If presence was the only thing that mattered about being a musician, then everything Anderson .Paak touches would be classic. The man was born to entertain, and you can feel his performative joy emanating through his raspy crooning, high-velocity raps, and his percussion that brings it all home. His breakthrough album, Malibu, was like a coronation to tell everyone that this guy who was all over Compton had his flag firmly planted in the ground of R&B and hip-hop.

After last year’s follow-up, Oxnard, pumped up the guest list but dried up the soul, it seemed like Paak might be more reliable than astonishing, at least on record. There was nothing all that wrong with Oxnard, but put its tracklist against its predecessor and there’s no contest about which one has the more memorable songs and the more cohesive vision. Perhaps it’d be easier to embrace if it hadn’t felt like a lifetime had passed since Malibu came out.

Paak fans might’ve been underwhelmed by Oxnard but nobody seemed disillusioned, and news of a looming follow-up album, Ventura, recorded at the same time, definitely seemed like it could be a sort of course-correction to prove that Malibu wasn’t a fluke. Or that Paak would be more in his element when he got to be the star attraction and not having A-listers like Kendrick Lamar and J. Cole lessen his glow.

Of course, if that was his intention, he starts things off in a curious manner: with a song featuring André 3000 of all people. Much like Assume Form’s ‘Where’s The Catch?’, 'Come Home’ falls into the trap of feeling like everything prior to the Outkast star’s verse is just there to set the stage. Like most Paak songs, it’s arranged well, with plenty of warmth from the keys, drum rolls, and background vocals from Norelle, but his desire to add greatness to the track ironically backfires and lessens its impact. The sparkle of Paak’s best work comes from how uncalculated it feels. The only way this opener is going to sound truly one-of-kind is if this is the first time you’ve heard either Anderson .Paak or André 3000.

Ventura feels more like a collection of songs than a fleshed-out album, but the runtime is much slimmer than Oxnard and its highs are quite a bit higher. Unfortunately, it also hits a lull towards the end. You could make the ultimate Malibu follow-up by taking the best of both this and Oxnard into one tight product and putting the rest into bonus discs.

When Paak doesn’t feel like he’s following a script, his songwriting and (especially) his performances stand out. He told Esquire about Dr. Dre giving him more freedom compared to Oxnard and the looser he gets, the better he is. ‘Make It Better’, co-produced by The Alchemist and featuring Smokey Robinson is irresistibly bouncy and asserts Paak’s charisma through things like the playful sound of his voice when reminiscing. ‘Reachin’ 2 Much’ is like a disco-infused jam session. It goes on for the better part of five minutes, but you can easily imagine a live rendition going twice as long and nobody checking their phones.

One of Paak’s most appealing attributes is his belief in the power of upliftment. ‘King James,’ is a cry of black empowerment through community outreach that doesn’t overlook the struggle that has been and will continue to be faced. (“We couldn't stand to see our children shot dead in the streets/ But when I finally took a knee, them crackers took me out the league”). Between the saxophone and referee whistle, it’s an abundance of joyful noise unto the Lord (or as Paak might say, “the Lawd!”).

The rest of Ventura is mostly pretty good, but it certainly can’t quell the notion that Malibu is destined to be his peak. There’s a lot of theoretically-intriguing things happening, from dialogue samples from A Bronx Tale to Dirty Projectors-esque vocal melodies to Sailor Moon and MF DOOM namedrops, but the difference between Paak really putting his heart into a song and just getting by on a well-honed style isn’t hard to find. The brief almost-caught-cheating ‘Good Heels’ with Jazmine Sullivan doesn’t fit in well at all, though that might be different if it actually had an arc. Most of his collaborators, including Brandy, don’t get much to do. Nate Dogg has some previously-unreleased vocals on closer ‘What Can We Do?,’ which has Paak’s best vocal performance all album, if not his best songwriting.

When you get your sound so right so early, it might seem unfair to be criticized for sticking to what you know. Ventura, while not without highlights, finds Paak punching below his weight a bit too much. When you excel at making breezy listens, you have to be careful about your impact not blowing away.