On Saturday night, the hip-hop/funk artist showed that he's got the show and the game when America's ready for him.

anderson paak photo
Anderson .Paak

Anderson .Paak knows that his face is his money. He named the tour that brought him to Champions Square Saturday night “The Best Teef in the Game Tour,” and he showed off his fine set of choppers all show. His face is so important that he mounted a camera on his drum kit so that even when he was playing, we could see him. 

For the duration of the set, he smiled like a guy who was surfing the moment—a time when audiences would show up in punishing heat to see him. It was the same smile that was on display when he played Voodoo in 2016 after spending a summer winning over audiences, and the smile he wore on Saturday Night Live earlier this season when he looked like—and sounded like—a bonafide star. 

Stephen Thompson of NPR Music wrote of that performance, “In ‘Tints,’ .Paak rapped from behind sunglasses, a drum kit and a radiant smile, keeping time while making it clear he was having the time of his life.” It may be a smile that he can turn on at will, but in each of those situations, .Paak looked like a guy who couldn’t believe his good luck and knew better than to question it. That’s a winning look.

Luck has little to do with anything, though. He has hit on a brand of funk that is right on time, one that clearly takes its sonic and production cues from hip-hop. His songs often sound as if they’re built from Delfonics samples merged with musical gestures straight out of the James Brown playbook. He lays out his game in “Suede,” his collaboration with rapper Knxwledge under the name NxWorries when he raps, “You gon' listen to this Marvin / You gon' to listen to this Bloodstone,” and finishes the thought, saying, “You fucking with an old soul, twice removed.” The song itself sounded like a deconstruction of The Isley Brothers’ “That Lady” on Saturday night, and his best songs pull all those threads together effortlessly for grooves and hooks as infectious as his vibe. It’s a tribute to .Paak that on a night as hot as Saturday, he had people dancing wherever there was space to do so. 

The show leaned heavily on his most recent album, Ventura, which took three steps back toward his musical sweet spot after the strain of his ambition showed on its predecessor-by-months, Oxnard. The effort to sell the new album was only one of the ways that .Paak’s show was an exercise in old school stagecraft. The set began when Maurice “MoBetta” Brown entered the stage alone with a mute on his trumpet. He played a forlorn melody while .Paak’s band, The Free Nationals, walked on to the split-level stage. Once everyone was in place including .Paak behind the drums, they bounced into “Heart Don’t Stand a Chance” and Brown’s melancholy made the jubilant start feel explosive than the song itself. Fans started to sing along by the second chorus without being asked, and .Paak’s loose drumming created a deeply funky pocket. .Paak split his time between fronting the band from the edge of the stage and leading from behind his drums, which were in an elevator that let them drop out of sight when he didn’t need them. Sometimes, he sang at the lip of the stage, then moved behind the kit to re-energize a groove for the end of a song.     

Wherever .Paak was though, he sold the song. The Free Nationals were funky with bass player Kelsey Gonzales pushing grooves with throbbing, insistent lines, but .Paak was the show. Early in the set, he solidified his relationship with the audience when he sang “King James” with the song’s lyrics on the projection screen behind the band. The song’s wide-ranging protest touches on immigration, #BlackLivesMatter, and Colin Kaepernick, and rallies behind LeBron James’ leadership. That is a lot to digest, and the audience was with him, but not as much as they were for chorus, where he counted off all the things and people who were “comin’ with me.”  The song is a rallying cry that doesn’t only include those he knows. “The people that you came with / comin’ with me,” he sang, and that call for community created the vibe that we were all in the very sweaty moment together. 

To close the show, he talked about wanting to stay but having to go, and that too usually sounds like Stagecraft 101. There might have been something to it in .Paak’s case though as a few hours after he closed with the sexy “Dang!” by Mac Miller, he was onstage at Café Istanbul playing an afterparty with The Free Nationals, Maurice Brown, opener Thundercat, and Janelle Monae. None of the music from the party that I’ve heard in videos was memorable, but he clearly enjoyed being in a funky moment with friends. Like Monae—who makes sense as a potential collaborator—.Paak is one breakthrough song from stardom, and like her, he appears ready for the next step.