B.o.B and an era of hip-hop that’s pop, pop, and more pop
â€œDrug boys steady shooting. The streets donâ€™t give a damn. Theyâ€™re filled with such pollution,â€ sings B.o.B on â€œKids,â€ an interpolation of the coda from Vampire Weekendâ€™s self-titled indie-pop gem. â€œThe kids donâ€™t stand a chance.â€
But does B.o.B stand a chance? The Adventures of Bobby Ray 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 Kanyeâ€™s 808 and Heartbreak on his intermittently fascinating Man on the Moon: End of Day; then B.o.B seems to channel Lupe Fiascoâ€™s The Cool, with a dollop of Gym Class Heroes and Fall Out Boy thrown in.
B.o.Bâ€™s hip-pop excursion flies right into a raging debate over presence in hip-hop music, and whether thereâ€™s any left. The mainstream vanguard belongs to those willing to embrace rock and R&B clichÃ©s, whether itâ€™s Lil Wayne fake-strumming a guitar on â€œProm Queenâ€ or, more nobly, Phonte Coleman crooning on Foreign Exchangeâ€™s â€œDaykeeper.â€ The hardcore underground belongs to growlers who can spit â€œ16 hot barsâ€ for days over â€œhitâ€ beats lifted like Just Blazeâ€™s â€œExhibit C.â€ (For the uninitiated: a â€œbarâ€ 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 MCâ€™s distinctly authoritative voice.
The recent death of Keith â€œGuruâ€ Elam, who passed away on 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 â€œDWYCKâ€ and â€œLemonade is a popular drink and it still is/I get more props and stunts than Bruce Willis.â€ Or how about this one (my personal favorite) from â€œThe ? Remainsâ€: â€œAs the world revolves, wack crews lick my balls.â€
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 â€œhip-hop quotables.â€ 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 that 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 â€œNothinâ€™ on You,â€ a shaggy-dog ballad that reached the summit of the Billboard singles chart. B.o.B leaves the hook to co-writer Bruno Mars, whose production crew the Smeezingtons (Flo Ridaâ€™s â€œRight Round,â€ Kâ€™naanâ€™s â€œWavinâ€™ Flagâ€) aims to be the new-school version of the Neptunes. â€œBeautiful girls, all over the world/I could be chasinâ€™ but my time would be wasted/They got nothinâ€™ on you, baby,â€ sings Mars in a creamily soft voice.
In conversation, B.o.B is a likeable guy that doesnâ€™t have much to say about the artistic process. Some musicians are erudite Questloves that can philosophize on any and every studio session, while others are Ghostface Killahs that just do it, and let the historians sort out the details. However, B.o.B acknowledges that The Adventures of Bobby Ray is a sharp departure from his early mixtape material.
â€œI treated the early mixtapes like albums, but I was always holding back. I was holding back the alternative side,â€ he says, adding that rock bands like Coldplay are an influence. â€œI donâ€™t want to be in one genre, because doing that would be limiting me as an artist, if I was only being exposed to the pop crowd, or just to the urban crowd.â€
Growing up Bobby Ray Simmons in Decatur, Georgia, he was first discovered at 16 while performing at Club Crucial, a nightclub in Atlantaâ€™s rough Bankhead neighborhood. As he subsequently signed deals with producer Jim Jonsin (Cypress Hillâ€™s â€œArmada Latinaâ€) and his Rebel Rock imprint, and then T.I.â€™s Grand Hustle camp, B.o.B toyed with idioms. His breakthrough single, the regional hit â€œHaterz Everywhere,â€ matched ATL bravado with a memorable hook. On The Future, he playfully riffed over a loop of Sam Cookeâ€™s â€œOnly Sixteen.â€ During appearances on the 2008 Rock the Bells tour, he interrupted his brief sets by bringing out a guitar and strumming an acoustic version of his marijuana ode â€œCloud 9.â€
By B.o.B vs. Bobby Ray, he graduated to writing full-fledged pop songs, though none were as good as those found on The Adventures of Bobby Ray. Throughout his mixtapes, which were kind of a woodshedding process, B.o.B presented himself as an alien, a prodigal kid who doesnâ€™t quite fit in with the teacherâ€™s pets or the playground thugs. He frequently noted skipping high school to smoke weed and hang out on the streets. On â€œMy Story,â€ he rapped, â€œRebellion is just a side effect. Homicidal? Maybe. Suicidal? Yes.â€
Today, B.o.B says, â€œItâ€™s not as dark as it was. Thereâ€™s still the residue there, the residue is on all my memories. It makes me who I am. Itâ€™s the strikes and blows that carve me as a person.â€ Finding success with a passion he nurtured since the third grade has undoubtedly helped. And career demands keep him out of trouble. â€œAs I become more successful, it requires me to work more. Iâ€™ve got to be on my Pâ€™s and Qâ€™s. I gotta go to bed earlier. I canâ€™t stay up as late as I used to. Sometimes I do party, but Iâ€™m like, alright, I gotta wake up in the morning.â€
B.o.B may have grown out of his depression, but the ADD-manic energy remains. On The Adventures of Bobby Ray, the mixtape hiss and â€œdown Southâ€ hood raps have been buffed away, leaving charismatic emotion and arena-ready entreaties like â€œGhost in the Machine,â€ â€œFameâ€ and â€œAirplanes.â€ A chorus line of high-profile guests, from Rivers Cuomo of Weezer and Hayley Williams of Paramore to Eminem and Lupe Fiasco, appear to ease the transition.
â€œEveryone listens to everything. Whateverâ€™s going on in the hip-hop community, the pop people can see, and vice versa,â€ says B.o.B. When everythingâ€™s mixed up and genre lines blur, he adds, â€œChange is inevitable.â€
Photo by Wuz Good.