When Bruno Mars dropped 24K Magic on Friday, he framed it as a revolution for soul.
Through his nine shades of "Uptown Funk," Mars attempted to channel the '90s hip-hop and R&B of acts like Babyface, DJ Quick and Dr. Dre — essentially, artists well-schooled in the art of funk. "That rhythm is not as popular on radio right now," Mars told the Herald in an interview published Friday. He's not wrong, but Mars' canned 24K Magic is not going to be what puts it back on the map. On a scale of magic ranging from David Blaine's frog swallowing down to a snake in a can, 24K lies prostrate on the bottom tier, just above the removable thumb trick.
But there is another savior — a prophet of modern soul that had an absolutely stunning 2016. In a year that we've seemingly lost more luminaries than we've gained — Prince, Maurice White, Sharon Jones — he has done more to make the genre feel like a vital form of expression than just about any one else. Get to know him: Anderson .Paak.
You've likely heard him even if you don't recognize the name. A drummer, songwriter and vocalist, .Paak merges the showmanship of James Brown, the musicianship of his rhythmic anchor Clyde Stubblefield and a vocal dexterity akin to that of Andre 3000 or Cee-Lo Green into a single artistic entity. He's been omnipresent in the music of 2016, appearing on the new A Tribe Called Quest album, one of only two guests from the young vanguard of black music to receive the group's torch, alongside Kendrick Lamar.
He's also contributed to albums by Kaytranada, Mac Miller, Tokimonsta and Schoolboy Q, helping define the aesthetic of each album he appeared on. He's opened for acts as massive as Beyoncé, only to turn around and feature on tracks by up-and-coming producers like Milwaukee's Thane. He helped pen six tracks on Dr. Dre's 2015 Compton comeback album, all while releasing two of his own LP's this year: Malibu and Yes Lawd!, his collaboration with producer Knxwledge under the name NxWorries.
Both records drip with the kaleidoscopic, lackadaisical-but-driven hip-hop of artists like Chance the Rapper, D.R.A.M., Lil Yachty and Young Thug. They're positive, light-hearted — but with a thorough understanding of the darkness life can often hide.
On the first track of Malibu, a song called "The Bird," .Paak's narrates key points in his upbringing, wrapping the bullet notes in a message of resilience with "the sweetness of a honeycomb tree."
I'm repping for the longest cycle
My uncles had to pay the cost
My sister used to sing to Whitney
My mama caught the gambling bug
We came up in a lonely castle
My papa was behind them bars
We never had to want for nothing
Said all we ever need is love
As a child, .Paak saw his estranged father attack his mother in the street and get carted off for 14 years. His mother and stepfather followed shortly thereafter on a tax evasion charge, forcing .Paak to put aside his burgeoning music dreams for a time. He worked as a home health care aid, spent a few weeks in culinary school and worked a jaunt as a trimmer at a weed farm. When he started to refocus on music, he was determined to make an impact on the ears that happened to turn his way.
"Everybody either wants to sound like Drake or wants an underwater R&B or dark, weird sound," he told the LA Times in March, a quote woefully similar to what Bruno Mars told the Herald, as mentioned above. The difference in their responses to this reality is that .Paak's music has depth, a fullness in the way that it approaches and distills its visions of life on the brink. It still celebrates the good life — the flowing champagne and muscle car Sunday drives — but it frames them in a way that acknowledges them as a blessing. It belies his gospel upbringing; he learned drums playing in church, and he still brings that transmutation from the chapel into the secular. "The Waters" nods to both the struggle and the glory over lush funk.
While niggas was riffing and mumbling 'bout, what they could do
I was cooking gumbo whipping the voodoo
I was in the jungle running with Zulu's
We was looking past the struggle while life was moving so fast
You had to be sharp as a Ginsu
To the top of the food group
Doing what I want and how I should too
There's a focus to the music, a hunger, which is what gives soul that lift of vital momentum. In a year filled with so much pain — from the worst mass shootings the country has seen in modern history to the madness of the 2016 election — .Paak's sizzling rasp provides a necessary light. His is a voice that carries the promise of healing and emotional magnification music often claims to carry. It always comes with an unpredictability and suggestion of even greater depth, something only the greatest artists could conjure.
"The most important thing is to be true to yourself, but I also like danger," the immortal Prince once told the LA Times in a 1982 profile. "That's what's missing from pop music today. There's no excitement or mystery."
This is the arena so many soul revivalists fail to deliver. Nostalgia is a passive, static emotion; it contains no movement, no hint at new life beyond the confines of memory. But there are ways to draw from nostalgia's undeniably sweet fonts and use it as fuel to push into the unknown. Anderson .Paak's genre-promiscuous funk keeps that mystery alive and bridges that gulf between past and future over our vulnerable present. Under his tutelage and guidance, soul will prevail.