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.
Web editor Sidney Madden contributed to this story.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Let's meet a musician who overcame troubles in his childhood to become what one reviewer called, quote, "a rapping, singing, drumming polymath." Here's David Greene.
DAVID GREENE, BYLINE: Anderson .Paak travels prepared. When he came by our studio here in LA for an interview, he made sure to bring along refreshments.
ANDERSON .PAAK: I got you some champagne.
GREENE: That is very kind of you.
.PAAK: You want to pop it now?
GREENE: Maybe after, would that be...?
.PAAK: Let's pop it now.
GREENE: Pop it now.
.PAAK: You got some cups?
GREENE: We can get some cups.
.PAAK: Can we get some glasses in here, ASAP?
GREENE: One thing Anderson .Paak is toasting these days is a new album. It is called "Oxnard," and it honors the Southern California town where he grew up.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TINTS")
.PAAK: (Singing) I been feeling kind of cooped up, cooped up. I'm trying to get some fresh air. Hey, why you go the roof off, roof off? You know it never rains here.
GREENE: Anderson .Paak actually worked on this new album with the kingmaker of West Coast hip-hop, Dr. Dre.
Was that intimidating?
.PAAK: A little bit. He's super tall. Like, everyone was tall in the '90s. I don't get it.
.PAAK: What the hell's going on?
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TINTS")
.PAAK: (Singing) I can't be riding around and around that open strip. I need tints. Windows tinted. I need tints. I need my windows tinted.
GREENE: There is no doubt now that Anderson .Paak is a rising star in hip-hop. But he had a lot of reasons to doubt whether he would ever get here. As for Oxnard, where his journey began...
.PAAK: It's a sleepy town, beautiful beaches. It's pretty low-key, man. I was bored growing up there, pretty much, you know.
.PAAK: Yeah, yeah. There's not much to do out there. But it was cool for me because I grew up playing in church there.
GREENE: What were you playing? Were you playing drums?
.PAAK: I was playing drums, yeah.
(SOUNDBITE OF ANDERSON .PAAK SONG, "TRIPPY (FEAT. J COLE)")
GREENE: You say it was boring, but you actually have - I've read about - had really some tough moments growing up, I mean...
GREENE: There was domestic violence in your family that you actually had to watch?
.PAAK: Yeah. My moms is just, like, such a mild-mannered person and, like, really sweet lady. And for some reason she just always got with, like, the most, like, craziest dudes. My pops was one of them. He was, like, a cool dude, but he just got strung out on those drugs, you know? And then once the drugs got the most of him, it was just downhill.
My mom was coming home from work, and we hear, like, screaming outside. We run outside, and my mom is just, like, in the street, like, blood everywhere. And my pops is on top of her. He's like, get back in the house. I got a gun. Get back in the house.
GREENE: Oh, my God.
.PAAK: And so then we, like, run in the house, call the cops. And that was the last time I saw him. The cops got him, and then he did 14 years after that. My moms came out the hospital and was just like, yeah, we're moving out of Oxnard.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BROTHER'S KEEPER")
.PAAK: (Singing) I'm running through changes. Is it strange to be baited? I'm grown.
GREENE: I know your mom had this business, and then she went to prison for some tax stuff.
GREENE: And so you're alone. I mean, how alone were you at that point?
.PAAK: I mean, there were times it was lonely. But, man, honestly, my family was intact. Like, when all this stuff was happening - like, my mom went to prison - I was in my senior year of high school. Our house got foreclosed. And then my sisters, they had to move back in with us and take care of me and my little sister. So they were coming, like, holding us down.
We didn't know all these crazy things were happening. We didn't know the DA had a case against my mom. I didn't even know my mom was bankrupt, none of that stuff, you know? All this stuff was happening. And then I remember, like, going to school, and the principal bringing me in the office, and he's like, dude, you know your parents on the front paper, you know, coming out of court - and all this stuff.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SAVIERS ROAD")
.PAAK: (Singing) Ten years. Been a minute. I was somewhere between giving up and doing a sentence. God, if you're existing, help my momma get acquitted. If they plotting, then help me see it before they get the drop on me.
