Anderson .Paak's persistence has begun to pay dividends in the currency that matters most to him—creative freedom. The 31-year-old musician (né Brandon Park Anderson) who seemed to be everywhere last year didn't just appear out of nowhere. He has been developing his stew of neo-soul, funk, R&B, and hip-hop since he moved to Los Angeles from the suburbs of Ventura County, California, a decade ago with a vague notion of pursuing a career in music.
His experiences during those years—as a struggling young musician with a wife and child; as a protégé of Shafiq Husayn of the hip-hop group Sa-Ra Creative Partners; as an emerging talent in L.A.'s underground hip-hop/soul scene with his band the Free Nationals-all led him to the point where his artistry was solid enough to attract the attention of the godfather of West Coast rap, Dr. Dre. Paak was featured on six songs on 2014's Compton, Dre's first album in 16 years. With this, Paak broke through, receiving national attention and access to anyone on his wish list of collaborators.
His second studio album, Malibu (OBE), released early last year, is where the whole Anderson .Paak project magnificently cohered. He called upon hip-hop heavyweights such as 9th Wonder, Madlib, and Hi-Tek as producers, and Schoolboy Q, the Game, and Talib Kweli as featured MCs. The result is a collection of often strikingly personal songs that defy easy categorization but recall the music of genre-expanding soul artists like Stevie Wonder, Erykah Badu, and D'Angelo. The positive reviews for Malibu were immediate, and by the end of the year, it made seemingly every year-end list and earned Paak a 2017 Best New Artist Grammy nomination.
Riding this wave of creative and commercial success, Paak teamed up with the producer Knxwledge and, calling themselves NxWorries, released Yes Lawd! (Stones Throw Records) in October to more critical raves. As Paak tells his friend and fellow L.A. music experimentalist Flying Lotus (a.k.a. FlyLo), his aspiration as an artist has always been to be able to work without boundaries, "to be able to go in any room and put that shit in"—"that shit" being his unique sound. FlyLo assures him that he's already there.
FLYING LOTUS: I appreciate all of the hard work you've been putting in this year and how ever many years it's taken you to get to this point.
ANDERSON PAAK: Word up. It's coming at the end of the year now, and I have a little time to decompress and see all the shit that we did this year, so it's a really good blessing, man.
FLYLO: Are you at home? Are you in L.A.?
PAAK: I'm over here somewhere off of Barham [Boulevard]. I'm in the car right now, looking at this spot, trying to get a little studio space.
FLYLO: I didn't expect you to be in town. You've been traveling a bunch.
PAAK: Where you at?
FLYLO: I'm in L.A., man. I'm at home. At the crib sitting in my chair. My work chair.
PAAK: That's what's up.
FLYLO: Workin' every day, man. What is your ideal workspace? Are you able to make music on the road?
PAAK: You know, the way it's worked out for me is that I've had to kind of be able to work in whatever environment was possible. For a long time, I was working in different studios that weren't necessarily mine and just kind of working wherever I could.
FLYLO: Is that from working with Shafiq [Husayn] and that all back in the day?
PAAK: Exactly. From working in his studio, in his spots, and my homie Dumbfoundead's bedroom. A lot of people kind of took me in, like, "You're dope. You're talented. You can work in this spot and maybe help me out with this and that." We kind of traded from there. So I did a lot of that throughout the years and never even thought about, "What's an ideal situation for me to create in?"
FLYLO: That's awesome.
PAAK: So I actually just got my studio at the top of this year. And it's kind of weird to have my own space and to have the scene a little less chaotic and to feel like I'm not under pressure to get things done really quick. It is almost a little unsettling, so I've had to figure out what is that ideal situation, because I got comfortable working with my back against the wall. I've been really enjoying figuring out what kind of creative space I can get the most out of. I really do enjoy going out on the road and having experiences and meeting people, and then taking that inspiration while it's fresh and going and recording. So I can definitely do stuff while on the road spontaneously, but also being in a visually appealing spot helps me. So I've been really focused on that—just making sure whatever place I'm in is appealing to me. But honestly, man, I can get down anywhere. It's just if I'm not inspired per se by that spot, then I try to write down all of my thoughts and things that I find inspiring at the moment.
FLYLO: In the writing process, are you one of those people who are always writing lyrics and stuff, and then you find a place to put them, or do you only write when you hear a beat?
