“How do you mend when your world’s apart?” the multi-instrumentalist Oxnard native Anderson .Paak croons in a butter-soft inflection to open “Make It Better,” one of the lead singles off his newly-released album “Ventura.” This line – and the ensuing emotions of the song – sum up .Paak’s mind state well on “Ventura.” .Paak sings in his signature rasp about many splitting worlds on the album; his teetering relationship, the currently tense political climate and his rising fame. But as the next line suggests, .Paak handles the gravity of these situations the same way he always has: with his trademark toothy grin never disappearing from his face. “Ooh, carry on / Ooh, from the start.”
While .Paak may never be able to top the free-wheeling funk and incessant groove of “Yes Lawd!”, or the intimacy and genre-bending fluidity of “Malibu,” he appears much matured on “Ventura” in several regards: his arrangement of instrumentation, his ability to use his fellow cohorts and collaborators and, most importantly, how he handles and discusses relationships. Gone are the suave vignettes of sidepieces, free love and late-night debauchery that “Yes Lawd!” brought to the world, and while this may not necessarily be for the better, it’s for a far different purpose and scope. “Ventura” isn’t as effortlessly smooth as “Yes Lawd!”, but instead, it presents a polished, mature R&B sound that longs for that special someone opposed to lusting for the married woman from across the bar.
On “Ventura,” .Paak exudes unbridled joy over intricately sewn-together production that sounds the way sequin glitters – that is, sequin that’s softly floating to the bottom of a glass of Hennessy. There are horns, keys, string sections and even a lively guitar here and there, but regardless of the instrument in question, the end result is endlessly catchy and enthusing. On “Reachin’ 2 Much,” a mid-song beat switch gives way to .Paak and Lalah Hathaway splitting lines about a forced relationship that isn’t working out no matter how much (and maybe because of how much) effort the nameless lover puts into it. On “Yada Yada,” .Paak swaggers around with a huge smile, even admitting, “When the dreams become reality / It’s hard to keep a smile off the mug,” before an upbeat piano solo takes the song home in classy fashion. No matter what .Paak is doing on “Ventura,” he seems to be doing it with a wink, advising us to beam through it all just as he does.
It’s hard to pick favorites on “Ventura” because of how consistent yet simultaneously varied the album is. There’s the carefree summer banger that feels like it was made to be played in an outdoor arena on a warm July day in “Jet Black”; there’s the soul-and-horn-laden valiance of “King James” that rings of unperturbed happiness in the face of constant oppression and inequality; and there’s even the wonky funk of “What Can We Do?” that features unreleased vocals from the deceased West Coast legend Nate Dogg. “Ventura” wears many different hats, but at the same time feels exceedingly cohesive in its execution and undeniable groove.
It’s no secret that I didn’t like “Oxnard,” the album that preceded “Ventura.” I even wrote an article for The New Hampshire where I theorized that maybe it was .Paak getting rid of his nose ring that led to the hiccup in his discography. I found “Oxnard” to be far too all over the place and thought that it squandered most of .Paak’s talents in favor of strange experimentation that didn’t pan out. I’ve always had the theory that it was Dr. Dre’s fault; his out-of-date touch smudging the album might’ve been a big reason for
its disappointing execution. Regardless, “Oxnard” just didn’t feel like an Anderson .Paak album through and through, which is why, when he announced “Ventura” only months later, I was ecstatic. He didn’t lose his silky-smooth touch that made me feel as if I could pull off a turtle neck and septum nose piercing at the same time (which in reality would make me look like I was dressed up for a Halloween costume party in May); he just had a little mishap that would be reconciled by releasing another classic neo-soul joint.
Much to my delight, this truly turned out to be the case. On “Ventura,” Anderson .Paak capers and warbles to his heart’s delight, proving (as far as I’m concerned) that he really is our current king of soul music. I mean, who else can rock a beanie, wire-framed glasses, a heather-and-charcoal gray pea coat and a sweater all in the same fit while singing about a love asunder that he aims to fix by morning?
“Ventura” is simply a fun album. It’s meant to be listened to with the windows down on a summer morning without a care in the world. It’s meant to be sung loudly with a smile on your face. No, it’s not Anderson .Paak’s best album, or his most personal, or even his most soulful. But it’s so much fun that none of this even seems to matter.