“Are you ready to lose your mind, London?” yells Anderson Paak, clad in beanie, bomber jacket and black jeans and leaning in to a frothing, selfie-ing crowd. He’s standing atop an exercise bench he’s been pogoing on for the last couple of minutes, exhorting the room to “Bounce, bounce, bounce”.
Then, barely pausing for breath, he darts behind the drumkit to lead his band the Free Nationals through a brief, bristling burst of funk, before slowing the beat for some hazy, sweet R&B. This, clearly, is a man unafraid of breaking a sweat to bring the house down.
It’s an unassumingly hungry performance from an artist who knows what defeat tastes like and, now tasting success, is firmly focused on keeping it. In the same way Kanye West was fuelled by the sting of rejection the feted producer felt when he first recast himself as a rapper, shaping his bruised, score-settling breakthrough records – Anderson Paak’s crisis was also the making of him. After losing his job on a marijuana farm, the singer found himself homeless, with a young family in tow. Desperate, Paak gambled their future on the music he’d been recording in his downtime, luck smiling in the form of Shafiq Husayn of R&B collective Sa-Ra, who offered the one-time music teacher a job and a place to stay while he finished his debut album.
Six years on, Paak’s a Grammy-nominated “overnight success” who’s collaborated with Dre, Kendrick Lamar and TI, often singing his own hard luck/good fortune tale tonight, be it the triumphant swagger of Come Down, or the carpe diem philosophising of Am I Wrong. In these tracks, struggle is inevitable but triumph is always within reach, Paak testifying on the latter song, “I believe in fate”, with conviction – and why wouldn’t he?
Paak delivers his inspirational tales with flourishes of Chicken Grease funk, occasionally humping the air and training his marksman-like aim at the dance floor. Stretching the laser-guided pop of Luh You into a groove-laden epic littered with false endings and euphoric peaks, it’s clear that maximum effort at all times is his approach. While his unfussily virtuoso Free Nationals occasionally wig out into gleeful fusioneering like kindred spirit Thundercat, Paak’s pop-savvy discipline keeps him forever trained on the song.
His ballads – fevered, carnal, relatable – roil with the kind of yearning revelations that hit you when you’re wasted in a taxi at 3am, racing to the next party, while his bangers are smeared with enough dreamy synths to blur the line between the club and the bedroom. So much so, it’s almost no surprise when Syd from the Internet bounds on stage for an impromptu run through her anthem Girl. But it’s Paak’s story centre stage tonight, culminating in The Dreamer, the closing track from his breakthrough LP Malibu, the triumphalist, gospelised funk building and building as Paak pogos on his bench, leading the chant of: “Don’t stop now / Keep dreaming.” Corny, maybe, but that’s the truth his life has taught him, and he sells it tonight with a fervour and a flair that’s irresistible.