PAAK: I just write everything down that is inspiring at the moment, because even if it's just a sentence or a word or a situation that happened, with my writing, I am a fan of wit and clever ways to say simple things. So I feel like a lot of that stuff comes out in conversations.
FLYLO: Yeah, you need to remember that shit.
PAAK: Exactly. I try to write it down while it's there, and I can always go back when I'm in a session. If I get in a session with you and you play me some music and I'm like, "Damn, this is dope," I might think of something right on the spot, but then all of my steps will help me. It's like finding that first top line.
FLYLO: The opening, yeah.
PAAK: The way that we come in with it. So I have a lot of those in my notes. Like, "This is a dope scenario," or, "This is a dope phrase." Then I can bounce from there. I just try to write everything down, man, and sometimes I can get it the first time, but sometimes I go back and move things around and figure out different things.
FLYLO: You know what's funny? I heard the new A Tribe Called Quest record [We Got It From Here ... Thank You 4 Your Service] and was like, "This is a pretty solid record." And I heard it again a couple of nights ago, and I must've not heard that you were on there some, but I was like, "Anderson on this shit, too?!" I feel like there was no album that I cared about this year—well, maybe a couple—but there was, like, no album that I cared about that you weren't on. You made me feel pretty lazy this year.
PAAK: [laughs] Stop, bro.
FLYLO: But that's amazing. I totally feel your spirit and where you're coming from right now. I feel like you see it. You see all the potential in all the stuff, and you're just ready to get that. I respect that so much. I feel like you're one of those cats that's probably been waiting in the wings for so long, so you're like, "I'm getting after it."
PAAK: Exactly, man. Thank you. That's definitely what it is, man. It's been great for me because I got to spend a lot of time just absorbing, watching, and learning, and just kind of doing a lot of listening. I think that helped because, early in my career, I was doing a lot of emulating and maybe worried about what the next artist was doing. Now I'm really comfortable within my own skin and my own artistry.
FLYLO: It takes time, man. A lot of people don't realize that that's pretty much how everyone starts. They sound like somebody else for a while, and then they start finding things that are so uniquely them, and then they just go in on that shit. But you have a vibe, man. It's so cool to see that people like Tribe Called Quest and Schoolboy Q embrace you.
PAAK: It's a trip, man. When people were asking what I really wanted as an artist, I remember thinking that was exactly the thing, if anything, that I wanted. I always thought it was cool to be able to go in any room and put that shit in. There's no ceilings, no boundaries; it's free. Like someone like a Thom Yorke or Earl Sweatshirt, you know? I always really admire artists like that, who can work with anybody and it's still their unique sound. That was a big part of what I wanted to do.
FLYLO: Yeah, man, you're in there. So I wanted to know about The Free Nationals. I don't know if anyone ever told you, but I wrote this movie that was kind of inspired by Shafiq. It was originally called The Free Nationals.
FLYLO: And then it changed into Woke. But then Woke turned into a meme, so now I don't even know what to call it. [laughs] But tell me about that.
PAAK: At one point, I was his videographer and chauffeur, his assistant, his weed roller, his chef. In the short time that I was living with him, I picked up a lot of knowledge from that dude aside from just production and writing, a lot of historical stuff. I was part of putting his band together when he was doing Shafiq En' A-Free-Ka . After the album came out and I was putting the band together, we'd have rehearsals and learn a lot about the Free National movement [an offshoot of the Moorish Science Temple of America, in which adherents, Moorish Nationals, believe they are sovereign citizens]. When we transitioned into doing more of my stuff, I knew that I wanted to name my band Free Nationals because I wanted to carry that concept over to "We are a band that is indigenous to funk, R&B, and soul music. We're native to that." You know, because a lot of people would try to put labels on what I do: "Is he a rapper? Is he singing?" Nah, the Free Nationals. We are free, and we've been doing this for years, and if not me, then my ancestors have been, and we don't have to abide by any of the standard labels.
FLYLO: I really like NxWorries, man. It's dope.
PAAK: Thank you, man.
FLYLO: I like y'alls chemistry. It made me feel like the good ol' Stones Throw's Madvillain days for some reason. How's it working with Knxwledge?
