Anderson .Paak – Lockdown

At this point in his career and my fandom, I find that any singles, albums, or guest features that Anderson .Paak puts out are 100% gold.

Lockdown, the song he dropped last Friday, June 19 (Juneteenth), is more evidence to that statement. It’s a deliciously funky and soulful track with a righteous, rolling bass line groove that belies .Paak’s fiery, incisive lyrics supporting the #BlackLivesMatter demonstrations, speaking out on racism and white supremacy, police brutality, injustice, and reflecting on the intersections of those protests — this moment and movement — with the COVID-19 pandemic.

The accompanying video is notable for it’s visual power, the rage that doesn’t automatically come through in .Paak’s flow and smooth vocals, and how the video advances the full scope of .Paak’s political messages in the track. It’s also notable for a tight Jay Rock verse that is not included in the streaming version.

It’s heady, emotional, determined stuff set to a smooth beat, in the canon of Marvin Gaye protest music. While it might provide a sonic moment of respite and quiet in your protest playlist (set against RJT4, Public Enemy, Rage Against the Machine, etc.), it is no less a call to action from .Paak and a verbal fist raised in solidarity against that daily threatens his Black life.

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Free Nationals (feat. Mac Miller and Kali Uchis) – Time

Free Nationals released this track today and, um….there was no way I was going to post about anything else. Free Nationals (Anderson .Paak’s backing band and one of the best live soul/funk/R&B groups on the planet right now) + Kali Uchis (my top “I’m-not-a-huge-fan-of-pop-radio-R&B-but-I-love-her” female vocalist) + Mac Miller (his first posthumous release) = Awesomeness.

Even if it sounded bad I was going to tune into this track. But, of course, it sounds fantastic. Melodically tight out of the gate, with Kali Uchis singing the chorus backed by a strummed acoustic guitar, and then picking up 30 seconds in with a Free Nationals / Kelsey Gonzalez classic, butter-smooth, on-the-one bass line.

That bass groove drives the song forward, accented by glittering synth, electric guitar, and trumpet riffs and graced at the top with Uchis’s layered, slightly ethereal vocals. It cruises along at a steady, head-nodding clip…and then Mac Miller tucks in with his verse.

Man, I miss Mac Miller. I was oddly affected by his passing (which I wrote about last September) and so I feel conflicted hearing his familiar, distinctively raspy voice again. Happy to be vibing along to his vocals and amazing flow again, even as I know he’s no longer here and I’m listening to a single moment frozen in time. He raps:

“Look at me watering seeds, it’s time to grow / I get out of control when I’m alone”

Damn, Mac.

I found myself wondering how it must be for his family and close friends; the courage it must take them to allow Free Nationals to release this song with the subject matter of letting go of love, which is guaranteed to feel haunting and sad for them even as it is likely what he would have wanted and keeps his memory and legacy alive for the rest of us. Respect.

After another chorus and verse by Kali Uchis, the track shifts keys and winds down with horns and a warped fade. Front-to-back, this track is just one smooth, effortless, R&B groove. You don’t so much listen as you sink into it.

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Anderson .Paak — Winners Circle

In Anderson .Paak parlance, “Yes Lawd!” God dammit, this track is so slick.

Winners Circle hails from Anderson .Paak’s latest record, Ventura. Written at the same time as his November 2018, Dr. Dre-produced and now Grammy-winning album Oxnard, but released just three weeks ago in April, Ventura feels like an under-the-radar sleeper LP. Compared to the hype, anticipation, big build-up and media blitz that supported Oxnard (heightened by the real stylistic/artistic left turn it marked), Paak dropped Ventura with a whisper.

Fine by me. Keep it quiet. Because as much as I appreciate the energy and flash and sizzle of Oxnard (and respect Paak for stretching out a bit), I am much more down with the easygoing vintage vibe of Ventura.

Winner’s Circle showcases everything that Paak has going for him: A beast-mode band in The Free Nationals; a consistently strong sense of both beat and harmony, anchored in 70s funk and soul; a sing-song rap style that rides perfectly over a groove; and his trademark drumming chops and raspy vocals. The lyrics are relatively breezy, talking about the feelings of new love. But, it’s the killer groove and the shifting verses — each one slightly different — that drives this track. Gah, it’s so goooooooood!

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Mac Miller — 2009

Mac Miller died of an apparent drug overdose earlier this month, September 7. A month earlier on August 3rd, he released his latest album Swimming. On August 6, he played a fun, intimate, engaging set for NPR’s Tiny Desk Concert series. He was prepping for a North American tour on the new album. And, then he was gone.

Reports are that since Mac Miller’s passing, streaming numbers of his music have shot up 970% and seven of his past albums have entered (or re-entered) the Billboard 200 list. I am one of those contributing to the late Mac Miller’s skyrocketing streaming numbers.

I didn’t know about him until I heard he had died. Didn’t listen to his music; didn’t register the name. But, I started listening as I read tribute-after-tribute to him from artists I do know and that I respect. Black Thought; Childish Gambino; Kendrick Lamar; Anderson.Paak; Solange; Chance the Rapper; Vince Staples; Thundercat. They credited him for his clever, nimble wordplay. For his unconventional, but moving, singing voice. For his production and beat-making skills. For his authenticity and candor. And, to-a-person, for his kindness and sweetness — something I rarely hear so publicly and universally honored and applauded (in hip-hop, in music in general, or, frankly, in modern society).

The Meadows Music and Arts Festival, New York, USA - 02 Oct 2016

And, here’s the thing. I learned there is a reason I didn’t know about Miller or his career: he started out making music I did not — and still do not — like. Frivolous, frat-boy party rap. He released his first EP at age 15, his first LP in 2011 at age 19, came to fame in an MTV reality series following him as he tried to make it in LA, became involved in a well-publicized relationship and subsequent break-up with pop superstar Ariana Grande, and had well-documented (mostly by him) issues with sobriety and substance abuse.

All the while, over a 10-year career in music at a very young age, he matured in the spotlight — shedding that frat-boy rap that launched his career to make increasingly mature, introspective, artistically diverse records.

Those are the records that resonate for me and that he was making leading up to September 7 this year, none more so than his latest Swimming. It’s a sometimes joyful, mostly haunting record that grabs you and doesn’t let go. It continues to document his ongoing struggles with substance abuse. There is suffering mixed with optimism; funky, bouncing Thundercat-driven bass lines followed by Mac singing and rapping solo in a strained, fractured voice over spare, halting beats.

There are many standout tracks and you will be rewarded for listening (try Hurt Feelings and What’s the Use? to start) but I chose 2009 because it is a quiet depth-charge of a track where you can feel how real the struggle is/was for Miller.

I’d like to think that I would have stumbled at some point onto track, this record, and onto Mac Miller. But, would this song or his latest record sound the same or hit as hard were he still alive? Hard to know. Sad that all of us had to find out.