Anderson .Paak’s Quick Turnaround Yields Fun but Not Quite Stellar Results

Ventura is a flawed but ultimately electrifying piece of modern soul and yet another great addition to the ever growing Anderson .Paak catalog.

Anderson .Paak is a hip-hop/R&B artist from Oxnard, California. He debuted with a few notable underground projects in the early 2010’s, including the Cover Art EP which aimed to reclaim blues and R&B tracks written by black artists which were better known for being covered by white artists in the 1950’s. His breakthrough came first with 2014’s Venice, and then with his 2016 smash hit, Miami. The latter is a far more impressive release and brought to life the grooving, soul-funk style which set .Paak apart from the other members of his 2016 XXL Freshman Class. With his 2018 follow up, Oxnard, Anderson was launched into the stratosphere of modern music with what was largely regarded as one of the best albums of the year. Now, just a year later, he’s returned with Ventura, yet another groovy piece of Neo-soul mastery.

Eagle-eyed music fans will notice before they even hear a sound that the record has a fantastic lineup of features on nearly every track. While the vast majority of these are quite impressive, two stand about above the heap. Namely, the one and only André 3000’s tongue-twisting verse on the opener, “Come Home,” and Smokey Robinson’s silky presence on the follow up, “Make It Better.” In both instances, the features elevate the tracks to incredible heights.

Despite an incredible ensemble, Anderson still commands a leading presence across the project, and carries a few of the tracks alone. “Yada Yada,” is an absolute clinic in soul and funk vocals with .Paak’s rough sweetness burning through every line. “Chosen One,” however, would be entirely forgettable if not for the fantastic rap verse near the end with a few eye popping name drops and a fascinating flow. He’s really come into his own, and his work on this record is extremely exciting for longtime fans.

Beyond vocal performances, Ventura’s instrumentals are electrifying. Each cut features a massive pallet from an interesting mix of organic and electronic sources. “Reachin’ 2 Much” sees a foundation of thick bass guitar and thumping kick drums supporting howling synths and bombastic horn sections. “Winner’s Circle,” on the other hand pulls elements like skat singing and woodwind melodies and a hilarious opening sample.

The record is at it’s best however, when the entire band finds the somewhat intangible groove they seem to be searching for at all times. This happens to great effect on “Jet Black,” a track which is essentially carried by the groove and lacks the bells and whistles of other cuts. The album’s highlight, however, is the lead single “King James,” which is built on an undeniable beat and adorned with thoughtful, politically charged lyrics and a luscious saxophone. It’s here where Anderson is at his best.

I do, however, have a handful of complaints. The most consistent issue throughout is pacing. More than a few tracks drag on far longer than necessary and seem to go nowhere for the last half. “Good Heals,” on the other hand, is criminally short and feels extremely half baked.

The most frustrating shortcoming, though, is the way that Ventura absolutely limps through the finish line. The closing tracks, “Twilight,” and “What Can We Do?” Are both completely lifeless and unnecessary. The Nate Dogg feature on the latter is a nice touch, but the track itself feels like a lost, Nate Dogg B-side and is totally out of step with the rest of the record. It’s a shame, because the rest of the project is quite strong, and could’ve been brought home well.

That being said, Ventura is a success, overall. Once again, Anderson .Paak has come through with a unique brand of Neo-soul and funk that has the ability to excite fans young and old. His respect for the masters like Smokey and James Brown is palpable, but his rap background bring a unique spin.

Ventura is a flawed but ultimately electrifying piece of modern soul and yet another great addition to the ever growing Anderson .Paak catalog.

6/10

AMAZON LINK: https://amzn.to/2UbiiiB

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Pink Sweat$ Brings a Minimalist Take to R&B

Pink Sweats’ second EP, Volume 2, is intimate, well performed, and hopeful just a taste of excellent work to come.

Pink Sweats is a soul/R&B artist from Philadelphia. He debuted last year with his Volume 1 EP released on Human Re Sources Records. The project came from nowhere and caught fire after the smash success of the single, “Honestly,” which peaked at number 10 on Spotify. Sweats brings a unique brand of minimalistic, guitar driven R&B which is a refreshingly intimate flavor of the growing and fantastic scene, which tends toward the more luscious mixes. Now, just a few months later, he’s followed up with Volume 2.

The EP opens with “I Know,” which begins with an excellent, almost guitar riff ripped straight from the pages of the outlaw country songbook. When Pink’s vocals drop in, it’s a bit of a jarring change, but the groove of the track is immediately disarming. With a fantastic vocal performance, great guitar work, and very well used trap drums, this is easily the strongest cut on the list.

“Coke & Henny Pt. 1,” follows and it’s nearly as impressive. The percussion mixes in well placed vocal hisses and snaps that slice the mix in half. The acoustic guitar is perhaps the highlight as it never stops working, carrying the melody across the entire track. Overall, when listening to this track, I was most impressed by the wide array of influences as elements of artists like Kanye and Michael Jackson were extremely apparent.

Naturally, “Coke & Henny Pt. 2,” is next and this cut runs much more along the lines of a more by the numbers modern R&B track. This isn’t a bad thing in all respects. The vocal melody is excellent with a fantastic hook in the chorus, the dreamy production is a nice change up from Pt. 1, and the guitar work is, again, great. However, on a track like this, the minimalist style fails to capture much of what Pink Sweats is going for, and a more luscious pallet would be much appreciated from this point forward.

