Protect Abe Beame at all costs.
I am writing this because I decided I want to understand why exactly I hate the Oxnard-born singer/rapper Anderson .Paak, .Paak, born and referred to going forward as Brandon Anderson, is, on every level, an unobjectionable artist, and seemingly a nice guy. I’m quite sure he’s made music that has saved people from suicide, has given them hope in dark times, made a song that was the first dance at their daughter’s wedding, rescued their kitten from a tree, etc.
I did a lot of research on background you won’t read here, but if you were lazy and wanted to just Google “Anderson .Paak Charity” I’m guessing you’d stumble across .Paak House, or The Brandon Anderson Foundation, a 501c3 non profit org that “aim(s) to support and create initiatives that uplift, engage and support the community through access to the arts, supplemental education and unique experiences to expand the imagination.”
So, a better person than I am, because if I was really rich, to be completely honest, I’d spend all my money on keeping my wine fridge fully stocked with incredible shit, eat at Keen’s once a week, go to every Knick game even if they’re on the road, go to the movies everyday, and generally live out the philosophy Orson Welles espouses in The Third Man. But good people don’t often–in fact, from my experience, rarely–make great music, and Brandon Anderson is no exception. For many people he’s a pleasant distraction. A warm and remote pleasure center, something to put on in the background while you’re reheating leftovers. It’s vacuuming the rug music that doesn’t fuck. So why do I find it so reprehensible? Perhaps it’s in that very lack of commitment on the part of the listener interacting with his work. Brandon Anderson is the “Everything was Beautiful and Nothing Hurt” tattooed in script on America’s collarbone. Allow me to expand.
When I went to college in the early aughts, we had this singer songwriter named Jack Johnson. He grew up in Hawaii. His dad was a surfer. Again, I did an incredible amount of background on this that didn’t survive a harsh edit, but let’s just say you lazily clicked on his Wikipedia page and skimmed the first sentence, you’d learn he is a multi-instrumentalist, actor, record producer, documentary filmmaker and is also a former professional surfer. All of this shit sounds cool, and my wife, the mother of my children, would certainly leave me in a heartbeat to make out with Jack Johnson once, but I can also tell you with 100% certainty, because I was there, that Jack Johnson’s music was not cool.
He made rote and hollow strummy campfire music about enjoying your life and being in love. Much like Brandon Anderson, it would be very difficult for anyone to say what Jack Johnson, or his music, ever did to them. Yet he was roundly hated. He was reviled by a certain strata of culture I was aspiring to be a part of, cool people. And now looking back, this exercise is forcing me to ask myself why Jack Johnson bothered us so much. I think we hated the lie of endless chill in his music as Iraq burned and George W. Bush won reelection based solely off campaigning with hate speech against Gay Marriage. Andy Samberg once built an entire sketch around Jack Johnson and what he represented, and it’s typically broad and pretty stoned in a dumb way, but it does a decent job impressionistically grabbing what I’m finding is just beyond my grasp.
In 1999, Naomi Klein released her seminal No Logo, a liberal campus classic about the insidious subliminal messaging in advertising and how it’s rotting our brains with implied messages of white cis hegemony. When subsequently asked how she felt about the book’s message, as representation in advertising evolved over the years, Klein effectively said representation wasn’t the enemy, it was the capitalist beast itself, a chameleonic chimera that can graft any race, nationality or sexual orientation on its white source material, and in fact only grows stronger and more dangerous when it assumes Black and queer forms. It’s a kind of box-checking and reach-expanding that obfuscates how dangerous and at its core oppressive these corporations and the structures they represent are. And this is Anderson. He’s the “McDonald’s commercial where a friend group composed of one token member of every minority and sexual orientation sits at a banquette together smiling and laughing over soft drinks and Big Macs as Travis Scott raps family friendly jingles over sterile 808s” version of Jack Johnson.
