Anderson .Paak on How Fatherhood Saved His Life, Building Confidence as an Artist & Smiling Through Dark Times

Katie Spoleti
Anderson .Paak

It's really hard to ignore Anderson .Paak's pearly smile. As he walks toward the Billboard photo booth on a chilly December morning, he peers through the curtains and stares at the 10-foot contraption with a child-like fascination. Inside the room are a series of lights and microphones, which he later grabs and yells emphatically, "Yes Lawwd!" while posing for a picture for his photographer. The large and lustrous room quickly becomes his playground, as he morphs into an infectious ball of energy, zapping everyone with his zeal and charm. 

For the 32-year-old hyphenate, why wouldn't he be in a jolly mood this holiday season? Last month, he doled out his junior effort, Oxnard, the third release from his revered beach series, which includes his 2014 album, Venice, and his magnum opus, Malibu. The 2016 album not only helped .Paak bolt his way to the top of every publication's year-end list, but also made his peers salivate at the chance of working with him. Considering there's a dearth of musicians who can rap, sing, play various instruments and produce, someone like Anderson .Paak is a much-needed anomaly in the hip-hop sphere. 

On Oxnard, .Paak nabbed appearances from Kendrick Lamar, J. Cole, Pusha T, Q-Tip and Dr. Dre, who has proven to be an elusive figure the last couple of years in music. Not only was .Paak able to grab the good doctor for a poignant verse on "Mansa Musa," but he also had him serve as the project's executive producer, a feat that was once a mere pipe dream for the Aftermath protégé. "I just knew that nobody could do me like me," says .Paak in regards to his early beginnings with Dr. Dre. "By the time I got to Dre, all I had been doing was making music, going in and out of studios, writing and developing my own sound. And when they called me to come in, they wanted me to just do me."

.Paak's diligence paid off as Oxnard dashed its way to No. 11 on the Billboard 200 during its opening week, a vast improvement from Malibu's No. 79 entry in 2016. In addition to his success on the charts, .Paak has also been able to showcase his prowess as a live performer on bigger platforms, most notably Saturday Night Live , where he served as the show's musical guest last week. Not only did his action-packed set include him on the drums, but he also brought out Kendrick Lamar for an electric version of "Tints." 

Billboard sat with .Paak to discuss his new album Oxnard, developing confidence as an artist, working with Dr. Dre on "Mansa Musa," how fatherhood saved his life and being able to smile through both the good times and bad. 

You told EW that this album is "Anderson .Paak with some "big ass brass cajones." Elaborate on that statement. 

Aftermath is like so aggressive and and Dre's sound is so hard-hitting. And I did this album with Dre, you know? It's like one producer -- one main producer guiding the whole project. And myself, I usually lead produce all my records even if I work with a lot of people. On this one I'm working with Dre. So it's like the sound is like times three. Big level.  You can't just take Dre any old song and make it some like, "Oh Dre, I want to make like a lo-fi song." He's not going to go for it. Everything's crispy, highest level. The last album we did, we just did like in a closet [with] broken mics. We didn't have shit. And now we have crazy like studio, SSO boards. This shit is just like balls dragging on the floor.

You always talk about how when you're in the studio with Dre, your sessions are usually off-the-wall experiences. With Oxnard, what chances did you guys take musically that you didn't take on Venice or Malibu?

Mad chances. I'm speaking patois on one song. Like mad chances I'm talking about. Mainly, the biggest things with this was like a lot of rapping on this album, so that was one of the things that we didn't do as many "soul" or like soul R&B songs that people maybe would expect that we would do. Maybe like but right away you can tell from the first song, it's really more ambitious and bigger produced from the first song in. And we did a lot of collaborations with the backgrounds and even with writing too with the vocalists. I use a lot of background vocalists where it wasn't my own backgrounds with Kadhja, Coco, BJ [the Chicago Kid] , SiR. You know I wanted my voice to be a little jagged leaf in a bed of roses. So that was it.

It's funny you mention BJ because one of my favorite tracks from the album is "Sweet Chick." You and him have proven to have great chemistry together as shown on "The Water(s) and "Sweet Chick." Have y’all entertained the idea of doing something on a bigger level?

