B.o.B. rode the wave of radio-friendly grassroots-fed hip-hop at the end of the last decade alongside contemporaries like Kid Cudi and Wale. While the former turned emo astronaut with his Man on the Moon saga and the latter turned club rapper after signing with Maybach Music Group, B.o.B. found his own lane in pop-rap. Success followed with 600,000 copies of his debut album sold in the U.S. alone, topping the charts on the back of massively successful singles like “Airplanes” and “Past My Shades”. Strange Clouds hasn’t disappointed in sales so far, buoyed by seven months of regular airplay of the Lil Wayne-featuring first single. But what Strange Clouds makes up for in commercial clout, it lacks in creativity and cohesiveness.
It has been well documented that B.o.B. is a good technical rapper. He is incredibly nimble and when he’s in the zone he can go toe to toe with almost anyone. His best moments on Strange Clouds find him dropping into double-time at will and lacerating tough phrases like a master craftsman. But rapping only goes so far if the songs are overproduced to death. Take “Bombs Away”, which features B.o.B. at his vocal best (“If this is an embassy consider me Ambassador / Official, no artificial preservatives or additives”) and referentially off the wall with talk of the Illuminati and Niagara Falls. But add to it that track’s overburdened-to-the-point-of-tipping production and you’ve got an ungainly beast of a song. To say it gilds the lily with the operatic cooing, full choir, driving strings, and video game trills is a serious understatement. It’s about as subtle as advanced Parkinson’s, and that is not even considering the Morgan Freeman voice over about the battle between good and evil.
“Strange Clouds” is definitely a highlight, where B.o.B. brings the heat against an uneven Lil Wayne, and on closer “Where Are You (B.o.B. Vs. Bobby Ray)” B.o.B. does a successful approximation of Eminem, including a co-opting of the military drums and self-loathing monologue of Em’s “Toy Soldiers”. But for every successful track there’s a weak one. The nursery rhyme-infused lyrics of “Circles” come to mind as part of a series of tracks near the album’s end where an inexplicable and distracting echo settles in over the lyrics. “Ray Bands” is “Past My Shades” minus any charm the latter track had. “Both of Us” featuring Taylor Swift is desperately trying to recapture the appeal of “Airplanes” but it falls flat, closer to Kid Cudi’s collaboration with Dia Frampton from The Voice than anything Eminem would cosign.
In an interview with PopCrush, B.o.B. explained “I don’t think people really know enough of who I am,” adding “I am ready to really build the connection with my fans”. And this is a bigger issue even than the overkill production: B.o.B. fails at the task of letting people know who he is. There’s no cohesive story or personality behind Strange Clouds in the way that there is behind a juggernaut pop album like Adele’s 21. B.o.B. boasts of “Mustangs and Porsches imported from Japan” on one track, and on the next mimics a panic attack and laments that “the wealth attracts you haters like mosquitoes to a well”. Then, two short songs later, he is back to bragging about his international travel credentials and “swagger like Caesar”. There is one track where he goes T.I. on himself and raps as both B.o.B. and altar-ego Bobby Ray, but self-discovery isn’t the theme of the album. The album has no theme and at the end of the day we still don’t know who B.o.B. is outside of his affinity for protective eye wear. We just know that he is capable of more than Strange Clouds.
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