Let’s start with Anderson’s calling card, his marmalade and butter voice, that helium huffed, frog throated, nasal register rap-singing towards Bethlehem. The accent is quasi-Southern by way of Cali and sounds more the product of apathy than geography, the affected cool of a guy who can’t be bothered to enunciate, whose tongue is too big for his mouth and keeps a toothpick in for affect.
He’s made four solo projects, with two collaborative albums (NxWorries, his group with Knxwledge, and Silk Sonic, which I assure you, we’re getting to). If you wanted to be technical, you could call his oeuvre post Drake and Frank Ocean sing rapping that puts P-Funk by way of G-Funk through a cotton candy machine, like Kenan Thompson doing an impression of Eddie Murphy doing an impression of Bill Cosby. You could call it Neo-Soul off a THC vape and three mango White Claws. Or music for people who wish Post Malone would chill the fuck out. But I’ve come to refer to it simply as “Next time on Insecure” music.
It’s an emergent style that has evolved into its own genre that defines a certain quadrant of the current Southern California sound. Synthy shimmering dogshit in which the greatest source of “urgency” is what will become of this evening’s low stakes hook-up, or whether or not to cheat on the person or likely people you’re presumably already in an open and poly relationship with. When you listen to it, you can see a guy wearing one of Those Hats, washing down bites of red velvet waffles with a passion fruit mimosa at the Rocafella Brunch.
In Game of Thrones, the Night King, a kind of Zombie deity, touches you and your eyes turn fluorescent blue and you’re transformed into a zombie, and over the past five years, that’s been Anderson. Seemingly anyone who has come into the orbit of the artist formerly known as Breezy Lovejoy could be diametrically opposed to his style. Let’s hypothetically and with no real world corollary imagine a blog era, white, Rawkus-adjacent mixtape guy from Pittsburgh, and after sharing a joint or something one time with Anderson, this completely imaginary rapper whose memory I’d never disparage would be instantly transformed into an artist making braying fentanyl carols about smoking gelato packs on a beach in Santa Monica, capped by epic and actually really meaningful one hitter and Xbox sessions in his villa with seemingly every working rap journalist in the 2010s and Karl Anthony Towns.
Anderson is all vibes, and they’re all chill. He makes completely and totally unobjectionable music. He has no controversial opinions. He’s the 17-story-tall Stay Puft marshmallow man of pop culture, dripping saccharine streamable content goo to shmear on our increasingly graham cracker and Hershey’s chocolate layered palettes. He’s an honorary Black Eyed Pea.
The album, an increasingly antiquated and abstract concept, has been losing ground to the Spotify playlist for sometime. Anderson’s music anticipates and perhaps even defines this shift. He offers the listener the chance to take a break from their go to lo-fi beats station they write papers to in the throes of an Adderall fueled all nighter. His albums place you in the hands of a relaxed fit dude who wants to offer the same, low commitment, indistinguishable background music you can comfortably tune out, without the pesky algorithm making the occasional misstep in selection, breaking the trance long enough to force toggling through an app to hit skip. Anderson has built a large back catalogue over years of work that constitutes hours of music that all sounds the same and doesn’t threaten any break in tone to harsh your mellow.
“But Abe”, you may say. “You’ve fallen prey to the classic lazy music writer’s trap. Beneath his, let’s say, unique sonic palette, there’s some real bars, some real emotion, a life of trials and tribulations, and some real political messages, sprinkled in with the swipe right Metro PCS commercial shit.” So just to show you I actually listened to every single album and collaboration this asshole made, and didn’t just try to come up with the funniest possible ways to say he’s boring and lame, let’s discuss “6 Summers”, about as trenchant as Anderson’s political commentary gets, off 2018’s Oxnard.
