the considerable musical chops of he and his band.
Cover Art’s success begins with .Paak’s inspired selections for source material. For the first half of Cover Art, .Paak keeps it current. The EP opens with The Yeah Yeah Yeahs driving alt-rocker Maps, which .Paak brings along with a slow boil; replacing the original’s shrieking guitars with keyboard chords and richly layered vocals. A slightly more faithful cover of The White Stripes’ Seven Nation Army follows, though .Paak never allows his version to explode like the original. Instead, he limits the familiar drum/guitar riff to a peppy but rather forgettable groove. .Paak then turns to The Postal Service’s Such Great Heights, a heartfelt electro-love song that .Paak morphs into an electro-soul ballad. By doing so, .Paak moves his storytelling to the fore, getting the most out of the images and emotion written into the original’s gorgeous lyrics.
For as strong as Cover Art‘s opening is, its on the back half of older songs that .Paak excels. He starts off with one of the jewels of The Beatles’ peerless catalog, “Blackbird.” .Paak wisely stays out of the way, relying on his rich voice and the stellar composition. While .Paak left “Blackbird” largely untouched, he strips the chorus from Neil Young’s “Heart of Gold” to use as scaffolding, along with a refrain from Trinidad James’ lamentable hit “All Gold Everything,” for a surprisingly poignant rap song about materialism. .Paak and his fellow vocalists then spit able verses over a sparse rhythm. It shouldn’t work, but it does. The EP then closes with a jazz-soul remake of Toto’s rollicking “Hold the Line.” This is another dramatic rework, with .Paak turning producing duties over to Vicky Nguyen and sharing vocals with the potent Roquel Rodriguez. Its a spectacular closer, with instrument solos and a sultry back and forth on vocals.
.Paak may have undertaken Cover Art as a subversion of racism in musical consumption, but its triumph is far more personal. Through his remakes, .Paak brings the listener into the conversations that inform his own music. In that sense, Cover Art is an exercise where .Paak et al explore compositions to find new ways to highlight their own viewpoints and talents. In years past when recording music was far more expensive and required a label to release, these versions may have just been mixed in with his originals in live shows. But the ubiquity of affordable recording software and the availability of sites like Bandcamp for distribution have made it possible for .Paak’s ideas to be locked in place and shared freely. The result is a fascinating and surprisingly rewarding document that says more about .Paak’s boundless work ethic and open approach to becoming a better artist than it does about the artists whose work he uses.
.Paak has retold the story of being invited to Dr. Dre’s studio without having actually met Dr. Dre. It turned out Dre hadn’t heard of .Paak at all. After hearing “Suede” three times in a row, however, Dre was so enamored that he invited .Paak to riff over raw tracks for his secret new album. The results made their way to Compton, and a star, one might presume, was born. .Paak sees it differently, that years of work and recording helped him build the chops and confidence to stride into the studio with one of the hip-hop generations most accomplished producers and convince that producer that he was already a star. Cover Art is a part of that impressive process, while also a piece of work that stands ably on its own merits. Its a worthy introduction to an artist who hasn’t much use for potential, only process and consistently thrilling product.