Anderson Paak didn't start quite from the bottom, but trying to launch a music career from a bedroom in Ventura, Calif., is close enough. So it's understandable that when the 30-year-old singer and rapper talks about how his name wound up dotting the credits of Dr. Dre's Compton album, it's as though he's describing an out-of-body experience, or something he wrote in a dream journal that miraculously materialized on his turntable overnight.
"It's crazy," he says, his headshake of disbelief practically audible through the phone. "My wife got me the vinyl for Christmas. I put it on the record player, and I was just like, 'What the fuck? I'm on the Dre album!' You could've told me I would've been on any other record but that."
Overnight success never actually happens overnight, of course. But unless you've been attuned to the buzz within the L.A. music scene the past few years, the omnipresence of Paak's up-all-night rasp on the most earth-shifting surprise release of 2015—he's featured more than any other artist, including Kendrick Lamar—must seem a bit out of nowhere. That's certainly how it felt for Paak. After multiple attempts to get Dre's attention, he was called down to his studio for an informal audition last April, and all it took was one turn at the mic to earn himself a spot on the alleged final opus of gangsta rap's greatest don. A year later, it's still like it happened to someone else. Shoot, Paak had to get the album as a friggin' Christmas gift, as if he weren't all over the damn thing.
Of course, for every Snoop Dogg and Eminem whose careers exploded off a nod from the Good Doctor, plenty of others have come away with little more than a bragging point to one day tell their incredulous grandchildren about. (Anyone heard from Hittman lately?) While Paak's ceiling is yet to be determined, it's already clear he's not going to ride his co-sign into a black hole: He's playing Coachella this month, and his new album, Malibu, got stamped with a "Best New Music" designation from Pitchfork when it came out in January.
With or without Dre's seal of approval, Paak's star potential is obvious. A biracial kid with mixed musical interests, he's cut from the same strip of denim as fellow SoCal futurist Miguel, with a sound that's less a patchwork of styles than a reflection of the genre-agnostic way his generation hears the world—soul delivered with hip-hop intonation, rock-'n'-roll rawness and a tint of chronic-scented psychedelia. Calling him "the next Frank Ocean" is only a stretch in the sense that he might end up being the first Anderson Paak.
Not too long ago, though, Paak wasn't sure if music was a viable future for him. "There was a handful of years where I didn't trust what I was doing," he says. Born in sleepy Oxnard, Calif., and raised up the road in Ventura, there weren't many opportunities for him to validate his talent. He played drums in punk bands and DJed house parties and dances at the Boys and Girls Club, but mostly he stayed in his room, writing raps and making beats. A few years out of high school, married with a child on the way, Paak put his artistic ambitions on ice completely, taking a lucrative job on a pot farm in Santa Barbara. When that ended suddenly, he had no choice but to dig in and try to make the music thing work. "After having my son, things got more serious for me," he says. "My perspective got a little more clear. My priorities started to get in place, and I developed more of a work ethic. I spent six months or so just recording, waking up early, taking it just like a job."
After a period of couch-surfing, Paak landed a gig as the touring drummer for American Idol alum Haley Reinhart, helping him get back on his feet financially. He swapped his original alias, Breezy Lovejoy, for a jumbled version of his birth name, Brandon Paak Anderson—which he stylizes as ".Paak," the period serving as a reminder to himself to "pay attention to detail"—and began living in the studio. In two years, he dropped a head-turning full-length, Venice, along with a pair of collaborative EPs and dozens of guest spots. The smooth-grooving single "Suede" got him through the door with Dre and onto Compton. After that, Paak's phone started ringing much more frequently. Another big-league Compton rapper, the Game, tapped him for two songs on his latest album, and blogs that previously ignored Paak were suddenly declaring him a "savant."
"It was hard not to be an asshole," he laughs. "A lot of the people coming up were people I wanted to work with anyway, so I couldn't front. I was like, 'Let's do it.' It really helped with momentum, and to figure out what the next project was, which is Malibu."
While not technically his debut, Malibu has the tenor of an introduction, both to Paak's blended vision of R&B and the singer himself. Within minutes of opener "The Bird," he's laid out the details of his childhood, spent in a "lonely castle" with a hard-working but flawed mother, a Whitney Houston-loving sister and a father who ended up "behind them bars" and eventually out of the picture completely. Autobiographical details spill out across the album, including his bout with homelessness and struggle to get his career off the ground, conveyed with rough, gospelish intonation that's often hard to parse as singing or rapping. In its seamless threading of samples and live instrumentation, and free-flowing movement through hip-hop, funk and soul, it feels like a cousin to To Pimp a Butterfly, only more conversational. On closer "The Dreamer," Paak offers his own assurance to kids growing up like him that "it's gon' be alright," bringing it literally all back home: "I'm a product of the tube and the free lunch/ Living room, watching old reruns/ And who cares your daddy couldn't be here?/ Mama always kept the cable on."
It's a hard-won victory lap, the punctuation on a year that still doesn't feel totally real. But Paak knows enough to not normalize success. He's wary of fame—as he says at one point on Malibu, that's what "killed all my favorite entertainers." No matter how big he gets, though, that shouldn't be a problem. Complacency isn't really his thing.
"I'm always going to be learning and feeling things out, and that's what's fun for me," he says. "I don't like getting too comfortable."
This article originally appeared in the Ventura County Reporter.
SEE IT: Anderson .Paak & the Free Nationals play Roseland Theater, 8 NW 6th Ave., with BJ the Chicago Kid and Dave B, as part of the Soul'd Out Music Festival, on Saturday, April 16. 7 pm. Sold out. All ages. For more Soul'd Out highlights, see our staff picks.