Yeah, we have before. Everyone you collaborate with and have a good chemistry with you always talk about, "Man. We're going to do an album one day, this and that." It's like everybody just got their own tours and their own albums that they're working on, but hopefully if the time is right we can do something. But we just keep making records together all the time, you know? This was like making the album with him. He was always around when I needed him. Like, "Yo B, can you just do the highs on this part, could you do backgrounds, or can you do this song? And then he'd lay his verse. Him, SiR, it was like having a little mini group Boyz II Men, you know?

That would be a dope group. [Laughs]

Except none of us know how to harmonize with each other. [Laughs] We're all lead singers singing over each other. Nah, but I was sitting down like, "Damn we need to make like a boy-band."

On "Sweet Chick," I thought it was funny how you break down the different types of women you'd want to spend time with. With the holidays coming up, if you can Christmas with either your sweet chick, lazy chick, gamer chick, gangsta chick, or Yoga chick, which one would you pick and why?

When the holidays coming, you have tell everyone you need time for yourself. You don't have to buy any gifts, it's cheaper. You just need break time at that point. New Year you can say, "I'm focusing on myself." And then top of the year, you ease it back it in. Get with maybe the yoga chick, get in shape and then progress from there. But definitely before December, you've got to start breaking it off.

That's funny. I want to go back to Dre because you said something interesting in an interview with The Guardian in 2016. You said at the time if Dre had called five years ago, you don't think you would have been ready. At what moment did you realize you were ready to partner up with Dre, because I can imagine the combination of jitters, but also confidence you needed in order to work with him.

I was just confident in myself. I just knew that nobody could do me like me. By the time I got to Dre, all I had been doing was making music, going in and out of studios, writing, and developing my own sound. And when they called me to come in, they wanted me to just do me. It wasn't like, "Yo. We want you to write a verse for Dre or we want you to sound like this person or anything like that." I had just been doing my thing, so when they heard my song they were like, "Damn. We want you to do that." And I was like, "Okay, that's me. I could do me." So it was just about executing at that point, and all I had been doing before that was doing me, so it wasn't hard, it wasn't like a stretch. I had to get over those jitters but I was confident in what I could do at that point. 

What I mean by like five years before that? A, I wasn't confident in what I could do, B, I would've been just shook just being in the same room with Dre, not being able to get over that, you know what I'm saying. Not being able to get over the fact that he's an amazing producer and he's Dr. Dre. That was something. I wasn't all the way out of that by the time I got to hear him record. I was like, "Woah. I'm in here with Dr. Dre," but it was a little more easier for me to go into it. And it's just like going into your 30s you're just like, "I don't give fuck. I'm just me now." I don't care. If these dudes don't feel it, whatever. I just love myself now.

I know you had to feel like a kid on Christmas day watching Dre lace the vocals for "Mansa Musa."

Yeah! We had another song that couldn't get cleared and we were all heartbroken. I spent all this time trying to make the song work, making him like it. It was a song that didn't make the album. And at first, he really loved it, but then we had to change the beat, so then we had to go through all these different beats. And I finally got him to like this one and then last minute he was like, "I'm not feeling this one."

Then I went to the studio, and we worked on it. And I left the studio, came back, and when I came back, he was all like smiling and stuff. And I was like, "What the hell are you smiling about?" And he played the song, and he had already laid his verse. I was like, "What!?" That had never happened where he had already laid it before I got there. So I was tripping out like, "Okay, you feeling some type of way, alright." So I lay in my verse, and then that was "Mansa Musa." Coco was on the other song that couldn't make it, so I was kind of like, "Dang man." That was going to be like Coco's joint because she had been helping so much with the album too. So I was trying to get one where she could really showcase her talents too. And she was already on that one too. So it worked out.

I love the contrast with "Smile/Petty" with how the first half is jazzy R&B and then you just break into some lively funk track on the second half. 

Yeah, there's like instances on the album where right when I'm getting really outlandish and out of pocket, there's a female that comes in and is like, "Nah!" So that's just like my whole life. So that's a part of this album. I was just figuring out how to keep that theme. And I had "Smile" for awhile. I had that during even like Venice era and I just didn't know what to do with it. I remember playing it for Dre early on and he really liked it. So I was just trying to figure out what to do with that. And we wanted to make a switch-up and then I did the other record "Petty"  and just when I was going through the playlist, I had so many different versions of the album before I got it to Dre. And I was just playing with it and hearing it with all the different songs. 

