It was recently Mac Demarco's birthday and Brandon Paak Anderson, who goes by his stage name Anderson .Paak, couldn't stop staring at the empty stage. The two had decided to meet up at a small dive bar called Baby's All Right in Williamsburg and were waiting for the performers to go on. "I was like, 'Damn this is crazy,'" Anderson tells CR. "That intimate place is where you get your chops and confidence and I really appreciate those times. Do I want to go back? Not necessarily. I love playing big shows, but there's something about those little spots."
Anderson grew up listening to Earth, Wind, and Fire and wanting to dance. When he was in grade school, he used to breakdance battle with his friends at recess in-between classes. "I was five or six and I was obsessed with hip-hop," he says. "I wanted to be a dancer and I was going to talent shows and finally got into drums when I was 12. After that, I wanted to do something in music for sure. I can't really remember a time when I wasn't into music."
He started working as a music teacher and later as an assistant, videographer, editor, writer, producer, and for a brief time, a worker on a marijuana farm. In 2013, he produced and recorded Cover Art, an all-covers EP that turned white folk classics into hip hop and R&B-infused jams. Anderson then began making his way up the California coast, beginning with his first album, Venice, which he debuted in 2014, weaving to Malibu in 2016, and later Oxnard in 2018. His most recent beachside haunt is Ventura, located northwest of Los Angeles, for which his fourth studio album is named. It's the second album Anderson's put out in the last six months and within that time span, he picked up his first Grammy Award for Best Rap Performance and grappled with the loss of his close friend, Mac Miller (the duo collaborated on "Dang!" in 2016 and Anderson wrote the song "Cheers" about Miller after his death).
If Oxnard was Anderson's brief dalliance into hard-edged rapping and over-the-top excess, Ventura is a soft return to the singer's funk-loving, soothing soul beginnings that he honed performing at those small dive bars, touching on love songs and their sweet nothings. Most of the album was inspired by "having fun and a lust for life," but some of the inspiration also came from his experiences with fatherhood (his second son, Shine, was born in 2017) and his nearly decade-long relationship and marriage with Jae Lin.
"Some of it is about family and some about my relationship with wifey," he says. "We’ve gone from just meeting each where it’s fresh and new and then going on to having kids and being young parents and surviving. We're seeing it get better every year and now we're used to seeing each other. I didn’t know at the time, but when I saw the songs, that's what the album's about. I don't ever going in saying, 'I'm about to make the love album.' I go in and pick the best songs; it's the effort to give something smooth and sweet and people can pick what they want."
His generous personality comes through song after song, from the soulful, groove-heavy "Make It Better," which features an assist from Motown legend Smokey Robinson, to "King James," an ode to black activism and social resistance. “We couldn’t stand to see our children shot dead in the streets / But when I finally took a knee, them crackers took me out the league," he sings. "Now I’m not much for games but I play for keeps / And we salute King James for using his change / To create some equal opportunities.”
Here, CR catches up with the rapper ahead of his performance at Madison Square Garden (he's currently touring with Demarco, Earl Sweatshirt, Thundercat, and more), about fatherhood, his longtime friendship with Dr. Dre, and how he nabbed that song with Robinson.
How did you decide who to collaborate with this time around?
"Making both [Ventura and Oxnard] was creative bliss. It was my wildest dream, you know? I wanted to knock it out of the park as far as the features. I wanted everything big and to mean something. With Oxnard, at the beginning, I thought I had the album done, but Dre was like, 'You’re like 80 percent done.' I was like, 'Cool. I’m gonna work with you.' But I was kind of dreading it, because that shit takes forever. I went in because nobody is working with him right now and it's been a while since he's worked hands-on with an artist. With Ventura, I wanted to keep leading with the production and get my band the Free Nationals on there. I wanted it to be really consistent and sweet-nothing jarring. Subconsciously, I was collaborating with people who could bring a texture and beautiful voice, because I didn't want to do any of my own background vocals. I wanted the lead voice to be like the jagged leaf over roses, so it stands out and people like Sir, Arthur Dodger, and BJ Chicago Kid lending their vocals, I wanted to work with people who I grew up with listening to."
Tell me how that Smokey Robinson feature came about.
