Friday, June 29, 2012

album review: 'strange clouds' by b.o.b.

Short version: a promising album with moments of true brilliance, but hampered by unnecessary guest stars, compromised production, studio interference, and B.o.B.'s lack of creative assertion. Overall, a good album, but it could have been a great one.

Today, I'm going to talk briefly about the breakdown of regionalization in rap music. 

Now, as utterly pretentious and completely boring as that might sound, it's actually something that says a lot about the evolution in hip-hop and rap music over the past twenty to twenty-five years. Considering most of you reading this probably weren't alive or old enough to care about this sort of thing, let me make this very explicit: back in the 80s and 90s, it mattered where your hip-hop and rap came from, and each region developed their own distinctive style. 

The first two regions that really grew were the East and West Coast. Driven by developments in New York and L.A., this was where the first real differences in the genre grew up. On the East Coast, lyrical dexterity was prized, with multisyllabic rhyming and complex wordplay. This is the coast that spawned Biggie and Jay-Z and Public Enemy and Nas, politically charged poets that greatly elevated their craft. On the West Coast, we had the explosion of gangsta rap and G-funk, driven by marijuana and great beats, inspiring artists like Snoop Dogg, Ice Cube, Dr. Dre, and Tupac Shakur. Suffice to say, the highly charged mid-90s were rocked by the feud between both coasts, escalating to a peak with the deaths of Biggie and 2Pac within months of each other. 

But in the mean time, we also had the growth of rap across other sections of the United States. The first big growth was Midwest hip-hop, driven by N.W.A. and the gangster rap explosion, but the broader diversity of the Midwest led to greater experimentation, such as the speed rap pioneered by Bone Thugs-n-Harmony and Twista and the horrorcore experiments of Eminem, Insane Clown Posse, and Three 6 Mafia. But I'm not here to talk about Midwest rap, or indeed any of the coastal rap movements.

Nope, today we're going to be discussing Southern rap, which is where the artist I'm reviewing today hails from. It's the youngest of the movements, and it also tends to be one most dismissed by critics (unfairly so, but I'll get to that). Granted, there have been a few critical success stories to emerge from 'the Dirty South', like Ludacris, T.I. and Lil Wayne, but most of the genre tends to get dumped upon for not nearly being as intelligent or interesting as their counterparts. It also doesn't help matters that crunk, the 'purple drank' movement, and Miami bass all came from the region - say what you want about the music of those movements, they weren't particularly lyrically dextrous or all that interesting outside of the initial fad. It also tended to be interesting to see how artists would distance themselves from the Southern scene as they got older. Lil Wayne has never rapped about the 'Dirty South', and while Ludacris and T.I. have always had some vestige of a connection to their roots, their later music had a much more pronounced West Coast vibe. It didn't seem that many rappers really wanted to embrace the southern style and culture with any intelligence or gravitas.

Except for one band: OutKast.

Let me make this clear: OutKast's existence pretty much justified the existence of the Southern style, because OutKast was fucking amazing. The imaginative and culturally-perceptive combination of Big Boi and Andre 3000 produced some of the best hip-hop music of the 90s and 00s throughout their active years, drawing inspiration from soul, early R&B, and both G- and P-funk. It also helped that both artists were great lyricists and rappers with a real eye for rapping about society and culture from a uniquely Southern viewpoint. They both experimented madly with genre and music, and produced some of the best hip-hop albums ever written. They were critically beloved, won a crapload of Grammys, and are one of my favourite bands. They never released an album I considered bad, and I still hold that Idlewild, the movie they created, was a critically underrated gem.

And like most, I was dispirited when OutKast broke up and the southern 'legacy' was being abandoned to wallow in crunk and bad gangsta cheese. 

And then we had a rapper who stepped out of the underground and critics began compariing his delivery with Andre 3000, not to mention his unique gift for blending musical styles. 

This rapper was called B.o.B. (which also happened to be a title of the best song OutKast ever made), and he dropped his debut album The Adventures of Bobby Ray in 2010. And...