“Your Side,” while not the strongest track on the list, is an absolute blast. The many layers of delay and ambitious stereo image on the vocals makes Sweats feel almost larger than life and the staccato, acoustic guitar makes a great anchor. The lyrics leave a bit to be desired, but the upbeat groove and energetic lead vocals make up for this in spades. It certainly functions as a return to form from the preceding track as the minimalism is utilized quite well and makes for yet another enjoyable song.

“Body Ain’t Me,” closes this project out and it’s one of my favorites. As usual, the guitar sounds great and the production is tight. The record pops in the background are a bit frustrating, but I find them fairly easy to ignore. The real highlight of the cut is Pink Sweats’ vocals. He seems to sing with something to prove and whatever it was, he proved it. He’s tender and relatable on the verses, almost sleepy in a few low parts, and packs a surprisingly powerful punch in the chorus. Ultimately, it’s a great closer to yet another great EP.

All in all, Volume 2 is a success by virtually any measure. I don’t know that there’s a hit on the level of “Honesty,” but instead, we’re treated to five strong tracks, one after another, each unique and each building on the successes of its predecessor. The record leaves me content with another strong outing and most of all, it leaves me excited for a full length release.

Pink Sweats’ second EP, Volume 2, is intimate, well performed, and hopeful just a taste of excellent work to come.

4/5

AMAZON LINK: https://amzn.to/2UbiiiB

Chaka Khan’s Return Is Powerful and Fun

Hello Happiness is a legacy album to be proud of and a must listen for fans of funk and soul music’s heyday.

Chaka Khan is a funk and soul singer/songwriter from Chicago, Illinois. She debuted in the mid 1970’s with the band Rufus, winning her first Grammy in 1975 for their massive hit, “Tell Me Something Good.” The funk outfit went on to a fairly successful career with their 1977 LP, Ask Rufus going platinum and a few more reaching gold certification. Khan began working on her solo career in 1978 as Rufus was wrapping up. She was extremely prolific with eight releases by the end of the 80’s including her platinum hit, I Feel for You in ’84. Her output slowed a bit in the ’90’s and her final studio record to date, Funk This, released in 2007.

She’s known chiefly for her powerhouse voice which lead her to the top of the heap in terms of soul and funk vocalists of the 70’s. Having worked with the likes of Stevie Wonder and Ray Charles, she’s a certified legend of the genre, boasting more than 20 Grammy nominations and some fairly impressive sales. When she dropped her latest album in 2007, her sound was certainly getting old, and had all but fallen out of the zeitgeist. However, with the success of artists like Chance the Rapper and Kanye West bringing back a newfound passion for the funk and soul that characterized the mid 70’s, she’s found a niche in which to justify her first release in more than a decade, Hello Happiness.

This album’s most noticeable quality comes in the instrumentation. “Like A Lady,” features well played violins and an excellent bass line, while “Isn’t That Enough,” is built on a groovy, almost reggae inspired electric guitar and some fantastic drumming. Throughout the entire album, the bouncing, bass-heavy instrumentation is like a musical time capsule from the days of mid-70’s funk music in the best way possible.

On the other hand, there are several moments of modern, electronic brilliance mixed in for good measure. “Don’t Cha Know,” utilizes this well. While the heart and soul of the track is the heavily distorted guitar riff and excellent organ work, they’re interlaced with shimmering, futuristic atmospherics and looping samples that seems to bring the sound directly into the 21st century. It’s an interesting mix that give the album a unique feel.

The real highlight, however, is Chaka Khan’s show-stopping vocal performances. On tracks like my personal favorite, “Too Hot,” or the closer, “Ladylike,” all production and instrumental elements take a back seat as Khan’s iconic voice commands our ears. Most of the album is filled with very interesting melodies, all of which Khan absolutely knocks out of the park. It’s refreshing to hear such a strong voice still coming from one of the all time greats.

Where the album does fall short, it comes down to two elements. The first of these is production, where much of the tuning on vocals is far too treble heavy and seems to hiss at times. This can generally be ignored, but in a track like the opener and title track, where much of the instrumental features high pitched atmospherics, it becomes a bit grating. The track has a lot going for it, but this small issue makes it one of the weaker cuts on the album.

The only truly weak song on the record is “Like Sugar.” It falls in the latter half of the 30 minute runtime and it suffers most of all from the album’s most permeating shortcoming which is simply a lack of ideas. While each track is well made and performed, many of them seem repetitive and beg for just a bit more thought to be put into the songwriting portion. While other tracks commit this sin, “Like Sugar,” is the only time a song seems just completely devoid of ideas before even the half way point.

Overall, this is a solid outing. With this being Chaka Khan’s 23rd album, it would be all to easy for her to coast by on revisiting old hits and phoning in her performances. Instead, she delivers a tight, well-paced, and well performed collection of interesting new tracks that retain much of the magic of hear early work and even experiment with more modern elements.

Hello Happiness is a legacy album to be proud of and a must listen for fans of funk and soul music’s heyday.

6/10

AMAZON LINK: https://amzn.to/2Ei0GvW