"Alchemist and Fredwreck were in there making a beat, Alchemist chopped up some drums, and there was a guitar melody. From there, we wanted to write something that could give that Motown vibe. We started building from the drum track I was like, 'This is like a Smokey Robinson vibe.' My manager at the time said,' Smokey Robinson is like my stepdad.' We were like 'Yeah right," but I got to thinking about it and I pressed him to see this is really the jig. The next day, Smokey came through and we played him the song. It was just the skeleton of the song, with a rough melody and some lyrics that were curse words. Robinson goes 'Nah baby, you gotta make it sweet. You gotta make love to her with your words and tell her what she wants to hear.' I burned him two disks and he made it beautiful. He really got to produce and get frustrated with me. We hit the blunt and he was coughing like crazy, smoke coming out of his ears."
What's the main difference between Oxnard and Ventura for you?
"The lyrical content and textures in Oxnard were more of an aggressive sound. We wanted to do everything very in-your-face. It was supposed to be like a movie. Even the art looked like a feature film poster, so you’re going to get different vibes when there’s different moments in the flick. But with Ventura, it was more of a steady flow."
You've said Blueprint and The College Dropout influenced Oxnard. What would shaped Ventura?
"Probably Donald Byrd, Frankie Beverly, Prince, and even bands like High Fashion."
What's something we don't know about Dre?
"He’s really goofy when he’s comfortable, like when he’s alone and had some drinks. I don’t want to say goofy, but he has a good time and smiles a lot. He enjoys himself. He’s really private, so he likes to keep it where people don’t know too much about him, which is smart."
Do you have a favorite song from Ventura?
"'Chosen One' is my favorite. I love how that song came together. I sampled 'On the Level' by Demarco. When we first met in Australia, we were working on that tune and we just got along so well. We partied so hard. Then, I went to Atlanta and worked on it. It was such a fun vibe and when I started making beats, I was chopping stuff up and we just had a party in the studio. I like how it's base-driven and really funky, but at the same time, still modern and has a lot of depth."
When you produced both albums at the same time, was there anything you wanted to change on Ventura after Oxnard already came out?
"No, I liked it. With Oxnard, I learned a lot, we didn’t get to do some of the art that I wanted to do, and didn’t get to mix it through like a tape like I wanted. I was traveling and I just had my newborn, so I was a little distracted. Mac Miller passed right when we were finished, so it was bit chaotic. I was really protecting the Ventura album. I didn’t want to mess with it; I wanted it to be that picture that we took and to have it be timeless. I wanted to mix it through tape and I got to do that this time in remastering. I thought it was gonna be 10 songs and then Fredwreck brought the Nate Dogg joint and I was like 'Oh shit. If anything, that’s the one thing to change.' We needed a cool ending to cap it off and I think that was good."
How did fatherhood and Miller's death impact this album?
"Those are two heavy things that affect you. That was the first time I’d lost a friend my age, and in that way, he was truly a friend. You don’t have to always be friends with people in the same field as you, but that dude was the homie. We would talk a lot and then he was really gone. I was still trying to complete the album, and with a newborn, my wife is holding it down completely. She’s a full-time mom. She’s saying she’s a musician too, but she’s with the kids all the time and I’m on the road. That is a whole other craziness. The longer I stay chillin' with them, the less I get done on this side, but you can’t buy that time. Wifey is just watching YouTube videos and 'Baby Shark' and that’s just her life. When I come home I'm like 'Oh shit, where’s tequila?' and at Demarco’s house going crazy. You just need to spend time and that’s the hardest part and it definitely affects me. I feel like I am still carefree and a free spirit, but my time is limited and what you do with it is important."
How is the tour different for you this time?
"The difficult part about touring is how to put on a dope ass show and still make money. I’ll be the one who wants to have a crazy stage design. I went to Coachella, watched everybody, and was like 'Yeah I’m gonna get lasers and shit.' But it’s like damn, for us, we don’t need all that. What we have on stage just playing as a band with our instruments is bigger than that. The difficult part is how are we monetizing it properly and making the most out of the show. My son's homeschooled, so I have to bring wifey and kids so that’ll be completely different, touring with family. It’s not gonna be hard, just a lot to execute."
PHOTOGRAPHS MICAIAH CARTER
FASHION ANATOLLI SMITH
GROOMING RISAKO MATSUSHITA USING BOBBI BROWN AT SEE MANAGEMENT
DIGITAL DIRECTOR JOSHUA GLASS
PRODUCTION SASHA BAR-TUR FOR CR STUDIO