Listen back to some old B.o.B. Check out “I’ll Be In The Sky,” from 2008’s Who The F#ck Is B.o.B?, or “Satellite,” off of B.o.B vs. Bobby Ray the following year. Then listen to his new album, Strange Clouds. Really, from a sonic standpoint, there’s no grand deviation toward pop sensibilities—a criticism that has been hoisted in Bobby Ray’s direction time and again since he began to enjoy mainstream success. Instead, the Atlanta native is continuing to flex the swelling muscles of his many talents—rapping, singing, producing, and playing instruments—to create a musically diverse listening experience.
Surely by no coincidence, some of the finest moments on Strange Clouds come when the 2009 XXL Freshman is performing each of his many tasks. The opener, “Bombs Away,” featuring an epic voiceover from Morgan Freeman, relies on cycling synths and chorus-like background vocals to supplement B.o.B’s crooning and his balance of lyrical boasts (“You hustle? Well we are Grand Hustle, nigga we mastered it”) and out-there rhymes (“The world’s run by a few people and we never seen them at all/How do they exist if we don’t know who they are?/They can be you, they could be me, they could be queens and gods”). It’s this general format that informs much of the album, as bellowing hooks sandwich stellar (if not stunning) bars backed by melodically sequenced keys, strings and heavy bass.
The album holds up throughout in that it flows within itself musically. Many of the beats could be considered pop-centric, with Top 40 producers like Dr. Luke, Benny Blanco and Ryan Tedder lending their touch, but they suit the Atlantic Records artist’s style. The featured guests fit, as well. Chris Brown again reminds that he’s the hip-hop hook killer, as he shares the stage with B.o.B on “Arena,” which also includes a whirlwind verse from T.I. The most surprising feature is Taylor Swift, who hogs the attention with her chorus on “Both Of Us;” it’s easy to write off the collaboration, but the reality is that it works.
There are times when a break from the attempted chart-dominating approach would be welcomed, though. The female-focused “Circles” becomes a bit of a bore, while the up-tempo “Never Let You Go” is a narrative endeavor that never fully plays itself out and comes off a bit cheesy. So, too, does it occasionally feel like the ATLien’s content—a little something for the ladies here, a grappling with fame there—isn’t quite as varied as it was before all he knew was success.
On the album’s finale, “Where Are You (B.o.B vs. Bobby Ray)”—likely to become a favorite for early B.o.B fans—the star of the show considers the changes in his life, how he’s grown personally and professionally, and how people perceive him because of it. From the moment he became a buzzing name in hip-hop circles, B.o.B has proven to be a singular musical talent, unable and unwilling to fit within any neatly defined parameters of what defines a rapper. His methods meld his many abilities, and the result with Strange Clouds is a sophomore album that straddles genre lines but does so with an authenticity that many rappers testing the pop waters lack. —Adam Fleischer (@AdamXXL)