I have mixed feelings about the guy. Don't get me wrong, he's a very solid rapper from a technical standpoint, and he's certainly better than other rappers who have mainstream success today (I'm looking at you, Drake, Wiz Khalifa, Tyga, most of the rest of the Young Money stable), but he has always struck me as a very odd duck in both his style and delivery. It's not that I found his debut bad, but it felt schizophrenic, loaded with half-realized ideas. He seemed to be emulating an atmopsheric, ethereal, almost folk-like styling for his beats, and his collaborations with alt rockers from Paramore and Weezer only strengthened the comparison. And I couldn't help but feel disappointed by the lack of southern culture in his delivery, particularly because Janelle Monae had written a space-themed Southern hip-hop album and nailed it out of the fucking park (seriously, if you're not listening to Janelle Monae, you're doing yourself a disservice - do it now). So on the release of his sophomore album (to mixed reviews that I haven't read), I'm looking forward to more of the same weirdness, hopefully with some greater focus. Hell, I even heard that there was going to be a collaboration between Andre 3000 and B.o.B. on this album and I was psyched! That sounded like all kinds of awesome, it was going to be great...

And I didn't get that.

Nope, 'Play The Guitar', the song between Andre 3000 and B.o.B., is not on Strange Clouds. But, to be honest, I'm kind of glad that it's not. Neither man is on their A-game in that song, and while the backing instrumental is great, it doesn't fit the tone of Strange Clouds  at all, to say nothing of the theme, but more on that later. 

That didn't stop this album from annoying me, though.

The first thing that frustrated me about the album at first glance was the number of guest collaborators. This trend in hip-hop really annoys me, because it was born a shitty hip-hop artist known as Master P, and it's often used to cover up the weaknesses of the main performer. However, it also doesn't help the album maintain much of a consistent focus and theme. However, the extra performers also really show the lie in the theme B.o.B. tries to bring across in the lyrics:isolation. This is a theme that B.o.B. has explored before on his last album and on some of his mixtapes, but here it takes central focus, as B.o.B. raps about the isolation of fame and stardom, to the point whenever he raps about having a connection with another human being ('So Good'), the music soars to the heights and he sounds thrilled.

Now rappers have explored the theme of isolation before. Off the top of my head, both Eminem and Kanye West have explored it in various ways on earlier albums. But the method B.o.B. uses is different than both of those artists: where Eminem and Kanye West try to earn sympathy through painfully honest and revealing lyrics and bleak production (it worked better for Eminem than Kanye, in my opinion), B.o.B. tries to earn it through ethereal production that seems like a blend between that of Ayreon and Childish Gambino (and that's a compliment, believe me). For the most part, it works pretty well - B.o.B's lyricism is good enough to support the production.

And there are moments of fucking brilliance on this album. The opening track, 'Bombs Away', has B.o.B. spitting with impressive intensity, backed up by great production and narration from Morgan fucking Freeman. The track where he collaborates with Taylor Swift (of all people!) uses Swift's authenticity to lend real soul to his singing. The single 'So Good' sounds a bit like a standard luxury rap about a girl, but B.o.B. sounds so earnest and in love and thankful for the connection with someone that it feels real and authentic. 'Just A Sign' blends Kanye's vocoder gimmicks with B.o.B.'s ghostly production to produce a surprisingly moving lament, and for once, the guest rapper (Playboy Tre) is willing to stick with the theme with a verse that feels both honest and incredibly mournful.

But the most telling tracks of the album are the last two, and are good enough as a pair to justify pretty much the entire album to me. 'Castles', B.o.B.'s collaboration with the most inhuman voice in hip-hop (Trey Songz - I mean, seriously, how is this guy a real person?) takes a very different side of the isolation by revelling in his wealth and his own imagined world - because, believe it or not, success can be kind of awesome. And then we get the last track, 'Where Are You', and not only is B.o.B. the best he's ever been as a rapper, but in a track he wrote and produced entirely by himself (and which is driven by piano, of all things), he ruthlessly skewers the lies of his fame and isolation. He's lost contact with his roots, his fans, his family, and his artistic integrity, sacrifices that he tries to justify, but ultimately can't in the face of music he loves. 

