.Paak brings the “Fire” on new “Shang Chi” soundtrack

It’s been an absolute joy to me watching the continued rise and success of musician Anderson .Paak. The Oxnard, California native hit the jackpot especially hard this year, largely due to his gold medal-level collaboration with Bruno Mars in their new band Silk Sonic. Debut single “Leave the Door Open” has been all the rage in 2021, possessing a popularity watermark that made the song almost Tik Tok-levels of unavoidable at its peak.  

The duo continues to take their time releasing a full LP (second teaser “Skate” dropped in July), but in the meantime .Paak has kept busy. The rapper, singer, music video director, drummer and jack of all trades makes his latest appearance on the big screen with a song that’s part of the soundtrack for Marvel’s recently released superhero film Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings.

Courtesy of Google

“Fire in the Sky” isn’t just some unused session track here to fill time either. 88rising, a record label largely devoted to Asian and Asian American musicians, was brought in to curate the LP; creating a melding flow of artists like Jhene Aiko and NIKI with Marvel’s first tentpole flick that’s primarily focused on Asian and Asian American actors. A similar method was employed for Marvel’s Black Panther; rapper Kendrick Lamar executive produced the effort with a specific vision meant to pay homage to the culture and tones of each moment. 

Shang Chi skillfully paints with a similar brush, using the soulful vibe of .Paak’s wide-grinned musical optimism just as Shang-Chi’s credits roll. And, like so many of his features or one-off appearances on various projects, he always knows just how to hit center stage’s sweet spot. Kicking in with a blissfully hazy piano in a gentle cloud of guitars, .Paak raps, drums and sings with all the rhythm of a buzzed romantic high on another human, sticking out his chest, shooting his shot, and making that lightning rod first connection. 

“Fire in the Sky” is aptly named as its all the sensation of looking at a post-storm horizon, bright swatches of color emerging in wild, intricate streaks of hope after a dark and lost night. Bruno Mars is credited as a contributor/lyricist for the song, which makes sense as its warm throwback vibe sounds right next-door to the Silk Sonic creatives. At the end of the day it all boils down to this one simple point (something I knew well already) .

PAAK DON’T MISS! 

If You Don’t Yet Know Silk Sonic, “Leave The Door Open” For This Supergroup

It’d be wrong to start picking off the cobwebs on OTBEOTB without acknowledging… well, this.

This, AKA Silk Sonic, AKA Bruno Mars and Anderson .Paak, AKA the Justice League-style dynamic duo you didn’t know you desperately needed to hear until you were first told they paired up, have made the world a funkier place since the early March drop of the pair’s slow-jam single “Leave The Door Open”.

From the strength of the song itself to the “its such a retro clean-cut 60’s/70’s vibe Pablo Escobar would approve” aesthetic of the music video, its difficult not to feel the heavy weight of anticipation on what a full collaboration between Bruno and Andy is going to look like once its (eventually) announced. The talent and immediately evident chemistry of the pair across a full LP, the level of guest stars and musicians that I’m sure have been pulled in to assist… as a listener the possibilities generate endless goosebumps.

Look no further than “Silk Sonic Intro”, a brief lead-in to our main at”track”tion that features Parliament bassist and resident funkmaster Bootsy Collins playing the role of album MC.

Makes it easy to get hyped up doesn’t it? That’s Bootsy baby!

Luckily for us, Silk Sonic also shines an exposing light on the pillars of other iconic, impactful artists who helped them forge their sound. Stevie Wonder, Michael Jackson/The Jackson 5, James Brown, Prince, and George Clinton (with both Parliament and Funkadelic) are some of the first that come to mind here, though the well runs much deeper and widespread the farther you search.

I mention this because as important as it is to look forward and feel modern, it’s also of deep meaning to look down into the roots of all the old hooks, noodles and melodies of the past. Fully digest those albums, take the time and hear those stories to not only know how music has evolved, but to also never forget the pioneers and the innovators who birthed various genres in the first place.

Though never let that pigeonhole you into being the type of music consumer/reviewer who only bases opinions off comparisons to others either. Anderson .Paak and Bruno Mars as Silk Sonic is wildly exciting simply because of what each and each alone brings to the table.

