The US rapper and singer spent his 20s on the fringes of the music industry. Now, with his dazzling second album, Dr Dres latest protege is equipped to address his turbulent youth
Id be lying if I told you that my interview with Anderson Paak gets off to a flying start. The reality is anything but. The 30-year-old rapper and singer-songwriter from Los Angeles is ushered into my cramped hotel room in Salford looking like death warmed up. Hes battling a nasty flu virus that threatens to derail his European tour. While I do my best to be solicitous, his eyelids droop and he barely speaks. Fearing disaster, I quickly phone for black coffee and, fortunately, it does the trick.
He may not be a household name just yet, but Paak is well on the way to becoming one. For a start, he is making some of the most exciting new music around. His sound is a warm and hazy blend of styles funk, jazz, New York house, reggae, trap, blaxploitation-era soul, a hint of psych-rock anchored in R&B and hip-hop. He is equally at home singing and rapping. And he has a highly distinctive voice that somehow manages to be both smooth as maple syrup and raspy as a whisky-soaked barfly. Comparisons have been made with Frank Ocean, Andr 3000 and Innervisions-era Stevie Wonder.
Significantly, Paak has also been recently anointed as Dr Dres latest protege. The hip-hop mogul and Beats headphones founder has a habit of picking winners, from Snoop Dogg to Eminem, and Paak signed a deal with Dres Aftermath Entertainment in January. This followed on from his star turn last August on Dres comeback album, Compton. Paak co-wrote and sang on six of the songs, more than any other guest including Snoop and Eminem, as well as other heavy hitters, such as Ice Cube and Kendrick Lamar.
This was a remarkable achievement because at the time Paak was virtually unknown. He had independently released an album, Venice, in late 2014, which won widespread critical acclaim but made little mainstream impact (although it was championed by Gilles Peterson on Radio 6). Paak also had a project called NxWorries, a collaboration with the hip-hop producer Knxwledge their single Suede went viral in early 2015, and came to the attention of Dre, who apparently played it for weeks before getting one of his A&R team to call Paak and invite him to audition.
That must have been quite a moment. Paak flashes a toothy grin and perks up immediately. When I finally met him, for some reason I didnt have any super-fanboy jitter thing, where I couldnt be myself, he says. I was so confident by that point I just said: Let me get on the mic and try something. And I remember closing my eyes and going off the top, and then opening them and it was like, Whooaaaahhh!! He mimes Dre throwing his hands up in the air in appreciation.
It probably helped that Paak had already had a lot of practice by the time he met Dre. If hed called five years ago, I dont think Id have been ready, he admits. Paak is his real name, by the way. But as an artist he prefixes it with a full stop .Paak. Its a weird affectation, but he tells me it symbolises attention to detail. Its a reminder to himself to stay on top of his game because he hasnt always done so. I thought things would just fall into my lap, he says. So Id put my career in the hands of just about anybody. And before I knew it I was in my late 20s, and things just werent sticking. Plus, in LA image is more than half the battle, and I was just a music nerd who never gave a fuck about image.
Indeed. For most of his 20s he recorded under the name Breezy Lovejoy. I didnt always take myself that seriously, he admits. Image-wise, I was somewhat of a jokester. The first thing he put online as Lovejoy was a Coldplay tribute. I didnt really know what I was doing, he says. Eventually it was fatherhood his son, Soul, is now five years old that gave him the wake-up call he needed. Since then, he has ditched the cringy Lovejoy alias, stepped up his songwriting game, and independently released two dazzling albums Venice and, more recently, Malibu in January.
Like generations of African American musicians before him, Paak laid the foundations for his career during childhood in church. It was where he learned to play drums, tutored by kindly older musicians who recognised that he had talent; the singing and rapping came later. If you grow up playing in church, it removes a lot of the boundaries that other musicians might have, growing up with sheet music or whatever, he says. Its like [adopts booming preachers voice] youre dealing with the Holy Spirit! Gods working through your hands!
The church was in Oxnard, a small city 100km from Los Angeles. Brandon Paak Anderson and his three sisters (two older, one younger) were born and raised there, in a mostly white suburb. Church was a focal point for Oxnards fragmented black community; his short-lived first marriage at 21 was to a girl he met there.
Paaks mother is mixed race: half-black, half-Korean he has her eyes. She was orphaned during the Korean war, and adopted by a US soldier who took her back to America and raised her with his family in Compton. His father, meanwhile, was an identical twin from Philadelphia, an air force man who was discharged for drugs and who ended up severely addicted to both drugs and alcohol, with traumatic consequences.
He went to prison for assault and battery of my mum, Paak says, with calm detachment. I witnessed him beating my mum. He beat her within an inch of her life. We called the cops and he went to prison for 14 years [he was also found guilty of firearms offences]. I never saw him after that. I talked to him a little bit, but the next time I seen him he was being buried.
Paak was seven years old when he saw the beating. How do you process something like that? I dont know. Its had an effect, but I couldnt pinpoint exactly what it did. I know I have some issues maybe if I see a therapist they can tell you!
His mum is clearly a resilient woman who had a flair for business. She took over a small strawberry stall in Oxnard from a friend, and built it into a large organic strawberry company, supplying grocery stores and restaurant chains. She remarried, and life got very good we went from living in a one-bedroom apartment to a five-bedroom mansion by the time I was in high school. I had everything I wanted growing up, though all I wanted was music stuff drums, a PC, turntables. They supported me with all of that.
But their luck changed again: unusually heavy rainstorms linked to the El Nio weather phenomenon ruined the strawberry crops for two consecutive seasons, and everything went to shit. Mom had to file for bankruptcy. But during this time, she also developed a healthy gambling habit. We were in Vegas every weekend. My mom and step-pops were really good, and when youre really good at gambling, you dont pay for anything. Everything was on the house. Wed get all our meals free, all the room service. Id bring my friends from school. It was just crazy rooms, dude TVs coming up out of the floor and shit
And then that all went wrong, too. His mum and stepdad were arrested and charged for not declaring their winnings, and for illegally moving securities. Paak was 17 and knew nothing; he is sketchy about the details even now. They were making a bunch of money at the tables and not notifying the government Mom was actually using it to pay back what she owed from the bankruptcy. But when people found out that she had paid others back but not them, they reported her. His mum served seven and a half years of a 14-year sentence. Around the same time, it emerged that his stepdad had been having an affair, and was having a child with another woman. I never really liked him anyway, Paak shrugs.
When my mom went under, everything collapsed. Like, before that we were just spoilt brats. My mom paid for everything. My two older sisters were married with families of their own, but they were still being taken care of. One of them had to move back into the house to take care of me and my little sister but then the house got foreclosed, so we had to get out.
He has only recently felt able to write about all this and the years of hard living and family fallouts that followed. There is little sign of it on his light-hearted first album, Venice. But its game-changing follow-up, Malibu, is a much deeper proposition, full of long-buried and painful childhood memories, transformed into bittersweet melodies and woozy, punch-drunk raps. Is you gonna smile when your date gets issued? You know them feds taking pictures/Your moms in prison, your father needs a new kidney/Your familys splitting, rivalries between siblings/If cash aint king its damn sure the incentive/And good riddance, he raps on The Season/Carry Me, one of the albums many highlights.
I guess it just took time, he says. I dont think I knew before how to properly express what I had gone through in song form. Im glad I didnt try to force it before I was ready. Also, its part of my personality to be light; Im more about lightness than anything.