I just morph those together and I was like, "Oh, this is cool. It's like a vibe." And then it just stuck like that. And then the album just went it's own way from there, but a lot of times, I'll have all the songs and I'll throw them in the Ableton and I just start like, "What does this one sound like?" I'll check the tempos of every song see if I can combine some that make sense with each other. And that one is kind of telling the story. It's like conversation or ideas starts off one way where someone thinks they want a free relationship [like] "go ahead do your thing," but obviously they're not cool with it. It's like, "why would you tell me that if you're not cool with it?" It cuts to like boom, she's throwing his stuff out. 

I felt that in my heart when you mentioned the girl throwing bleach in the laundry bag. I was praying that wasn't a personal experience for you.

I never really dated girls like that, but everyone around always likes crazy ass girls like that. I mean I date crazy girls that like scratch you, punch you and stuff. But never no one that will damage your stuff, scratch my car. But Jose, my best friend, that's all his life, so that's for him, all the girls he dated. Both of those songs. His misery is my inspiration.

You mentioned how "Smile" was a record dating back to the Venice era. How do you know which records to tap back into after having them in your possession for such a long period of time? I would think your creativity has heightened since, so why go back to something old. 

Yeah, but some stuff I still like. Some stuff I'm still feeling it.  Like sometimes I'm like, "Damn. I wish I could get to that level again when we were doing it like that." I love it. We  just create so much that sometimes the world has to catch up to yo and it's just the right timing for some of them. Some of them it's just too early, might not be ready for it, I'm not ready to release it, but I know it's good, but it just doesn't work with this project. So I'm like, "it'll be something for this. I’ma just hold on to it. Maybe somebody wants a song for something, some occasion or movie or Formula One. You never know. You've just got to keep shit in the tuck sometimes.

Earlier you said you recalled how you used to record inside of closets and how now you record in big studios. Do you miss the grit and grind days where you had to go harder because you weren't were you wanted to be? 

​Everyday is a grind still, it's just a different type of grind now. The only thing now is we have less time to get shit cracking and it's bigger -- more eyes now. It's always been like that, but now it's even more magnetized. Every year, every project it gets more. That's the goal, you want it to get more and more intense. And now everyday is more of a grind, but now it's like a mental, physical [battle]. It's like all these different things now as opposed to before where you don't really have those many eyes on you. You don't have access to many things to get your dreams out there or what you're feeling in your head. So it's more of a struggle,  But you still got to grind and you've got to grind harder now to keep it because now it's about keeping it. Keeping it and making it better each year. I don't miss none of it. It ain't stopped. [Laughs]

In an interview with Rolling Stone, you cited Blueprint, College Dropout, and The Documentary as inspirations for Oxnard. In what ways do you feel each project played its part in the making of of this album. 

I just love how all those artists felt like that was their moment to express and like you said, stretch out, show their range, work with the top-notch producers. That was really one thing too. Working with the people they want to work with. In Blueprint you have Kanye and Just Blaze and Bink!. All these people were just coming out. And on Oxnard I feel like a lot of the producers on this record are going to be just like huge-er than they are now. Outside of Dr. Dre, you've got Mel who is just like the next generation on Aftermath. You've got J Pounds, another one who's next generation Aftermath. And you've got the Free Nationals that are stepping into their own, bringing in their own production  and  playing like they've always done too. And then you've got J. Mo -- who I produced a lot of the foundation of the album like "Brother's Keeper" and "The Chase" and all these different songs with he plays guitar and bass --  and he was stepping into his songwriting thing too. So I felt lucky and blessed to be able to work with a lot of these producers like at this time where it's kind of early it felt like, but some of the best material.

You highlighted earlier how you felt the need to rap more on this album. With that being said, which verse was your most personal favorite and why? 

They say there's nothin' you can do about it
Can't say that I'm new to sorrow
Wishin' I could take your problems
Trade 'em for a little more time wit'chu
Carry you out the bottom, the weight of the world, I got it
Sprouted wit'chu on my shoulder, the greatest honor to know ya
I'd gotta be honest wit'cha, I hate you ain't in the picture
I hate all them fake n----s claimin' like they gon' really miss ya
I know there's no one to blame and maybe the point that I'm missin'
But I needed a minute, just give me a minute.

That verse on "Cheers" had to give you chills. 

I just like how that song flows. It's like where everything I felt at the time was coming out in a fluid motion and everything was cool. It wasn't nothing try hard. And I got to really say what I was feeling, even stuff that I didn't even know just all came out. And I like how it meant something to me personally, but the way it was written, it could be for anybody that may be missing someone or something. I like that whole song.

