The sunshine and shadows of Anderson .Paak

“Sometimes you have to laugh in order not to cry...”

God is in the details, and so is Anderson .Paak. The singer, rapper, drummer – and now actor, writer, director – has always cared about the little things. With him, they tend to become the big things soon enough. Take the dot in the middle of his name. .Paak (there you are) used to go by Breezy Lovejoy in his twenties, during his long, meandering period of creative “incubation”, as he puts it. When it was time to get more serious, he changed his name, lasering the period right in the middle of it all, like a sniper pulling a red dot on a target. He did this “for all the years that I felt like I was slept on and overlooked,” he says. “I wanted to do a little ‘fuck you’ to all the people that didn’t pay attention. So they have to put that dot as a reminder. And if they don’t, then I know that they failed to pay attention to my history and what I’ve built.”

Then there are the wigs. On other singers, the hair is the style. On .Paak, it’s the substance. Brodie is blonde and bouncy, like a golden retriever. Lil Flip is sleek and black, and flicked up fiercely at the edges like a snarl or a raised eyebrow. And then there’s Pee Wee, a dark, silken number that recalls Lord Farquaad in a Beatles tribute act. .Paak wore it in 2022 when he and Bruno Mars collected the Record of the Year award at the Grammys as their Silk Sonic double-act. “We are really trying our hardest to remain humble at this point,” he says in his speech, his grin like an exclamation mark, his golden trophy in his hand. “But in the industry, we call that a clean sweep!” – his arms spread wide and his smile spreads wider, and Pee Wee swings back and forth around his shoulders as if it has a life of its own.

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That’s the image I often think of when I think of .Paak: the wig, the suit, the cheek and the chic. But you soon realise that the hairdo doesn’t create the character. It just amplifies what’s already there. Even over a Zoom call, sitting in a plain T-Shirt in a studio in Los Angeles, he gives you the full-beam experience. A smile that breaks out like the sun through the clouds, and a clean, rasping voice that seems to somehow echo from another era.

.Paak was a drummer before he was all that he is now, so he knows that timing is everything. His career seems to embody the Hollywood truism that it takes 20 years to make an overnight success. He was grafting, pivoting and working things out long before 2014 and the moment when he met Dr. Dre, who heard him freestyle rap and promptly cast him on six tracks on Compton, his long-awaited album. It catapulted .Paak almost instantly into the limelight. He was in his late twenties then, which is ancient by some music industry standards, and has described having something of an “identity crisis” before this – a gospel drummer, then a hardcore rapper, then an indie-kid moper in skinny jeans.

His mother was an orphan from Korea who had huge success as a strawberry farmer before freak weather conditions destroyed her crop and her company. His father went to jail, when .Paak was seven, after brutally assaulting his mother. .Paak worked plenty of different jobs, including a lucrative spell on a medical marijuana farm, but lost his home, in 2011, just after his oldest son, Soul, was born. (.Paak and his ex-wife, Jae Lin, from whom he recently amicably separated, also share another son, Shine.) In the wake of Kendrick Lamar’s critically adored Good Kid, Maad City album, .Paak got more personal and more serious. Dr. Dre instantly heard “the natural pain” in .Paak’s voice – the shadow next to the bright smile.

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Four solo albums followed in five years, each named after a different beach in Southern California: Venice, Malibu, Oxnard and Ventura. In 2020, after a manic period of touring and promoting the run of albums, the pandemic struck. .Paak, who sometimes felt he’d barely seen his young children in the preceding years, suddenly had the chance to spend a whole lot of time with them. Soul was making videos on YouTube, and .Paak was utterly tickled by his self-possession and sheer creativity. Four years later and the pair are about to star together in K-Pops, a film about a washed-up musician who attempts a final shot at success via his young son, a burgeoning pop-star in South Korea.

This interview took place in peak spring, as blossom and humidity perfumed Los Angeles, and it was hard not to draw a comparison between the season and the man. As we talked, I had a sense of one of those high-saturation time lapses you might see in a nature documentary – green shoots emerging rapidly, blue skies blooming above, ideas and possibility everywhere. And also, slightly oddly, of the quote at the centre of Maestro, the Bradley Cooper epic about conductor Leonard Bernstein: “If summer doesn’t sing in you, then nothing sings in you. And if nothing sings in you, then you can’t make music.” Spring seems to sing in .Paak. It writes in him, hollers in him, laughs in him, too. When I asked him whether he had a motto or a mantra he lives by, the response was not a piece of advice or a cliché, but a salutation – an ecstatic, gravelly hoot to the rafters and the clouds: “Yes, Lawd!”

JB: This interview is for our spring issue, and I’ve been thinking a lot about springtime as I was researching your career. I know you’ve got so much going on at the moment – all these exciting new projects. Do you feel like you’re in an interesting season of your life right now? Do you feel like there’s a sense of springtime in the air for you personally?