PAAK: Oh, man. It had its ups and downs for sure. I think I'm learning how to be less of a control freak. But me and Knxwledge are probably opposite, so it's really great working with him.
FLYLO: Is that why you guys are walking in different directions on the cover [of the EP Link Up & Suede]?
PAAK: [laughs] Straight up, dude! It's like, you read about a lot of producers that are introverts, and Knxwledge is one of them. He's a little more comfy, but he's very much into his own thing and his own world, and I love that about him. He doesn't put on a face for nobody. He is who he is, and it's very refreshing for me to work with somebody like that. That was my first project doing a whole project with one producer, so it was great for me. I think it was one of my more cohesive pieces of work.
FLYLO: I wish more artists would do that sort of thing—just focus on one sound on a record instead of "Here's my club banger, here's my metro booming track, and then here's my Americana song." I like albums to feel like a world. That's just me. That's what I really appreciated about that record. It had a world.
PAAK: That was very important to me because, with Knxwledge, I wanted it to have a wide range, but there was a great balance to have that cohesive sound with Knxwledge and a sound that was almost like a pre-homage to the old Stones Throw tradition. We both really expanded that.
FLYLO: Now it's almost 2017. Whatever happened to the album you made that you gave me when we met the first time? You came by my house and you gave me a record that was all kind of live sounding.
PAAK: Some of that stuff is on Malibu. After the whole thing with Dre happened, I ended up putting together a mesh of that album and newer stuff. And I got some stuff from 9th [Wonder] and Hi-Tek and ended up making a melt of those two. But a lot of that stuff I gave you I just held on to. You know, those moments of the time when things were simpler and you were hungry and life was different, when you were depressed and were walking everywhere-a lot of stuff was created at those times, and I really hope I can go in there and get to those songs. I love holding on to those and inserting them into future projects. It can be easy to jerk away from that, from where I was at that point, and I don't want to do that.
FLYLO: Yeah, man. Isn't that a tough thing? Like, as your life goes on, you have to always remember the struggle and how hard life is and always be connected to that person who was, like, still hungry as fuck. Right now, it's probably no thing for you, but you have to remember why you love it sometimes.
FLYLO: So what do you dream about anyway?
PAAK: At some point, I was so caught up in the Anderson .Paak artistry and finally getting ready to shine and wanting to make it happen, and going for gold and all this stuff. But what I'm thinking about now is like, "What's beyond this? What do you want to do beyond you? What are things you want to get into that can help create a platform?" Kind of like what you do with Brainfeeder [FlyLo's music label and film company], which I've never been really in the position to do before. But now I'm always thinking about that with my band the Free Nationals; I've been getting their album together and seeing their potential, what they can do as a group, and making sure they're all straight. And I got a little son. I really see visions of him doing his thing, man. I have dreams of him being older and being something that I could never even fathom because I just catch stuff already and I'm just like, "I need to hurry up and get out of the way." I don't have a whole lot of time. I'm putting a lot of time into this artistry, but any time I'm with him, it brings me back to this, "Wow, dude, it's about to be you. You're about to really do this thing." Beyond myself, how can I help put these people in a position to live out their dreams because, honestly, I'm so wrapped up right in Anderson .Paak every day. You know, I've never been one for sports, but with this music thing, I feel like I have the same kind of work ethic that athletes put into their professions.
FLYLO: Yeah, totally. You have to be obsessed with this shit in order to really be able to do it on the level that you want to be at. There's no way you can get in and secure a spot ... You have to be fuckin' mad—people don't even realize. And you have a kid, man, which is even crazier to be able to do all of this stuff. But it's like it has to be Anderson .Paak world, Anderson .Paak bubble. It has to be for it to even happen, you know?
FLYLO: But I think our time is coming to an end here. Is there anything you want to say about next year?
PAAK: Yeah, I'm just looking forward to getting over there and making music with you and checking out more virtual-reality porn and getting out in that pool.
FLYLO: [both laugh] Yeah, man. Any time. We'll speak soon. Be good. Peace.
FLYING LOTUS, NÉ STEVEN ELLISON, IS AN L.A.-BASED MUSIC PRODUCER, DJ, RAPPER, AND FILMMAKER. HIS DIRECTORIAL DEBUT, KUSO, PREMIERED AT SUNDANCE IN JANUARY.