Atlantic Records offered Aaron Matthews 13 Plies records and a FloRida poster to write this post. He refused until they agreed to send Trey Songz to play the Bar-Mitzvah of his first-born son.
Atlanta rapper B.o.B., nee Bobby Ray Simmons, signed to Atlantic while still in high school. After building buzz with his early single “Haterz Everywhere,” he released a number of mixtapes, starting with 2007’s Cloud 9. And then…nothing. His debut’s release date was seemingly pushed back to eternity. B.o.B.’s early tapes combined agile rapping with spacey singing on brilliant songs like “Daddy” and “Cloud 9”, but the 2009 mixtape B.o.B. Vs. Bobby Ray marked a turning point for his music. Following a public identity crisis where he temporarily ditched the B.o.B. name and went by his birth name, the tape was split in two halves; the B.o.B. side consisted of pure rapping while the Bobby Ray side was all pop songs, drawing heavily on dude’s love for dorm room faves Incubus and Coldplay.
Shortly thereafter, the buoyant single “Nothin’ On You” dropped, creeping up the charts until it took the number one spot. Lo and behold, he Atlantic took him out of the dungeon, gave him a release date and he dropped something that sounded almost entirely nothing like the tapes he made his name on. And you can guess the rest: it sold, fans on-board since the underground tapes got sour, and began pretending that Atlantic would’ve let him drop a retail album filled with nothing but Playboy Tre, Lil Boosie and Yola collabos (which is a good idea theoretically).
It’s no secret anymore that the genre boundaries between hip-hop and alternative/indie rock are becoming increasingly blurred. Kid Cudi was the first influential rapper to convincingly adopt an indie aesthetic, singing and rapping over songs by Band of Horses, LCD Soundsystem and Vampire Weekend without pandering to the hipster audience; don’t forget his palpable influence on 808s and Heartbreak, the album which brought this aesthetic to the mainstream. Even after everyone and their kid brother rapped over “Paper Planes” and Capo mumbled over MGMT, who would have expected to see a remake of a Vampire Weekend song on a major label rap album in 2010? Sure, the aforementioned “Kids” is a sad waste of Janelle Monae but B.o.B. still does a lot right on this album. His sincere appreciate of Paramore make the Hayley Williams collabo plausible; “Airplanes” is honest, emotive pop-rap, seemingly tailor-made for Facebook profile quotes. “Don’t Let Me Fall” is a great summation of B.o.B.’s rapping and songwriting talents, a rousing risin’-to-the-top tale with enormous hooks. The biggest issue with Adventures is its absence of depth; these are catchy, fancifully dressed pop songs with little of the gravity and insight shown in B.o.B.’s mixtape work. Atlantic tested the waters by releasing “I’ll Be In The Sky” as a teaser for the album; it flopped and so nothing on Adventures comes close to matching its exuberant meditations on fame, racial identity and mortality. Instead of “gold teeth don’t match with a suit”, we get sub-OK Go new wave with the rice chaser from Weezer (“Magic”), bitching about the perils of stardom (“Fame”) and a weak attempt at a lighter-waver (“Ghost In The Machine”). For all Bob’s vocal desire for creativity and self-expression, the album’s synergized guest list screams suit-approved, the rock collaborators rather predictable. What are the odds his A&R enjoys mountain-climbing?
But the wild success of Adventures all but guarantees a follow-up. Bobby Ray remains only 21 and still has a lot of time to grow and with his recent success will inevitably receive more artistic freedom on his next jaunt. Even if he continues to record pop-rap retail records, there’s always the underground mixtapes to satisfy the bloggerati and diehards. But if Bob’s smart, he’s looking at what Lupe Fiasco’s doing; their collaboration on “Past My Shades” is one of the strongest tracks on the album. Before Ye or Cudi, Lupe opened the gates for an overt integration of modern pop rock into hip-hop with “Superstar”. He’s wisely followed middle-level rock band’s business model, down to singing for punk band Japanese Cartoon; Lupe honed his live show and built a dedicated following of teens and skaters through touring in youth-oriented venues – he’s the most commonly cited influence by the jerkin’ kids, for starters. And Lupe got success largely without dumbing it down; within his 16 bars on “Past My Shades,” Lupe manages to reference his (legit) hand skills, Rick Ross, stunna shades and the X-Men. There’s space for intelligent, creative hip-hop with pop aspirations which contemporaries like the Knux and Spree Wilson have similarly targeted. It’s a smart move; a hip-hop act which can credibly play a rock club has greater access to both a broader pop audience and to the rock press that only pays attention to rappers when they sing or pick up a six-string (looking in your direction, Mr. F. Baby).
Pop-rap isn’t dangerous. Given the album’s teenybopper demographic, Adventures can serve as a gateway drug for younger rap fans, a sort-of Fisher-Price hip-hop record. “Bet I Bust” with T.I. and underground stalwart Playboy Tre is a fine introduction to ATL rap’s snappin and trappin’, while “Airplanes II” is a potent reminder of Eminem’s lyrical talent for a generation familiar with the Marshall of “Forever” and “We Made You”. A lot of people criticizing B.O.B.’s new artistic direction probably have a copy of Homebase or I Wish gathering dust in their closet. Hard to say if “Nothin’ On You” will hold up as a pop-rap standard like “Summertime,” “I Got A Man,” or “I Wish” years from now, but the ebullient chorus and the ear-catching reference to freezing “like an N64” ought to help. Adventures isn’t the game-changing album that B.o.B. seemed initially capable of; it’s a bright, widescreen pop record that largely succeeds at what it aims for. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. — Aaron Matthews
Take a second to appreciate a few gems from B.o.B.’s work pre-Ellen DeGeneres.
Video: B.O.B. – “I’ll Be In The Sky”
MP3: B.O.B. – “Daddy”