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All In A Day’s Work: The Anderson Paak EP

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Anderson Paak should’ve blown up the minute he and producer LO_DEF decided to take what could’ve been a rote club track and attack it with fevered punk energy. “Drugs” is a whirlwind of a song — easily one of last year’s best singles — that culminates with Paak shouting the chorus at the top of his lungs while the beat threatens to destroy your sound system. If Drake and iLoveMakonnen had 2014’s club scene going up while sounding like they were about to slip into a codeine coma, then Paak was about to raze that club to the ground.

But “Drugs” didn’t become the smash hit it should have, and Anderson Paak was forced to wait out another year before making waves. Commercial viability in the music industry has nothing to do with making commercially viable music. It is, instead, about artists getting on the good side of people who can take them places.

But when the stars finally aligned for Paak, they did so in the grandest possible fashion as none other than Dr. Dre took an interest in the West Coast R&B singer. More surprisingly, however, Paak didn’t merely receive a cosign, but a co-starring role in one of the most unexpected and important rap records of the last few years: the Doctor’s own Compton.

Credited and not, Paak lent his strained but nimble vocals to the majority of the album’s tracks. And whether contributing momentary overdubs or outright stealing the show (as he did on one of Dre’s best ever tracks, “Animals”), he killed it left and right.

Having skyrocketed to the top of the heap of up-and-comers seemingly poised to do something big, Paak strikes while the iron is hot with a self-titled collaborative EP with producer Blended Babies. It’s a release that keeps things relatively low-key — nothing here is going to set the charts on fire. The project does, however, continue to build up Paak — who previously went by the alias Breezy Lovejoy and collaborated with hacks like Watsky — as a seriously skilled songwriter who’s now more than equipped to come up with something truly special.

The first two of the EP’s four track see Paak picking up where Compton left off, trading verses with guest MCs while adeptly slinking through bright, West Coast style instrumentals. Unlike Compton, however, the features here aren’t particularly awe-inspiring. Cleveland MC King Chip, best known for basically nothing, simply comes and goes on “So Slow.” Though it must be said that Asher Roth, while still an undeniable cornball, shows up with a sweet, funny, and focused verse on “Make It Work.”

But it would take a lot of charisma to match up with Paak who — with features coming up on The Game’s Documentary 2 and Madlib’s Bad Neighbor — seems destined for regional stardom on the West Coast, at the very least. Still sounding like he narrowly escaped drowning during the skit on Dr. Dre’s “Deep Water,” Paak impressively navigates “Make It Work” in a hoarse cadence, employing a swung-time melody and cleverly giving love song lyrical cliches an artsy tinge: “I fell in love with your word / It seems like you’re worth it / I really love when it’s earned.”

After that comes “Drifter II,” which exhibits an incredibly compelling experimental edge. Before the song’s outro, Paak offers exactly four bars of poppy catharsis. Between that come quiet reflections on the ups and downs of the freedoms that come with adulthood, all over a guitar lick so amorphous and muddy that it’s almost atonal.

The finale, “Cheap Whiskey 70’s Riesling,” is far and away the EP’s best track, and stands up there with some of James Fauntleroy and Miguel’s recent material as some of this year’s greatest straight-up R&B. Those same aqueous guitars return, but this time churn out a sliding riff that’s much more intelligible. Despite making fairly accessible music, Paak rarely lets a song slip by without hitting you with a bolt of somber reality, and some of his lyrics here are especially haunting. Hearing him talk about his seemingly troubled relationship with his father, singing “Your blood is running all in me,” only for him to reverse the same image to spotlight his own demons moments later (“Cheap whiskey’s running all in me”) is as clever as it is disquieting. After about a minute-and-a-half, the beat dies down only to lurch back to life with a foggy, bass-heavy new instrumental in the vein of Dilla or Madlib. Climactic synths and guitars are the perfect accompaniment to Paak’s final verse, which delves even deeper into his relationship with his parents. And yet again, he turns his previous lyrics on their heads, singing “If papa could see me / We’d probably share a toast over 70’s riesling.”

With these tonal shifts, Anderson Paak seems to intentionally bar us from a full understanding of his story. And in the context of a short, four-track EP, that’s fine with me. If anything, it builds my anticipation something more substantial project even higher. Having already collaborated with some of the biggest names in hip-hop — Dr. Dre, DJ Premier, Ice Cube, Eminem, Kendrick Lamar, The Game, and Madlib — and brimming with natural talent of his own, Paak could pull off something truly great whenever he comes through with a full-length project.

Fingers crossed.