A nasty El Nino-fueled storm has just made landfall in Malibu, and it’s washing red slurry across the Pacific Coast Highway as a sleek black BMW heads south. Anderson Paak is dry inside, sunk into a leather seat, but the drive reminds him of leaner times. It barely has been a year since he had to wake at 5 a.m. every Sunday and make the 60-mile drive back up this road so he could earn some rent money drumming at his hometown church in Oxnard. On the drive, he would daydream about a far-off time like now.
“I put a list together,” he recalls. “It was like: Get health insurance, get a car, get a bigger apartment, travel more, get a record deal, get a publishing deal, sell 10,000 units, be a part of a No. 1 album, make a million dollars. I got to check off 90 percent of the stuff last year. I hit some serious landmarks in 2015.”
The 29-year-old singer-songwriter-instrumentalist born Brandon Paak Anderson, whose style hybridizes gut-wrenching soul howling and rappish sing-speak, doesn’t have much need for such resolutions entering 2016. Last night he was in the studio with Travis Barker. Before that it was T.I. He recently recorded with Macklemore and has plans to link with Kendrick Lamar. It all began last spring, when an Aftermath A&R rep called Paak in to sing over a beat for an unnamed Dr. Dre project. He was skeptical — Dre’s Detox album-that-never-was had become an industrywide symbol of unfulfilled promises, after all. But when he got to the studio, the G-funk legend was there, ready to hear the song that earned Paak the invite.
“I was like, ‘Oh, shit — Dre hasn’t heard ‘Suede’ yet,’ ” says Paak, referring to the woozy viral hit (more than 1 million SoundCloud listens and nearly as many YouTube plays) by his NxWorries duo with producer Knxwledge. “I’m thinking he might just cut it off and walk out the room; he’s notorious for that. But he started bobbing his head, then says, ‘Play that again.’ And he cranked it, bro — I mean, it hurt my ears. After the third time, he was like, ‘All right. Let’s work.’ “
The demo Paak went in for wound up on Dre’s Compton album (No. 1 on Top R&B/Hip-Hop Albums, with a Grammy nom for best rap album, too), as did seven other songs sporting his raspy pipes, including standout solo track “Animals,” which he had written with DJ Premier for a solo release. But after stealing the spotlight on Compton, Paak still has got enough to go around: On Jan. 15, he will release his excellent second LP, Malibu (Steel Wool/OBE/Art Club), with guest stars as diverse as Schoolboy Q, The Game, Talib Kweli and jazz keyboardist Robert Glasper, and a hip-hop dream team of producers including underground icons 9th Wonder, Hi-Tek and Madlib (also an Oxnard native). There will be a NxWorries full-length in 2016 too, on esteemed indie label Stones Throw. “My Wikipedia page is looking crazy,” says Paak with a smile.
“I’m just now finding out how young Anderson is — I thought he was much older,” says Kweli, 40. “When I hear his music, I hear an old soul, someone who has a deep well of musical knowledge. It’s a classic sound.”
Paak takes pride in the fact that he intersects Los Angeles musical circles that typically don’t overlap, from gangsta rap to underground to Odd Future (he toured with Earl Sweatshirt in 2015). He named his 2014 debut Venice for the boulevard that cuts a long swath through the city’s disparate neighborhoods, and his new album is a sequel of sorts. “I was exploring a lot of sounds then, trying to find what’s unique to me,” says Paak. “Malibu is the maturation of that. It’s where we were going — it’s a destination.”
The journey has been far from easy. He recalls one of his worst days, when he was 7, and his estranged father, a former Air Force mechanic, returned home: “My little sister and I went out front, and my pops was on top of my mom. There was blood in the street. He was arrested, and that was the last time I saw him. I think he did 14 years.” Then, shortly after starting his senior year of high school: “I got a call in class: ‘They arrested your mom today.’ ” She pled guilty to defrauding investors of millions using her produce distribution company, then went away to prison for seven years.
For a decade, Paak bounced around among family’s houses, friends’ couches, odd jobs and sporadic music gigs (his early stuff is credited to Breezy Lovejoy). He changed diapers at a home for the developmentally disabled, bagged groceries at Ralph’s, tried culinary school, got married, had that annulled, got married again and had a son, Soul, who’s now 5. Life began to normalize when he got work at a legal pot farm in Santa Barbara, but in 2011 he was unexpectedly let go and, soon after, became homeless.
“We had nowhere to go. I had my whole family in a U-Haul,” says Paak, as the BMW passes the Santa Monica pier. “We had a little bit of money left from the few shows I’d done and the little bit of weed we could sell, but we’d exhausted all our options.”
After a stint at a Chinatown motel, Paak finally found his family a permanent home, thanks to a tour drumming gig with American Idol finalist Haley Reinhart. Three years later, on Malibu, he doesn’t shy away from the grit in his past, but the story he tells is as colorful as it is hopeful. After all, the drama he deals with today is comparatively mild. Paak remembers a night working on Compton when Dre had the team scrambling to find the perfect recording of an ocean wave. “I thought everyone was going to get fired,” he recalls. To the contrary: Paak lets it slip that they’re working on more music together.
This story originally appeared in the Jan. 23 issue of Billboard.