AP: I feel like it’s a chapter of exploration. I feel like this is a chapter for me where I want to do something I’ve yet to do, but I’m exploring what that actually is. I’m having fun finding different ways to tell stories. I feel like, at the core, I’m a storyteller. And I think that as I get older, I’m finding that I could really do it within different mediums and have fun with that, and go back to being a student of something that I don’t know as much about. It’s been pretty non-stop the past couple of years, and I think a part of me just had to get back on the ground floor and step away a little bit; have some fun, get some intel. So, yeah – definitely springtime vibes.

Where does your intel usually come from?

I think I got a lot of intel from DJing. I started DJing a lot of vinyl, and I started this DJ Pee Wee persona. I think that got me into some different events and venues and parties that I might not have been able to do as Anderson .Paak or Silk Sonic. It was a good way for me to see how much in common a hit song has with all genres and what it means to unify a dance floor, and to explore different BPMs and different musical genres that I didn’t know I loved so much – and just nerding out on different artists that I didn’t know too much about before. That’s been a great way to take intel, and I think it’s inspired a lot of my new music and even how I perform.

“I’m having fun finding different ways to tell stories. I feel like, at the core, I’m a storyteller”

Are you rediscovering any evocative music from your childhood?

Yeah – a lot of stuff from what my parents were playing; my mom was playing. But I grew up watching MTV. I mean, I was born in 1986 and graduated in 2004, so I think it’s a very unique place to be. And then there are the songs that I listened to in high school and then the songs that my parents listened to, like the funk stuff and the Earth, Wind & Fire stuff. And so I think it’s a combination of all that, plus hours of just sitting in front of the TV. As a kid, my parents were working all the time. My mom was an entrepreneur doing her own thing, so I was pretty much raised by the television.

Do you think taste and creativity are hereditary in that way? I think about how you’re now working with your son, Soul, on this new film. It’s kind of an amazing thing to be both a parent to someone and also a collaborator with them...

He really inspired me. During quarantine, we got to spend a lot of time together and I got to learn about the things that he was into. Prior to that, I was just on the road so much, since like 2016, non-stop. And then, when everything stopped, I was in there and I was like, “What do you want to do?” And he’s like, “I want to be a YouTuber.” I look on his page and he’s playing video games and stuff like that. And I’m like, “We should do some bits; do some skits.” We set a goal for how many subscribers he wanted to get and then we crushed that goal, and we started putting out some content that was fun. I started getting so inspired by him. I was like, “You’re such a natural.” He’s so funny. It inspired me to write a script for both of us based off these little skits that we’re doing for his YouTube.

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A lot of kids now don’t understand how much time you have to put into something for it to be great or for you to develop a mastery of it. I wanted to show him that process too – of us building something, writing a script, coming together, rehearsing, shooting and then wrapping it up and presenting it. I think that this is going to be one of the first times he gets to see that whole process, and I think it’s going to be good for him as he grows up. It’s a piece of art that we’ll always have, too. It was one of the toughest things, but one of the most fulfilling things I’ve ever done.

I think about your career, and how there’s that old cliché in show business that it takes 20 years to be an overnight success. What was that like from the inside – to be someone who’s worked so hard and had so many near chances, and then suddenly to make it and blow up in the way that you did?

I’m glad it happened that way. It’s great. I think you’re able to appreciate things more, and you’re able to treat people better. Sinatra said it best: “I did it my way.” You realise that everything’s about timing – and everything that is for you is for you, and other stuff might not be for you. It’s important to be okay with that and learn that sometimes you have to watch from the sidelines before you can get out there and start scoring. You’ve got to know that every moment is a learning experience. And I think that’s what was great, because when I was able to finally get to Dr. Dre, at the very least I was confident in what I could do. I think he recognised that and he didn’t want me to try to go in there and imitate anything. He wanted what I could do. At that point, that was all that mattered to me. I didn’t think about big stardom or anything like that; I just wanted to be able to do this for a living and be able to support my family, and make the best music possible. And I wanted to have my own unique sound.

I see that now, too, when I’m working with new artists in the studio or even on stage. You can tell right away the people that spent hours and hours doing this stuff when nobody was watching. And it’s just like... you know that you ain’t ever going to go back. I don’t ever want to go back to taking the bus and playing shitty clubs and getting no pay. But I did it for years and I wouldn’t have it any other way, because I love to do it and I had to do it. But at some point, I had to also develop a strategy for myself and develop some sort of template for what I wanted to be as an artist. And that took time for me. I’m still doing it.

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The detail of the process is really important to you. I know that the dot in your name is a reminder of that detail. Where do you think that comes from? And how does that inform your creativity, that very specific attention to detail?

