No Genre / EMPIRE
No Genre / EMPIRE

Putting together one of the more successful rookie campaigns of the past decade, B.o.B appeared to be an unstoppable force and destined for rap supremacy at the outset of his career, but in recent years, the Atlanta native's growth has been stunted.

B.o.B, once considered among rap's most prized prospects, translated his buzz into platinum success with his 2010 debut album, B.o.B Presents: The Adventures of Bobby Ray. Two years later, he returned in 2012, with another platinum-certified release in Strange Clouds, but by the time his third album, Underground Luxury, was unleashed, concerns about his pop-friendly singles had begun to sprout, leading critics to question whether he was more concerned with mainstream success or reaching his full potential as an MC. Those whispers, coupled with friction between B.o.B and Atlantic Records, the label he was signed to at the time, over the direction of his music and career, would cause the rapper to revert back to his roots and hit the mixtape scene hard with his Elements series. He then extricated himself from his record deal and established his own label, No Genre.

Having found a new lease on life as an independent artist and a CEO, B.o.B aims to prove his worth as an elite rap talent with his fourth studio album, Ether. The album showcases how capable he is of making strong records without the backing of a major label. Ether kicks off with "Fan Mail," a self-produced introductory cut on which B.o.B raps from the perspective of disgruntled fans disillusioned by the path his career has taken. "Why is he still rapping?/He even worse at fashion/Should've stuck to makin' pop commercial smashes," he rhymes. The lyrics double as an acknowledgement of the backlash endured as a result of his sugary collaborations with the likes of Taylor Swift, among others.

On "Fan Mail," B.o.B also coyly references his public dispute with American astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson over physics, which would result in the rapper garnering headlines, as well as ridicule, for his radical statements like stating the Earth is flat. "No, nigga, seriously/We don't wanna hear your conspiracies/And we don't wanna hear your political views 'bout extraterrestrial activity," B.o.B delivers, before taking shots at out-of-touch label executives. "Let me show you how to flow, show you how to make music/Obviously you clueless, how I know? ’Cause I'm Jewish."

B.o.B has a lot to get off his chest on "Fan Mail," however, Ether is far from a confessional or an airing out of grievances, as the crafty vet opts to focus on simply making great music sans any agenda or objective. "E.T.," which features a recently emancipated Lil Wayne, is another meeting of the minds between the two southern stalwarts and picks up where their 2012 collab "Strange Clouds" left off. "Like I don't belong/I feel like I don't belong," B.o.B croons, before letting off a heady string of couplets. "I stepped into the Hall of Fame and put my frame on the wall/I'm like a Michelangelo paintin' that hangs in the vault/They gated me off, by Hendrix while he plays the guitar." This is another early display of the lyricism that wowed rap enthusiasts prior to his star turn.

Not to be outdone, Lil Wayne also rises to the occasion on "E.T.," delivering a verse that is reminiscent of the inventive stanzas he's churned out while at the height of his powers. "Far from the norm', bitch, I'm Norman Bates awkward/But nothing's far-fetched when a underdog's barkin'/But they could get checked, if I don't sign my goons forge it," Weezy expounds prior to reimagining himself as a human marijuana plant in what ranks as one of the stronger showings he's put forth in recent memory.

Producers Jon ?uesto and 30 Roc join B.o.B behind the boards for "Middle Man / Mr. Mister," a segmented cut on which the rapper basks in his independence while calling fair-weather industry figures. "I guess I got a short attention span/I learned it, get it straight from the source, fuck the middle man," B.o.B rhymes, speaking on lessons learned during his time in the limelight. He then takes the time to get his stunt on during the latter portion of the song, flowing nimbly while continuing the LP's streak of favorable offerings.

Setting the tone on his own accord, B.o.B is undoubtedly the central figure on Ether, but is equally comfortable sharing air-time with his list of high-profile collaborators, as he does alongside Big K.R.I.T. on the K.R.I.T.-produced offering "Peace Piece," a subdued number on which the two MCs attempt to find clarity amid the racial turmoil that has become. Doing their bidding over a bluesy, guitar-laden backdrop, the pair touch on struggle and plight of the Black community on what makes for one of the more sobering selections on Bobby Ray's latest.

Young Thug pops up for an appearance on "Xantastic," a trippy, 30 Roc-produced number and the second single released from Ether, while "Tweakin" features B.o.B teaming up with No Genre crooner London Jae and Grand Hustle compatriot Young Dro, the latter of which includes more digs at B.o.B's former record label. "Huh, I ain't got the Illuminati money/But I got the boy you shouldn't try me money/Wonder why they haven't heard an album from me/Didn't sell my soul, they tried to buy it from me," B.o.B barks, before taking aim at fly-by-night political activists and the leader of the free world. "Look, now all these niggas political now/Claimin' they woke 'cause it's trendier now/Overnight activist/Even the President's runnin' the world from a Twitter account."

Ether reaches another crescendo with the T.I. and Ty Dolla $ign-assisted single "4 Lit," a bouncy, mid-tempo selection, while B.o.B flies solo on "Substance Abuse," another self-produced number that finds the double-threat examining the dangers of pharmaceutical products and their addictive and damaging side effects.

The album comes to an end with the inspirational, stadium status track "Big Kids," an endearing anthem with the potential to become yet another crossover anthem. Featuring Usher and CeeLo Green, "Big Kids" is a reminder to listeners to forever stay young at heart. "They tell me that I play a lot/But I don't think that they play enough/I don't know if I'm right or not/Tell me who ever stops growin' up," Usher sings before B.o.B focuses on the positive aspects of life and urges anyone to never become jaded. This collabo makes for one of the more indelible moments on Ether.

Coming a full three years after his last major label release, Ether is an attempt to get B.o.B's name back in the mix as one of the better wordsmiths of his era. The album finds him rejuvenated and reinvigorated, making the long player a return to form of sorts. Focusing more on showcasing his lyricism and prowess as an MC rather than scoring pop smashes, B.o.B shines throughout the album's 12 tracks, proving himself to be equally effective as a soloist as he is a collaborator. B.o.B may have lost his footing along the way, but Ether is a step in the right direction and an admirable effort that proves he's still one of the more talented artists out of the South.

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