Tuesday, December 17, 2013

album review: 'underground luxury' by b.o.b.

One of the first album reviews I ever wrote for my blog was for the sophomore album Strange Clouds by B.o.B., and I've always had a bit of a fondness for the guy. I've liked his inventive production that blends southern hip-hop trends with off-beat folk and futuristic beats, his flair for bombast and killer pop hooks that are striking and memorable, his flow and wordplay calling back to that of Andre 3000, and his lyrical dexterity in constructing an intricate and compelling song. That last album had a loose thematic progression exploring isolation and coming to grips with success, and while I'd argue the record was shaky, inconsistent, and frequently undermined by guest stars who didn't contribute well, it ultimately managed to stick the landing with the career defining thesis statement of 'Where Are You (B.o.B. vs. Bobby Ray)'. The song remains a big favourite of mine for the superb piano hook and the fact that it proved B.o.B. was his own harshest critic. 

And thus, I've always tried to keep my eye on B.o.B. throughout this year. Fortunately, it wasn't all that difficult, given that he had a hit lurking in the Billboard Hot 100 for most of this year. Unfortunately, that song was 'HeadBand' featuring 2 Chainz, which was only really notable for a listless and minimalist presentation in a year where most mainstream rap was listless and minimalist, where 2 Chainz delivered a load of punchlines I could have sworn he already used in one of his other myriad guest appearances this year, and B.o.B. delivered two of the most lazy performances I had ever heard. It was a disconcerting sign of things to come, and thus I wasn't really looking forward to Underground Luxury, which the record label had decided to dump in mid-December (already a bad sign). Granted, he's still a good rapper and producer, but was the energy or intellect going to survive the transition on a record which he called his most 'effortless' to create?

No. No, they didn't, and it's been a while since I've been this disappointed. I'll say that Underground Luxury by B.o.B. isn't terrible, but it's definitely mediocre and a big step down from his previous albums. Worse still, it's a record that plainly shows that B.o.B. just isn't trying the same way anymore across the board, and considering that I used to like this guy, it's a real disappointment. What the hell happened?

Okay, let's start with instrumentation, and here's where I'll pay him the solitary compliment I'll give this album: he might be one of the few mainstream rappers I've heard to implement trap instrumentation into his production where it kind of works. That's mostly because B.o.B. has always had a taste for more classical instrumentation and chamber pop for his melodies, and he smartly manages to balance trap-flavoured percussion with the rest of his mix. And sure, his production has sanded off the slightest hints of texture or grit (with the exception of 'Coastline', which has a thudding industrial-flavoured backbeat that might be the grimiest thing B.o.B. has ever touched), but it somewhat works with the more spacious, airy, melody-driven feel that has always characterized B.o.B.'s work. The problem is that when the melodies are there, they don't really build to much, and the dramatic hooks feel underweight and not particularly special.

And that's mostly thanks to B.o.B. himself, and where the problems begin in earnest. Maybe it's just being exposed to better rappers this year, but a lot of B.o.B.'s technical problems began cropping up in earnest on this record and I was shocked how many sloppy rhymes and repeated phrases were used to fill up space in the verses. When you start peeling back the poetry, this is a shockingly underwritten album, and the detail or insight or at least variety that used to characterize B.o.B.'s rhyming just isn't here. Instead, we get track after track stuck in the same generic luxury rap, focused on cash, weed, and hoes. What's worse is that it's not even interesting luxury rap - I swear I've heard these punchlines satirized with more detail and flair by Danny Brown this year! And it really doesn't help matters when B.o.B. just is not spitting with the same degree of intensity or spark - when he sounds bored on the track, why the hell should I care?

Now granted, it's not all luxury rap: B.o.B. tries to get political on 'Paper Route' and talk about government surveillance into our lives and materialism - which on their own are topics that could support a whole song (or even a whole album) and B.o.B. barely skims the surface! 'John Doe' talks about addiction and features a great hook from Priscilla Renea, but that momentum is squandered by a final verse that just turns into another rap about dealing with music politics. 'Nobody Told Me' tries to go into the 'more money, more problems' issue... except that Danny Brown's 'Lonely' and Eminem's 'So Far...' and a good half of Hopsin's most recent album touched on this with way more insight than B.o.B. could bother to produce! It also feels more than a little disingenuous for B.o.B. to be complaining about wealth when his opening track 'All I Want' is built around the shallowest materialism I've seen in a long time! Same with 'John Doe' - it's hard to take a song like that seriously when your next track 'Cranberry Moon Walk' is all about smoking weed!

That's the big issue with Underground Luxury: it has no idea what it wants to be. There are fragments of insight from the old B.o.B., but it's clear he'd rather just rap about shallow partying and weed and sex and all the rest of the topics I've already heard done a lot better this year. What's worse is that this album seems to be reveling in its shallowness, just daring critics to call him out so he can say, 'This is what I want to be talking about - there's nothing wrong with party songs!' And he's not entirely wrong in that, but even I'm not sure even he buys it! 'Coastline', probably the best track on the record, shows more than a little insecurity about that shallow frame of mind - and the scary thing is that the self-awareness that used to define B.o.B.'s best work is slowly fading away. And his guest stars sure as hell aren't helping - when you have limited personalities like 2 Chainz reinforcing this terrible mindset and perpetuating the cultural delusion that Future deserves to have a career in anything related to music, you're not setting yourself up for success!

Look, I get that B.o.B. wants to just have fun and party, and I get the debauched impulse to do just that. But this album doesn't have the focus, the instrumentation doesn't have the flavour, and B.o.B. doesn't have the motivation to make this album even a good party record. While I do have a fondness for B.o.B.'s production, even that's fading away with his sloppier rapping and borderline-cursory examination of any serious subject beyond gold and tits. So with that, this album is getting 4/10 and no recommendation. 

I mean, ain't this the dude who said it ain't about the price tag / now on this record, all you did is brag / come on, Bob, I thought you were better than that, dawg / what happened to Cloud 9 and Generation Lost / You're succumbing to a golden idol, and givin' up on everything / And you're losing that familiar melody, melody...

1 comment:

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