Review Summary: B.o.B expands upon his debut's pop-hop style, and creates a more organic, enjoyable album in the process.
There's a lot of divided consensus on Bobby Ray Simmons, a.k.a. B.o.B, particularly regarding his debut album, The Adventures of Bobby Ray
, which was released in 2010. Some believed him to be the second coming of André 3000, what with his genre-blending style, multi-instrumentalism, and deep roots in both hip-hop and alternative rock. Others, like Tyler, The Creator, would rather see him die in a fiery airplane crash for his tendency to incorporate extreme amounts of pop and heavy usage of irritating hooks. But it has been generally agreed that B.o.B has plenty of rapping skill, and that helped his first album earn some clout and generated some steam for his second.
Now it's 2012, two mixtapes and a short-lived beef with Odd Future later. [i]Strange Clouds[i] has been released, with B.o.B comparing it to the second time you have sex. He also claimed that he felt like he better fit his niche, so to speak, and that the album would cause people surprise, that they wouldn't expect this kind of music from him. Although the latter half of that is inaccurate - it's the same pop/hip-hop amalgam that made up Adventures
- the former is quite true. B.o.B feels more organic and less manufactured on this album, as if he's not only enjoying what he's doing, but that he's also not directly trying to hit the Billboard 100. He certainly will, and it's possible that's what he (or rather Atlantic) was aiming for, but regardless, the album's sound feels more natural.
One thing that can be noted is that the humble nature that was seen throughout much of his first album has mostly disappeared. There was already braggadocio seen there, but it's much more evident on Strange Clouds
. For example, the song "So Good", in which he name-drops plentiful monuments and artists in a seduction attempt. The single is one of the album's best, combining a soaring upbeat piano with plenty of quality rapping from B.o.B without a guest behind him, and a stellar hook. On the other end of the spectrum is "Just a Sign", which features Playboy Tre and some introspective thoughts on technology, faith, and loss from both artists. There are still flashes of humility, such as on "Both of Us" or the aforementioned "Just a Sign", but for the most part, the themes are wealth and fame, either celebrating or questioning it.
Speaking of "Both of Us", that song is a good example of the blessing and the curse around the album: it's very, very similar to Adventures
. Many of the songs, although they stand on their own well, simultaneously feel like re-hashes of songs from the debut. "Both of Us" inherits the theme and style of "Airplanes", "Ray Bands" continues the sunglasses concept from "Past My Shades", "Never Let You Go" is essentially a reversal of "Don't Let Me Fall". Although the songs all work well and aren't irritating or bad, they do raise the question of whether B.o.B can write lyrics that approach new subject matter while remaining clever. The album's beats tend to balance out the lyrics, however, bettering the poppy sounds of the original and cutting the more annoying ones. In terms of production, there isn't anything particularly new, but there aren't many sounds that should bother anybody (unless they find it corny, which is fair enough).
The album also retains the guest-heavy format of its predecessor, which can vary in result. On "Out of My Mind", Nicki Minaj does that brilliant thing she did on Kanye West's "Monster", where, instead of pigeon-holing herself into the role of pop singer, she spits truly venomous bars. On the titular track, Lil' Wayne delivers one of his best post-incarceration verses. And on the album's opener, Morgan Freeman brings that fantastic voice of his to some comic-book/sci-fi spoken word to introduce B.o.B. However, there's still the matter of the hooks. Though they've certainly improved from his debut, the guest singers tend to add little. Swift and Trey Songz do quite well on their respective guest spots, but both Chris Brown's presence and his lyrics are infuriating, and Lauriana Mae's voice is rather irritating. Either way, B.o.B does an excellent job of not being overshadowed by his guests, and you can tell instantly that he's the star of the show on this album.
Although the album as a whole is highly enjoyable, there are a few slip-ups. But thankfully, these slip-ups are less on the level of "tripped and fell down some stairs, cracking one's head open" and more along the lines of "tripped and did a decent front-flip to cover up the mistake". On the title track and on "Bombs Away", there are sparks of dubstep, which neither sound appealing or fit in with the rest of the production. There's the aforementioned lack of diversity in lyrical content. And certain songs, such as "Circles", just feel unnecessary, as if the album wouldn't have suffered in the slightest if they were removed.
But despite some issues, B.o.B's sophomore album is a good
one. It expands upon the positive aspects of his original, cuts down on the eclectic and chaotic genre-bending to a reasonable level, and generally improves in sound, making Strange Clouds
more organic and enjoyable.