B.o.B and an era of hip-hop that's pop, pop, and more pop
MUSIC "Drug boys steady shooting. The streets don't give a damn. They're filled with such pollution," sings B.o.B on "Kids," an interpolation of the coda from Vampire Weekend's self-titled indie-pop gem. "The kids don't stand a chance."
But does B.o.B stand a chance? The Adventures of Bobby Ray (Atlantic) is pop, pop and more pop, embracing the current electro-pop-with-a-hip-hop-attitude zeitgeist with a smothering squeeze. If Kid Cudi took notes from Kanye's 808 and Heartbreak on his intermittently fascinating Man on the Moon: End of Day; then B.o.B seems to channel Lupe Fiasco's The Cool, with a dollop of Gym Class Heroes and Fall Out Boy thrown in.
B.o.B's hip-pop excursion flies right into a raging debate over presence in hip-hop music, and whether there's any left. The mainstream vanguard belongs to those willing to embrace rock and R&B clichés, whether it's Lil Wayne fake-strumming a guitar on "Prom Queen" or, more nobly, Phonte Coleman crooning on Foreign Exchange's "Daykeeper." The hardcore underground belongs to growlers who can spit "16 hot bars" for days over "hit" beats lifted like Just Blaze's "Exhibit C." (For the uninitiated: a "bar" is a stanza in a verse.) Each camp seems to disappear into its chosen musical backdrop, driving the beat with narratives and themes, yet rarely emerging with an MC's distinctly authoritative voice.
The recent death of Keith "Guru" Elam, who passed away April 20 after years spent battling cancer-related illnesses, underscores the stakes. On his work with Gang Starr, Guru not only excelled at storytelling, but at delivering classic lines that burned in your memory. Everyone knows "DWYCK" and "Lemonade is a popular drink and it still is/ I get more props and stunts than Bruce Willis." Or how about this one (my personal favorite) from "The ? Remains": "As the world revolves, wack crews lick my balls."
Peace to one of the best to ever do it. And to be fair, Lil Wayne, DOOM, Mos Def, and a handful of others still deliver those prized "hip-hop quotables." As for B.o.B? This may seem like a heavy burden for a 21 year-old kid who just released his first official album after years spent hyping himself with mixtapes like The Future and Hi! My Name is B.o.B. Once a hip-hop artist makes a best-seller, he becomes fodder for cruelly dismissive rap addicts clogging up chat boards, snarky rock critics penning capsule reviews for magazine slicks, and old-head journalists who slum down the media mountain to judge the latest craze against their idealized B-boy childhood. Each side will argue noisily and violently whether The Adventures of Bobby Ray spells the death or rebirth of hip-hop.
The turning point is "Nothin' on You," a shaggy-dog ballad that reached the summit of the Billboard singles chart. B.o.B leaves the hook to cowriter Bruno Mars, whose production crew the Smeezingtons (Flo Rida's "Right Round," K'naan's "Wavin' Flag") aims to be the new-school version of the Neptunes. "Beautiful girls, all over the world/ I could be chasin' but my time would be wasted/ They got nothin' on you, baby," sings Mars in a creamily soft voice.
In conversation, B.o.B is a likeable guy who doesn't have much to say about the artistic process. Some musicians are erudite Questloves who can philosophize on any and every studio session, while others are Ghostface Killahs who just do it and let the historians sort out the details. B.o.B acknowledges that The Adventures of Bobby Ray is a sharp departure from his early mixtape material.