All photos by Julia Hannafin
In the very near, very bright future, about-to-blow R&B singer Anderson .Paak will fill your screen—a screen hoisted in the grips of VRC’s virtual reality headset inches in front of your eyes. It won’t just be watching a show. You’ll be experiencing what Anderson .Paak live feels like—the infectious energy of his performing, the live band that rocks loud behind him, the girls dancing next to you in the front row, cell phones raised to capture, and even that moment you really believe Paak just met your eyes out of everyone else's in the crowd.
On a Tuesday night at Mack Sennet Studios in LA, 29-year-old Paak performed in one of the first-ever virtual reality concert experiences. VRC, a virtual reality company co-founded by a squad of entrepreneurs and Robert Stromberg, the designer and special effects artist behind the worlds of Avatar, Alice In Wonderland, and Maleficent, wants to move the medium into a new territory: live music. Sure, there've been some 3D videos of concerts, but they're mostly culled from existing shows. They are not, as VRC co-founder Guy Primus puts it, “A concert engineered from the ground up, specifically for virtual reality.”
Tonight has two moments: one for virtual reality, a technology appreciated but perhaps not yet fully embraced, and one for Anderson himself, an immensely talented solo artist whom people are finally starting to pay attention to.
Paak is an artist with a long story. After working for years for other artists in various capacities (assistant, videographer, editor, writer, producer, you name it), while making his own solo music on the side as Breezy Lovejoy, he released his debut album Venice under his real name in 2014. Malibu, his second album, is due out later this year.
At the event, co-hosted by Steel Wool Entertainment, partygoers got a few experiences in one. First, a colorful, immersive demo into the virtual reality technology that takes you to an animated world that feels a little like Pixar meets a Japanese video game. The sound from your headphones surrounds you; turn around, look up, look down, and the magic world continues.
By the time I re-oriented irl, the concert was about to begin. VRC wants to create music venues specially for virtual reality photography, and evidence of that read all across the huge space. Cameras with honeycombed lenses rotated around the room. Men with 3D cameras strapped to their faces switched position on the stage with every song. TOKiMONSTA warmed the crowd up with a bass-heavy set, spinning from the metal birdcage of a DJ booth.
Yeah, the audience is part of something special, but it’s not exactly the process for the crowd that makes it; it’s what comes after. What VR photography means, practically speaking, is a concert venue that keeps all its light on. In order to fully appreciate the night, we must have a little faith: in what this new technology could promise young artists like Anderson .Paak who are ready to create their own worlds for the people who follow them.
When discussing the technology's future, Stromberg’s blue eyes grow animated. “The goal eventually is to create a venue in which artists can express themselves,” he says. “To create shows for themselves that aren’t possible in the real world.”
After a few minutes, Paak’s turn comes up, and he follows his band, The Free Nationals, on stage.
So why Paak, for this virtual reality thing? He’s an artist who has proved himself in quite a few arenas: four scene-stealing cameos on Dr. Dre’s Compton, as well as a roster of collaborators that include The Game, Dumfoundead, Jonwayne, Wax, Watsky, and EOM. This month, that list grew to include 9th Wonder and Schoolboy Q, the latter of whom appeared on stage for his feature on a song from Malibu. He's an innovator, mindful to stay a few steps ahead of other artists and is confident that the time for his style will come. He strikes at the emotionally complex in R&B, music for a generation whose love stories grow more and more complicated.
“That’s what I always wanted to be—an artist who can get in any room and figure out how to continue to be myself, but also work with where I’m at and be able to maneuver it,” Paak says, and it’s clear that he’s done just that. Paak's solo work has already earned a substantial following. Dozens came to VRC's event ot hear his voice. I look around during songs off of 2014's Venice and everyone is singing along: “If I call you a bitch… It’s cause you're my bitch… And as long as no one else call you a bitch… Then there won't be no problems.”
Before the show starts, I get a few minutes alone with Paak and ask him what it means to finally step into in the spotlight. He smiles a lot, but he’s serious: Paak knows what this time means. He sees his place within this current musical moment, and he is about to do everything he can to make the most of it. “Time to execute,” he says.
The man's got star power. When the music kicks in and he steps onto the stage, his energy is palpable; his command of the crowd, undeniable. Even in the brightest lighting, fans in the front row are breaking it down all night. Whether Paak's body rolling to “Luh You,” or cheekily pausing mid-dance move before the pass on “Drugs” drops, or throwing down his mic to run over to kill on the drums for a few beats, he’s got everyone’s attention. And lucky for us, the attention of a thousand little camera parts, too.
Paak is humble, but allows himself a pat on the back. Even while running with industry heavyweights, he’s able to stay himself: “I haven’t had to bend too far left or right to do something out of pocket that’s outside of myself.” He pauses. “I kinda just do me, you know?”
The concert ends with his raucous performance of “Drugs”, and the light-filled space finally starts to flicker down. What’s next? We live it all over again in VR. For artists like Paak, we’re down for the ride.