The central conceit of the song is imagining what then President Donald J. Trump’s alleged love child is like. Anderson hopes the child is multi racial, hopes they are bisexual, and hopes they drink mezcal. It’s the perfect articulation of Trevor Noah level critique, a raised eyebrow and a hope for an ironic future in which the next generation frolics in a racially ambiguouity and sexually exprimentation, without actually challenging or critiquing power in any meaningful way. The rest of the song is kind of nonsensical vibey bullshit. He blasphemes with an M.O.P. reference that makes no sense and serves no purpose, there’s a lot of fun being had, for some reason. I listened to the song four or five times to write this graf and the next one and every single time I slipped into a low grade coma, so I can’t speak on it with too much authority.
But, you know, it is evocative. You can almost see Trump’s love child, the product of that McDonald’s table of every minority group on Earth fucking and creating a beautiful ethnically ambiguous woman in a halter top, with John Lennon glasses, holding peace signs in the air on her tallest friend’s shoulders, blocking everyone else’s view of Silk Sonic playing Coachella.
It was inevitable that Anderson would find Bruno Mars, a guy who has made a career of cutting up pieces of existing good songs and taping them together like pop ransom notes. Who makes Girl Talk songs with session musicians playing the mashed up snippets. Is he postmodern? Sure. But not in a way that even aspires to recontextualize or comments on, let alone subverts, a single thing. It’s a repackaging, a depressingly cynical Trader Joe’s vision of post modernism that coats original ideas and styles in vanilla yogurt and middle mans the fuck out of it.
Silk Sonic is the perfect avatar for this era of Intellectual Property dominant content. They don’t even take an existing lens and challenge you with a Last Jedi. This is an exercise in pure pleasure center mashing, a whip pan to the Millennium Falcon as the adoring Christmas Day crowd in Union Square smacks their flippers together because they see something familiar over and over again.
Silk Sonic poses the question, “What if we made an entire group, album and aesthetic out of the song and video for “Doggy Dogg World”? Which was itself a winking amalgam of Soul Train and Blaxploitation aesthetic, and Snoop actually got the Dramatics on the hook, and it was good and cool and nearly 30 years older than this Prom cover band manufacturing plant based Potlikker soul in a laboratory.
And so history ends not with a bang, but a tedious, gooey book report. A Childish Gambino, J. Cole and Mark Ronson group project to make music that comes not from the chest, or gut, but from a Pinterest board, and not for the streets, or the club, or the bedroom, but for Carroll Gardens dinner parties where you “eat” the simulation of a delicious ribeye you’re enjoying in your mind as your physical body is elsewhere, suspended by wires and tubes, being juiced like a lithium ion.
Most of the people who will give this a skim follow me on Twitter, and there aren’t many of you, but let’s say this did go wide, like some of the criticism of Silk Sonic has. It would be rejected, and lambasted for its cruelty. “Who knows what mental issues Silk Sonic fans are dealing with? How dare you go after Bruno Mars after what he’s done for Filipino representation! You Just Don’t Get His Music Because You’re Wyt (Jewish, but I’ll concede the point for the sake of expediency)!”
And this is what really sucks about where we’ve gone. That we’re just allowing this bullshit to go unchecked because now it’s totally fine if the emperor is naked because it isn’t “hurting” anyone. But we used to demand more from our pop. We used to at least be able to criticize muzak, not just when the muzak in question is “caught” smoking a blunt with DaBaby and Marilyn Manson, but when it was actually bad. But now we have to love it. We can’t even make fun of Jack Johnson or Jack Johnson bros anymore.
Anderson .Paak suggests the future, our welcome and willing escape from our grim present to the 84 degree, clear skied, breezy Malibu beach day that never ends. The low body high of opiates, edibles and Casamigos spiked organic nutcrackers that starts as pleasant, monotonous background hum, then builds exponentially until it has achieved a deafening paralysis that leaves us all numb and twitching in the warm sand, as the sun dries out our baking, gently cracking faces and we can no longer feel the rising blood tide soaking the bottom of our towels. And the entire world is emptied of tension and meaning, and replaced with the blissed out, carceral, eternal vibes state.