Thursday, August 20, 2015

album review: 'psycadelik thoughtz' by b.o.b.

I can't imagine what it might feel like for a rapper who loses their hype, especially one who made it big for a second in the mainstream before it all fell apart. And the more I've reflected upon the career of B.o.B., Atlanta MC that was once being compared to Andre 3000 for his flow, eclectic fascination with other genres, and guitar skills, the more I'm starting to think this is the case. After a series of well-received mixtapes he smashed into the scene with The Adventures of Bobby Ray, which despite being pretty uneven did show off a rapper with real chops, a unique brand of production, and a fair amount of charisma that could play to the mainstream. Which of course was what happened, with huge songs like 'Airplanes' and 'Nothing On You' and 'Magic'. He followed it up with Strange Clouds in 2012, which was just as uneven but still had some solid songs I really love to this day, including 'So Good' and 'Where Are You (B.o.B. vs. Bobby Ray)'.

And then it all fell apart. His buzz seemed to evaporate without good singles, and as hip-hop went for the darker trap sound he struggled to keep up. But 'struggle' might be the wrong word, because I reviewed his 2013 record Underground Luxury and it sucked, not just because of messy trap beats but because B.o.B. was just wallowing in lazy, badly written hedonism. For a rapper who once had such imagination to devolve into that was incredibly disappointing for me, and for once it seems like everyone else agreed, with many critics trashing the album and the sales being miserable.

So what do you do when you're a rapper who has lost your hype? Well, from my point of view you've got one of four options: you retire; you slink back into the indie scene and try to rebuild your cred, you stay signed to the major label and hope to God you can follow trends well enough to churn out hits at the expense of your identity, or - and this came out of nowhere - you decide to title your next record Psycadelik Thoughtz and drop it with no promotion or lead-off single in the hopes surprise will draw curiosity, especially with a rumoured change in sound: go big or go home. And I was worried here: Tyga already tried this strategy with his long-delayed surprise release, and nobody seemed to care, and he had hype going in. What was B.o.B. going to deliver?

Well, he delivered something, I can say that. This is going to be one of the stranger rap albums I've covered this year, mostly because considering it's supposedly coming from a rapper, it's barely a hip-hop album, with B.o.B. choosing to pull from funk, disco, reggae, pop, and even electronica to flesh out a record that I honestly think had the potential to be something special... if it wasn't for a complete lack of interesting content to back up the experimentation beyond mostly competent stabs into other genres. It has the feel of an album that's constantly on the precipice of saying something profound or interesting, but never quite sticks the landing to generate real impact... so yeah, while this is better than Underground Luxury, I have a hard time saying this record is better than passable.

So how to best explain this? Well, probably we should start with B.o.B. himself - and for a pretty short rap album, there's a severe lack of actual bars on this record. The wordplay that's here isn't bad - from a technical standpoint, it doesn't have the laziness that had crept into B.o.B.'s bars in the past - but what's alarming is how little of it there is. Instead, B.o.B. spends most of this record singing, either on his own or with the aid of gratuitous autotune or multi-tracking. Now he's always sung on his albums, and I do like B.o.B.'s personality, but he's always struck me as being able to convey more potent, raw emotion with sparse vocal production to highlight more texture - he doesn't need this much Autotune. And no, the 808s & Heartbreak excuse doesn't really work because Kanye needed all of that autotune and it was a critical element underscoring his choice to distance himself from his emotions - here, there are songs like 'Back and Forth' that feel like they could have been cuts from a down-pitched Akon track or even something from Daft Punk. And it doesn't help the few guest hooks he gets aren't great - the best is probably Sevyn Streeter who brings some raw passion on the slightly rougher sound on 'Love Life', but Jon Bellion completely does not fit on 'Violence' against that low guitar line - his voice is too willowy and smooth to work well against that instrumentation, it just feels awkward.

Then again, awkward might as well be the story of this record, especially when we get to instrumentation and production. And here's the thing: I know one of B.o.B.'s biggest influences is Andre 3000, who blended guitars and genre bending and even more singing into his sound effortlessly. But where with Andre it felt soulful and potent, B.o.B.'s production doesn't have that organic swell - even despite the clean acoustic guitars that show up on 'Plain Jane' or 'Violet Vibrato' or the funk elements on 'Confucius' and 'Hourglass' or the retro-disco on 'Back And Forth, it feels so polished and clean to be almost sterile. And the gratuitous pitch correction and blubbery synths don't help matters, especially when the beats on this album feel inexcusably cluttered and busy, most of them picking up a buzzy filter to pile onto a mix that desperately needs to pick up a tighter, more fiery melodic groove it doesn't have. And I'm sure it wasn't an issue of budget: the more symphonic strings and spacious production shows that B.o.B. and his producers had the money to refine this record and give it a polished pop sensibility. As much as the disco groove on 'Back And Forth' feels like a Random Accessed Memories reject, that prechorus had promise, the thick strumming with the hints of strings and roiling drums on 'Plain Jane' did have impact, and the cavernous 'Hourglass' had some real funk behind it. Hell, when this album does opt for a tighter groove like on the minimalist line behind 'Violence' or the odd warped shift of the guitars on 'Up' that reminded me oddly of some instrumentation on Sage Francis' last record Copper Gone, it can build some impressive atmosphere. But for how polished and clean the vibes are on this album, especially when B.o.B. can build to a good crescendo, I find myself looking for the explosive payoffs that he could deliver on his first two albums and they don't happen.

And you can say the exact same thing for the lyrics - and the frustrating thing is that it's not like they're badly constructed. Again, B.o.B. can rap pretty well when he chooses to do so on this album: the problem is that his content is so barebones and lacking in depth here. And on some tracks it's fine - if you want to make retro dance songs, lyrics aren't always the most important element, and the same with the hookup jams. But for a considerable chunk of this album, B.o.B. goes on about pursuing his work and pushing the boundaries of his sound and the greater enlightenment that comes with that purpose... and yet I can't help but feel like we get none of the payoff. Considering he called this record Psycadelik Thoughtz, we barely get any odd observances or traces of psychedelic wisdom at all, only fragments of hippie insight to be thankful for what we have. 'Love Life' is a song framing its complicated relationship at the 'rap game', 'Have Nots' focuses on the come-up and appreciating it, and 'Plain Jane'... hell, it's probably the most nuanced this record gets, delving into a woman who struggles without having a real purpose or driving passion. It's also where this album gets any sort of drama, and frankly, it feels thin. Hell, the entire album feels thin - I'll admit Strange Clouds and especially Underground Luxury could feel long, but this feels unfinished, with songs maybe containing one verse before extended choruses, the most egregious offender being 'Violence', which seemed like it was building to more before abruptly ending. And considering how B.o.B. can really spit when he wants to, that's a problem.

In short, if B.o.B. was looking for this album to smash or make a dramatic impact, it's almost certainly going to fail - not just because he has no hype but because this is so thin on content with instrumentation lacking in bite or texture or greater drama that I'm left looking for the rest of it! And given how overworked the production is, I can't even say this was rushed - it feels like it was shooting for a bigger idea than it can pull off, and I'm left waiting for the punchline. That said, is it still mostly enjoyable? Yeah, which is why it's getting a light 6/10 from me. But the more I listen to B.o.B., the more I'm feeling he's not living up to his potential, and for a rapper I really used to like, that's a disappointment.

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