Anderson .Paak delivered a virtuosic and groovy performance alongside The Free Nationals that would appeal to teenage outcasts and R&B purists at the swanky MGM National Harbor on Feb. 20. The dreary winter night outside was no match for the uplifting Los Angeles native, whether he was behind the microphone or the drum set.

A 30-foot golden lion stood at the doors of the flashy — and flashing — MGM National Harbor complex, greeting guests to the conservatory. The room’s cavernous ceilings housed a glamorous display of Asian cherry blossoms and hanging human-sized gold coins, a stunning view for audiences before they entered the concert venue. True to its name, the theater boasted not only a massive pit for general admission ticket holders, but mezzanine and orchestra levels, too.

The longtime .Paak fans camped out toward the front of the pit, sporting the artist’s merchandise from albums past and bristling with anticipatory energy. Far removed from these superfans were the patrons of the upper levels, largely comprised of couples looking for a night out and dressed to the nines.

The heterogeneity of attendees established pockets of enthusiasm and larger swaths of apathy, even among the general admission crowd, perhaps best showcased in the responses to opening act Tayla Parx. While the Dallas native’s contributions to modern pop, such as co-writing Ariana Grande’s smash hit “Thank U, Next,” are undeniably far-reaching, her dyed-pink hair and earnestly performed 10-song set were not enough to garner the participation or even the attention of most of the crowd members.

@ANDERSON_.PAAK/INSTAGRAM | Anderson .Paak created a buzzing, multifaceted show, delighting new and old fans alike.

By 9:15 p.m., the theater was filled with agitated murmurs. .Paak was scheduled to come onstage 15 minutes earlier, yet the only sign of a show to come was an illuminated tour decal advertising the “Andy’s Beach Club World Tour.” Without warning, the lights went down and spotlights shone from the back of the stage, projecting the silhouettes of .Paak’s touring band, The Free Nationals, onto a massive silver transparent veil separating the crowd from the instruments.

The shadow of .Paak’s signature drum set stood out like a band leader, sitting front and center on an elevated platform. Then, the outline of a man clad in a bucket hat, sunglasses and tennis shoes, seemingly in search of the aforementioned beach club, sat down and took the drumsticks amid roars from the crowd.

Setting himself apart from other members of the hip-hop industry, .Paak, born Brandon Paak Anderson, began his musical career as a prodigiously talented church drummer. A roller coaster of career changes left Andy homeless with his wife and child in 2011, living off a growing reputation among his Los Angeles contemporaries for his instinctual sense of rhythm. By 2018, with three projects, five albums and three Grammy nominations under his belt, .Paak affirmed rapper Dr. Dre’s faith in him after being signed to the iconic Aftermath Records. .Paak’s status in hip-hop elevated after he released “Oxnard,” an intricately produced ode to his upbringing in the namesake California city.

.Paak kicked off his set behind the shadowy veil, punching out an impromptu drum solo before jumping headfirst into the first track of “Oxnard,” “The Chase.” The spotlights danced around the curtain, shifting the focus of the silhouettes between .Paak and the grooving bassist, keyboardist and guitarist of the Free Nationals. Also joining the ensemble were a trumpet player and an additional percussionist, adding ever more soul to the production.

As .Paak emerged from anonymity, grabbing a mic and sauntering across the stage for “Who R U?” and “Bubblin,” he was met with an army of iPhone cameras. Between the two tracks, he ventured onto the front platform of the stage, within reach of the audience. This showmanship only encouraged the wannabe videographers. .Paak chuckled at the digitally engrossed crowd, joking, “Y’all are gonna make me go viral!”

It was no problem to procure smartphone flashlights from the entire venue during the third-verse breakdown of his collaboration with producer Kaytranada, “Glowed Up.” However, when .Paak tried his hand at crowdsurfing after rapping the swagger-filled “Saviers Road,” his journey over his fans was cut short by those who captured a video instead of passing him around. He was returned to the stage after a few seconds, shrugging to his bandmates and admitting, “Maybe not tonight.”

That is not to say the audience was devoid of spirit; .Paak’s hip-hop-influenced, dexterous drumming maintained its irresistible, almost cathartic qualities. Dipping into songs from his 2016 album, the Grammy-nominated “Malibu,” brought fans to life from front to back. The crowd members sang “Heart Don’t Stand a Chance” back at .Paak as if they had written it themselves.

The pinnacle of the audience to stage connection came when .Paak shouted out a passionate, crutch-wielding fan in the back of venue. The audience members made up for their prior crowd-surfing woes and lifted this superfan overhead. This lucky attendee was propelled over the masses and delivered soundly in front of the stage during the angelic, strobe-lit insanity of “Put Me Thru.”

.Paak churned out hit after hit, reviving his 2015 hit “Suede,” which he created with producer Knxledge under the moniker NxWorries. He then brought Parx back onstage for the “Oxnard” single “Tints,” but it became clear that the crowd’s enthusiasm didn’t extend far past the first few rows. Such an anthemic all-out jam only elicited cameras and disinterested head nodding. This lack of liveliness is credited to sheer size, both of .Paak’s expanded fanbase and, in turn, the impersonal theater.

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