GREENE: Like, how did you get through that? Were you still thinking at 17, 18 that you could have a music career?
.PAAK: So right before this happened, I thought I was about to get signed. Like, I was making my own beats. I was DJ'ing and everything. I put the music to the back. And I stopped playing drums at the church, and I was like, forget it.
GREENE: Wow. So was music - I mean, were you even thinking that you could get back to music?
.PAAK: I had completely put it aside. I had - when that happened with my parents, I sold my gear. I sold my turntables, everything.
GREENE: You sold all the equipment.
GREENE: And then what was the turning point? When did you turn back to...
.PAAK: Well, I started working. I got a spot. And then I started back playing drums in church.
GREENE: You went back to your roots.
.PAAK: Yeah, yeah. Then I started writing again.
GREENE: Where did you find that confidence? I mean, I could see just sort of giving up music altogether and just saying, it's never going to happen. Like, what kept that little fire still in there?
GREENE: Women? (Laughter).
.PAAK: (Laughter) Nah. It was crazy. I started playing back in church, and then there was a girl in there that came back from college. And she was like, oh, wow, you're, like, kind of hot now. And then we start talking. And then I was, like, playing her some of my music. She was like, yo, you can sing. You're good. Why don't you, like, do this stuff? And I was like, nah. And then I was like, all right, you know, she said I sound sexy. So I'm going to just, like, keep doing it.
GREENE: That was - I love your honesty about the turning point.
.PAAK: Yeah (laughter).
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ANYWHERE")
.PAAK: (Singing) We'll get back to all that ghetto - we like. But for now, just let me hold you all night. Cheek to cheek, just like they do in the movies. Tonight, baby, I want your love on time.
It just kind of kept going from there. And I started getting hyped. And I was like, wait, man, this is dope. And I started doing it every day. And then that's when the girl was like, it's either music or me. You're getting too hyped on this. Like...
GREENE: Oh, she was the one who told you to do music, and now it's like, not this much.
.PAAK: (Laughter) Yeah. It was dope when it was like - I had more time with her. But then I was, like, so obsessed, like, every day, like, yeah, I'm about to write. And she was just like, it's either music or me. And I was like, damn, all right. We were supposed to get married, everything. I had, like, the ring and all this stuff.
GREENE: Oh, wow.
.PAAK: So I was like, all right. I don't want to do this no more. And then she was like, what?
GREENE: So you gave up the relationship to pursue music?
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SMILE/PETTY")
.PAAK: (Singing) My lady drives me high up the wall. She keeps me up and locked in the bathing room. Why am I screaming at the top of my lungs when she can't hear a word that I say to her?
I was in such a, like, happy state because I really found, like, purpose again. You know, I was, like, back in, like - and I was finding my confidence, like, in my own music.
GREENE: Do you feel like you've made it somehow? I mean, I just think about the rocky journey and the giving up music and your parents and the uncertainty. Like, is this album, in a way, a moment for you, like, that you've come through? And you don't have to worry about - like, you talk about stability. Like, have you reached a point where you don't have to worry about instability anymore?
.PAAK: I mean, dude, I could eat sushi, like, every day if I wanted to. And, like, I don't have to worry about certain things. Got you a bottle of champagne, you know. It's dope not having to worry about, like, my phone bill and stuff. But it's always something, like, next-level. And 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 and all these different people we've met. I've gotten to see the world. I've gotten to share all these experiences with people in my hometown and the world and introduce my hometown to the world. It feels great. This is what we dreamed of.
GREENE: Anderson, thank you. It's really - it's really nice talking to you.
.PAAK: Thank you. We never got to drink that cham-peezy (ph).
GREENE: I think we have glasses. Yeah, let's do it.
.PAAK: All right, man.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CHEERS")
.PAAK: (Singing) I'm working on a world premiere. And I can see the world from here.
GREENE: That was Anderson .Paak in our studios here in LA. His new album is called "Oxnard." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.