It's a resoundingly potent message, and real definite proof that B.o.B. is not only a unique and innovative producer and artist, but also that he can nail the theme of the album in a creatively deft turn.

But here's the big problem - remember when I mentioned the overload of guest stars and how that slightly undermined the theme of isolation? Well, it really doesn't help matters that outside of the moments of brilliance and B.o.B. trying to cling to the theme, he's further undermined by haphazard guest performances and some truly obnoxious production. The biggest offender is 'Out Of My Mind' with Nicki Minaj, where B.o.B. tries to play his isolation theme as 'only in his head', but the production is fucking awful and Nicki and B.o.B. have no creative chemistry at all. Just about as bad is 'Arena', featuring T.I. and official Enemy List member Chris Brown, where Brown adds a lazily arrogant chorus that completely  undermines B.o.B.'s desperate and despairing verses and then T.I. contributes jack shit. It's an infuriating song, because B.o.B. sounds great, and the stark contrast between him and the deserved (T.I.) and undeserved (Chris Brown) arrogance of the other performers is intriguing, but there's no thematic cohesion.

And the second song on the album, despite B.o.B.'s attempt to make things fit with the theme, is such an obvious commercial for Ray-ban sunglasses it's embarrassing. At that point, very early on, I saw the resonating truth behind the album: B.o.B. may be a talented artist, but he's also a complete tool of his corporate producers, who have zero confidence in B.o.B's ability to carry an album. But unlike cases like The Game's The R.E.D. Album last year, B.o.B. is never shown up by his guests on the tracks and proves rather competent. It also doesn't help matters when it appears B.o.B. would rather be working on folk-driven, rock-inspired hip-hop and his handlers instead want him to produce the luxury raps Ludacris can hammer out without fail. It's also probably the reason that any attempts to wrangle a unique cultural Southern-inspired style seem stymied under layers of bad modern production. Ultimately it leads to a compromised overall album - which B.o.B. is then self-aware enough to skewer on tracks like 'So Hard To Breathe' and especially 'Where Are You'.

So coming to the end of the album, I have to ask the question: if B.o.B. can admit on the album that it's a result of a compromised vision that is not his own, does that excuse the problems with it?

Well, no. While it's always convenient for artists to blame producers for album problems (looking at you, Lupe Fiasco), it doesn't help matters when the artist himself seems to lack the ability to prevent this unwelcome producer interference from happening. To compare to Lupe Fiasco, B.o.B.'s style of rap has been proven to sell with his previous record and his numerous guest slots on other hit songs - Lupe Fiasco, on the other hand, has never been as commercially successful as his producers have wanted, despite critical acclaim. B.o.B. doesn't have the excuse of his music being politically charged or baroque or even hard to sell, which implies if he actually asserted himself for creative control, he probably could get it. All of this puts together a portrait of an artist who is only beginning to develope the creative confidence to assert more control over his work, and the possibility of a joint collaborative album with T.I. is a very good sign for the future - a friendship with T.I. could lend B.o.B. some much needed confidence and give T.I. some badly needed artistic ambition.

However, Strange Clouds, while generally a good selection of catchy, likeable music, lacks cohesion, despite B.o.B.'s best effort. It's over-produced, overfilled with guest stars that don't contribute much at all, and generally feels compromised. It's a good rap album, but it's not a great one. There was real potential here, and B.o.B. disappointed me by not quite pulling it off. However, I'm willing to be forgiving for once, because there is potential on display here. Plus, even though the last rock album that was made by a rapper was the horrifying disaster of Lil Wayne's Rebirth, B.o.B. gets rock well enough to make a pretty great folk-rock-hip-hop album, and if he chooses his collaborators well, we could really have something special. It could mean something special for Southern hip-hop.

Grow a spine, B.o.B., I've got high hopes for you.

1 comment:

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