Now we just wait for the full album.

.Paak Hits Old Stops, Travels New Places with Endearing “Ventura”

Anderson .Paak has been feelin’ it lately with an ever-versatile, high-stepping vengeance.

In case you’ve been stuck under some rocks, the Malibu singer/songwriter/rapper/drummer/producer helped end 2018 on a strong note with his Dr Dre-collaborated, rap rave-up Oxnard. The record drew mixed reviews soon after release, though I suspect that was due to it being an album that required time and repeated listens to level up.

It would also have flowed much better without the skits that don’t age well after a lot of repeats. But I digress.

That’s why, as someone who’s written about music the last several years, I often hesitate to talk about new work the day it releases or soon after. There’s certainly a high associated with those initial listening experiences, but taking the time to study the puzzle pieces has a way of expanding the angles of creativity being brushed into this mix of many melodies.

So when the announcement for Ventura inevitably came along… that mental battle began. Especially with how quickly I’ve enjoyed the record since it dropped earlier this month.

“Come Home” is a retrograde-groove, come to attention album-starter that almost smells like an old LP sleeve and benefits from .Paak’s time-and-again sense of flow (not to mention slapping drumwork). The whiplash of a blistering second half verse from Outkast’s Andre 3000 certainly adds to its case, helping to put this one straight into the “Winner’s Circle” (Ventura song title joke, it happened, let’s move on).

“Come Home” brilliantly melds the warm R&B vibe that was promised in early Ventura teasers with the story Oxnard began late last year, and the theme threads throughout the album. Because in many ways the pair are a double album to each other, just speaking separate sides of the same coin. One that ran hard to chest bump and bass thump, and another… that just had to talk about love a little bit.

Speaking of love, tracks like “Make it Better” just make me smile. A slow-swaying ode to lost affection featuring a crooning .Paak backed by the velvet voice of Smokey Robinson, the singer who helped make the torch song croon what it is today? That’s a kind of magic you can’t deny, especially when you’re encircled by that chorus. I get the same vibe from .Paak’s back and forth with the vocals of the departed Nate Dogg on “What Can We Do?” Try not to belt along when you know musical church is in session.

“Reachin’ 2 Much” feels like a drum and horn-floated, tempo-chopped cruise down the coast of Miami Vice with a touch of .Paak’s own tune “Lite Weight” scattered in for tempo-switching flavor. While “Winner’s Circle” samples the classic “A Bronx Tale” before proceeding into a Thundercat-assisted slapping punch of rhythm that slips with satisfaction into “Good Heels”.

While I would say .Paak’s far from alone in creating these genre fusions, his songs always speak in their own voices. Some in certain seasons, others with connection to particular moments. And while I won’t go making the exhausted “is Ventura better than Malibu?” comparison, it is a VERY fine addition to the .Paak library.

And something tells me he’s still just getting started.

One More Time With Feeling…

Watching Moses Sumney’s NPR Tiny Desk segment was a lucky stumble-upon this week that I highly recommend hearing at least once.

I say this due to the stripped-back crafting of Sumney’s vocal range, which for lack of a better phrase froze me to my seat like a slap to the head. I was immediately reminded of an ethereal, Nina Simone figure just emoting a… gossamer beauty. It reminded me of the first time I listened to Bon Iver sing Bonnie Raitt’s “I Can’t Make You Love Me/Knick of Time” solo at the piano.

And while Sumney and Justin Vernon are different musically, to hear the level of falsetto these men can conjure is… frankly unreal. And it’s not because they’re male. Rather, it’s the undeniable power of this ability. I hear these performances and am just stunned someone’s voice can make these sounds so beautifully in the first place. Simone, Joni Mitchell, Jeff Buckley, Mahalia Jackson, Etta James, Jonsi from Sigur Ros, and certain select others come to mind. But whatever the case, my point is these are just some of the moments that make performances timeless, and why as a music lover I never stop searching for them. Because when you find it, you know.