The dot is something that initially I did for all the years that I felt like I was slept on and overlooked. I wanted to do like a little ‘fuck you’ to all the people that didn’t pay attention. So they have to put that dot in my name as a reminder. And if they don’t, then I know that they failed to pay attention to my history and what I’ve built. I think it’s also just like a signal for me. And it reminds me to continue to stay stern on that. Because as soon as you start getting lazy or you start thinking ‘this is fine’, you get too comfortable.

The detail is everything, man. That’s how you get your respect out here. You know, fuck the money and all that stuff. You want to be able to go to dinner and Dave Grohl and Paul McCartney pull up to your table like, “What’s up, man?” That’s better than anything. You know what I’m saying?

Has that happened to you?

That happened last night! I was at dinner, at The Bird Streets Club, just minding my own business. First, Dave Grohl pops up. I know him and we’re friends, but I still get starstruck over some of these guys that, again, have this history and this legacy within music. And not only that, he’s a drummer turned front man who killed it – one of the few that made that transition. For him to come up and be like, “What’s up, man?” – we’re just on some cool shit.

And then, boom: Paul McCartney is right behind him, “What’s up?” It’s just too much, man. I had hot flashes. But that’s why I did it all. I was always, in the back of my mind, thinking, “What would they do here?”, or “What would they think of this?” To have the respect and just be able to say, “What’s up?” – that means a lot. You’re telling your story still untold, and you’re still writing it as you go. But these are all the things that are really great for me.

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You seem to have such a natural optimism about the work you make. I heard you say that you could never make a dark record. I wonder why that is? Where you think that optimism comes from?

That’s just my writing style, that’s just where I come from. And I think, sometimes, you have to laugh in order not to cry. I also feel like you can convey darkness and it can still be uplifting. There could be something that’s good about melancholiness, you know? It doesn’t mean that you’re depressed; it can actually help your depression sometimes.

I was reading an old interview you did – I think it might have been with The New York Times, in 2022. Not to dwell on the sadness, but you said in that interview that sometimes you just break out crying for reasons you don’t really understand...

Yeah, usually on a plane. And certain songs, for sure, man, will hit me. You know, you don’t realise sometimes that you never got to cry. People died and I didn’t really get to cry. And then it hits me like, damn, this is a person I used to see so much. I had a homie that I worked with, Teddy Ray, god bless his soul. I did so many videos with him and he was always there for any random idea I wanted to do – and then I realised that he’s gone and that he’s been gone. And it’s like, damn, bro. You thought these dudes were going to be with you forever. They were such a big force in your life. You don’t get to grieve sometimes and then it just comes out.

Dr. Dre said that when he first heard you, he heard a natural pain in your voice. And yet, when I hear you sing, I kind of hear the smile in there as well. That’s an amazing tension, a great trick – the pain in the smile.

It’s a little bit of balance, the joy and the pain. You just need both. It’s just a natural thing that comes out, and people that know pain and that have a good musical vocabulary can hear it. Dre is not really into making happy music. He made some of the most sinister, dark music, but songs that are anthems for everyone, you know? It brings me so much joy when I hear songs like ‘Still D.R.E.’ and ‘The Next Episode’.

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You mentioned Paul McCartney earlier, which is funny because my last question is about a quote of his I often think of. He was being interviewed a while back, and he said that in 150 years, no one’s going to care about the politics of who wrote what in The Beatles, or all the drama or all the mania. And they’re not even really going to care about Paul McCartney. All they’ll remember, he said, are one or two songs. That’s it. I wonder what you think about that – and what you think your songs will be?

Time will tell. I don’t know – I think I’ve still got to write all that stuff and I’m still currently writing it, but I’ve been blessed enough to be in the game now, professionally, for over 10 years, and some of the stuff that I’ve done, like my second album, got a lot of acclaim. Now, to see how people are still holding on to a lot of those records from that album, it’s clear, I think, that it’s had a lasting effect on people. That’s what you want. I do think he’s right. That’s why there’s so much in lyrics, and why it’s so important just to focus on making a great song. Something timeless and not gimmick-filled.

Perhaps the best is yet to come for me. But, hopefully, I get one or two songs that they’re singing, you know, 30 years from now. As the younger generation comes up, there are going to be people that just want the new stuff, and then there are going to be people that research it all – that really want the old stuff, because they were raised by people with good taste and raised by people that love music. And maybe then, they’ll hear me and they’ll say: “They don’t make them like that anymore!”

With special thanks to:

Makeup: Jenn Hanching

Grooming: Uriel Buenrostro

Photo assistants: Daniel Byun and Molly Morrison

Styling assistant: Gabriella Lane Walts

Location: Milk Studios, LA

This feature was taken from our Spring 2024 issue. Read more about it here.

Want more cover stories? We spoke to Bryan Cranston for our Winter 2023 issue…

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