On the same track you said, "Wishing I still had Mac with me/ but how do I tell a n---a slow it down when you living just as fast as em." Does that hurt of not him only passing, but knowing you couldn't do anything to help still linger inside of you?"

I mean, I just miss him. I just miss him. So it's like that's all I'll say. It's like you just miss having your friend around. It's rare that you get a real friend in the business, period, at this age. When you're meeting people, it's like everybody is trying -- it's like  a mutual working thing. You're meeting new people because they have something to offer. That's the whole reason why you're in a relationship. 

But when I met Mac, it was like he didn't want nothing from me, I didn't want nothing from him. We're really talented people that work together, but also too, it was like, "Dang, that's the homie." Hit him up, tell him what happened and I'ma laugh about some shit. And there's only a few people we have like that. A lot of people you have like that, they've been with you for a minute. And so when we met, it felt like we'd known each other for a minute. So that's just the most thing that hurts. You miss your friend.

What's your fondest memory of him that you cherish to this day. 

Every time we met up, it was like a story. I mean whether we were playing in arenas in Paris or eating pigeons in Paris. Letting him borrow my shirt before he went on stage. Or when he was pissed when we were in South America and his stage was side stage where everyone was like, "Oh, they put you on a side stage. Damn, bro." And like mad shit. And one of the last times we hung, when he played me his whole album, how proud he was about his album, I was like begging to get on like, "Let me get to sing the hook." He's like, "Nah, man. You can sing background. That's it." But yeah every time I was with him or talked to him, it was something funny he was saying.

With everything you've been through in regards to your parents and just growing up, how do you always manage to keep a smile on your face? You always have a certain lightness in your step. 

I think the smile is just a natural thing for me. I could be pissed and still be smiling. But I just find a lot of humor in a lot of things even when I'm mad. It's just like the humor gets darker. Just like you said, just been through heavy things. A lot of people that have been through heavier stuff, they know that it's not always the end of the world. But you know, I could get real dramatic too and get pissed and cranky just like any other person, but I just carry a smile.That's just me. I'm not faking that. It's hard for me to do other stuff, but it's just natural for me to crack a smile at certain things or find the humor, or find the beauty in certain things. I don't know. That's just naturally me.

With you growing up in a church, how do you maintain your faith with the vices that the music industry offers?

I wouldn't consider myself religious. And the only real discipline I think have is I don't eat beef and pork. I'm like a pescatarian. I'm a family man. I've got my kids, got my wife. I go back home take care of the kids and don't completely abandon my responsibilities. Other than that, I'm pretty crazy. I just stay up, I do my music. I'm not praying five times a day. I have few things that I'm really disciplined in, but I'm trying to get better at everything and get more tighter on everything. It's definitely hard to keep that, but honestly, it's like your other half, like my better half -- my wife, my family that's the purest part of my whole situation. My kids, my wife she holds it down. She's that other half that is praying, keeping it tight, not going out, not drinking and smoking and being out here on Instagram jumping in other dudes DMs, fucking around half naked going crazy. That's the balance. 

Has fatherhood shaped you as an overall artist?

Just as an overall human, just as a person. It just saved my life, just not living for self alone and having something bigger than yourself to live for. People don't really understand the concept until they understand it. A lot of people don't even know how to deal with children or empathy or how to care for someone, and that's what happened to me. I had to get up out of that when I started to see that everything I do affects my son, affects my wife. It's like, "Dang, OK. You've got to really get up on your grind if you really want this life or yourself. Make it happen, they deserve better, you deserve better." So everything switched in me. That was just in my gut. A lot of people they run from it. That's probably more common but that's just not how I was raised.

You're a big James Brown fan and have previously expressed how you loved that era. If you can go back and be an artist in any era whether's the '70s, '80s, or '90s, which one would you choose and why? 

I don't get to pick the '60s? 

I mean, it was pretty rough in the '60s. [Laughs]

Yeah, it was [Laughs]. I would say '70s, for sure. Just like, the music was a little more fine. People was a little more free love, racism is a little toned down, a little bit. And it's just like, yeah man, the funk was alive. I feel like, "Damn, man. We would've been killing it." Drumming and singing, they really would've understood that concept. It would have been a no brainer. For sure. So yeah, I think the '70s would have been fun, man.