Plus, if you somehow still don’t know by now (and you need to!), NPR Tiny Desk performances remain one of the best music media sources anywhere. Not only have I discovered new artists like Sumney and The Lone Bellow, but musicians like Wilco, Dave Matthews, Julien Baker, Anderson .Paak, Leon Bridges, Run The Jewels, Brandi Carlile, and countless others I love have adapted to the space in new and sometimes unexpectedly great ways. T-Pain anyone?

(Yes I really said T-Pain. It’s that good. Enjoy a few others.)

There’s so much feeling injected into these performances, and it would be a bucket list goal of mine just to watch a taping. But in the meantime, get a listen to Moses Sumney. Not just because of the voice. Listen to the harp, saxophone, and twinkling guitar in the band moving around in the arrangement. You may not be a fan for life by the end, but the creativity in motion is a fascinating place to play.

Oh, Tuesdays…

They’re not exactly the Tom Waits-ian type days of lore where you expect to sit back spinning “great yarns” by the smoky haze of lamplight. But, given that the start of my average work day coincides with the beginning of the standard workplace lunch break, I tend to look toward the odd days/hours to help unleash my inspiration. Which in itself… hasn’t been an easy process.

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Lately I’ve been trying to feel my way out of one of the worst dry spells I’ve experienced as an independent writer, and losing my urge to create. And while I don’t want OTBEOTB to be any less about music, from now on you may see more of my “nuts and bolts” feelings regarding my creative process.

That might occasionally include venting some of the frustration on the road to breaking out of a funk too.

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Because there certainly have been plenty of recent ups and downs, and speaking from the perspective of a slump as a long-time sufferer of anxiety, it makes the feeling of sitting silent agonizing. Not using the words I know I have. I feel like there are worlds out there spinning I’m out of orbit from or places my voice could be. And yet, I’m not there.

Yet at the same time, I still think of plenty I’d like to say about a new song or an album I see that I just can’t make myself write down. Or, I deeply fear what I will say won’t sound as good as what’s in my head. So… let’s change that feeling, because I have something new (to me) musically you need to know about.

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In the last week or so, I’ve suddenly been devoted to the discovery of California singer/rapper/drummer/producer extraordinaire Anderson .Paak, his last full-length LP (2016’s Malibu), as well as recent .Paak singles “Bubblin'” and “‘Til It’s Over”. Now despite being a voracious music lover, I admit to being very guilty of having good music in my possession I simply don’t listen to. To put it in terms of food, my eyes occasionally grow larger than my stomach. So from time to time, I’m a few years back on a good thing. #musicalpackrat

In .Paak’s case, last Monday morning I put on lead Malibu track “The Bird” in a spontaneous decision to listen to the album straight through after previously leafing through a few cuts. And while low background music I enjoy typically helps me focus during work days, I never expected to be so quickly struck by the burst of lightning that is how good of an album Malibu is. While a few moments do drag (and I’m still not sure whether to laugh or cringe at the Prince-sounding omage of “Silicon Valley”), .Paak’s consistency across Malibu and its 16 songs is almost revelatory in the days of digital.

To give you a quick sense of the artist without sudden need of a Spotify search, here’s .Paak with band The Free Nationals on NPR’s Tiny Desk Concert.

And performing “The Bird”.

One of the greatest things about .Paak and Malibu in my opinion is the way the record’s sounds of rap and R&B glow fresh and contemporary, while still maintaining a washing machine blend of James Brown footwork, Otis Redding soul, swinging jazz/funk, and the building blocks of 70’s-era West Coast music. And to hone in on the Godfather of Soul for a moment, its .Paak’s similarly confident, swaggering braggadocio sealed with a Cheshire Cat grin that makes this record kick even harder. He’s got a hell of a gift and knows it, and that in and of itself is infectious.

.Paak does have other prior musical output, most notably LP Venice which has more of a predominantly hip-hop flavor and is still a work in progress for me. Its good, but feels like .Paak just before he starts hitting his stride knocking fastballs and melodies alike out of the park. So consider me hooked as we wait for the two .Paak albums supposedly due out sometime in 2018.

And until then, I plan to do plenty of binge-listening like Netflix to get ready. With any luck, perhaps I can also include pushing those fears and anxieties away too.

(Also, here’s one last video. Just for fun.)

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