Yes Lawd! wants to be a neo-soul version of Madvillainy or The Unseen or Donuts, but comes up short.
This could have been, oh, so much more. Anderson .Paak has been one of the most exciting new talents that deserves the spotlight that’s been thrust upon him ever since stealing the show on a handful of tracks of Dr. Dre’s Compton. .Paak shifts effortlessly between rapping and singing such that calling him either a rapper or a singer is hopelessly myopic. His features from underground albums like Milo’s a toothpaste suburb and MED, Blu & Madlib’s Bad Neighbor to bigger names like ScHoolboy Q’s Blank Face and Mac Miller’s The Divine Feminine have been the highlights of each of those. His charred voice has that effect, being one of the most unique and easily distinguishable voices we’ve been graced by in a while. And of course, that’s to say nothing of Malibu, his solo album released earlier this year, which was appropriately highly acclaimed but completely under-discussed at the time because it’s drop was overshadowed by David Bowie’s own album and death. (Although maybe it had to do with releasing a spring/summer album in the dead of winter.)
Producer Knxwledge has been on my radar ever since I heard the calm, capital-g Gorgeous stop-start piano on “Keep Ush Inn” on Blu’s otherwise erratic NoYork!. That album was an obvious influence on Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly four years later, which featured another Knxwledge production in album standout “Momma". If it’s impressive that Anderson .Paak has returned with another full album within the year, then your jaw will probably drop when you visit Knxwledge’s SoundCloud page and see what he’s released this year, including a collaboration single with Earl Sweatshirt for Adult Swim.
One of Yes Lawd!’s two primary problems is that it wants to be a neo-soul version of Madvillain or The Unseen or Donuts, that is, a stoner’s dream collection of fragments of songs, less focused on hooks and more focused on sounds (.Paak even quotes Dilla’s “Won’t Do” from The Shining, which I remind everyone was uselessly reissued this year, on “Sidepiece”). Which, in theory, is attractive -- all three of those albums are varying levels of great -- but the ambitions are too lofty because Knxwledge might have Dilla’s or Madlib’s work ethic, but he’s neither a Dilla nor a Madlib. This album isn’t as eclectic as any of those works, or even .Paak’s previous Malibu, which had the benefit of a revolving door of producers and features, in addition to fully formed songs. It simply was a more laboured-over work instead of yet another collection of Knxwledge beats sharing another name on the billing, which this one sometimes feels like.
Not that I need to have my songs be structured in verse-chorus-verse ways, of course; those sorts usually lead to formulaic bridges and other sorts of trouble. But I would appreciate if, say, "Livvin"'s coda was worth commenting about. Or I would appreciate if, say, the string line of “What More Can I Say” resolved more often; the way Knxwledge cuts it makes it a bit unbearable in addition to the string line’s cheesiness. And when it finally resolves (with the help of a few horns), that lasts only a few seconds before the song goes back to its listless structure via unresolving melody. Or I would appreciate if, say, some of these songs developed at all: for example, “Get Bigger / Do U Luv” has some nice click-clack percussion, but the song establishes its drift and carries it for three minutes.
The other issue: .Paak is thoroughly unlikeable here, something that I’ve never noticed in his previous works. He opens “Livvin” (and thus, the album) with “In the city of flawless women, MY GOD, look at all these bitches”, putting so much emphasis on the last word that it actually manages to snap you out of the stoned out vibe. And the smoky sophistication implied by Knxwledge’s keyboard line on the following “Wngs” might be better if it weren’t paired with .Paak drooling over a “fat ass". Those are basically the first two songs, and on it goes. Even the pre-released “Suede” has a chorus that goes “If I call you a bitch / It’s cause you’re my bitch", which is thoroughly unromantic such that I would hope no one needs me to explain why.
Of course, Knxwledge being capable of some gorgeous beats and .Paak being everything I’ve said earlier, highlights abound. There's the way .Paak sings the word “Yeah” on “Livvin” like he’s on top of a mountain and it’s the first or best time anyone’s ever shouted that word (i.e. at the 1:11 mark, bolstered by backing vocals, after “Nothing but the ambition”). There's the hooks .Paak delivers over Knxwledge’s chicken-anxious one-note beat on “Another Time” (especially notable for the climbing melody .Paak brings in the second half). Elsewhere, “Best One” contains an odd flicker of electric guitar that makes it an easy standout, even without the endearing way .Paak sings the lines “You telling me to say until the morning / You know a nigga homeless” and “You fix a nigga cheese, grits and cornbread / You know a nigga hungry.” And there are bumping bass-lines abound in “Link Up” and “Khadijah".
So yes, there’s plenty here to like in the raspy soul over smooth beats. But there is not a lot to love, but I can’t help but think wouldn’t have been the case if two hard-working artists slowed down a little.