A common criticism of B.o.B’s debut studio album, The Adventures of Bobby Ray, is that studio heads compromised the unique style displayed in the rapper’s underground mix tapes to appease the mainstream. The pliable flow that initially garnered notoriety for B.o.B (real name Bobby Ray Simmons) only reared its head intermittently, giving way instead to well-designed cameos that were thrust into the record’s foreground. The album was rife with grandiose production and predicated on being larger than life. The imposition likely angered longtime enthusiasts, but executives were vindicated five Grammy nominations later. The 2010 release ignited B.o.B to stardom, but his new album, Strange Clouds, lends an invitation into the lyricist’s plight. Simmons’ goals were twofold: put out an honest record and locate a middle ground between The Adventures of Bobby Ray and the mix tapes.
“I was more honest on Strange Clouds,” B.o.B told Rap-Up.com. “I feel like I’m continuously honest in the moment to moment, but I’m constantly changing.” Although honesty is where Strange Clouds shines, it also leads Simmons to familiar tropes in the rap community, which, in turn, becomes exhausting rather then inspiring. For example, B.o.B is contemptuous toward women, dismissing many as disingenuous gold diggers (“She looking for a sponsor/And I ain’t talking corporate”) on the track “Ray Bands”. He also spends a considerable amount of time deriding envious peers both on the title track and “Play for Keeps”. Equally unsurprising, Simmons is having difficulty coming to terms with his success; in fact, he even reminisces about his thrifty upbringing.
We know these issues are authentic, because we’ve heard the sentiments conveyed by other artists time and again (and again). Furthermore, sincerity is present from the outset of Strange Clouds, and consequently, as the record progresses and new topics are broached, B.o.B’s candid approach feels earnest and refreshing, as opposed to stale and hackneyed. And as confounding as it is to toil through the platitudes of the price of eminence, the payoff does eventually come.
In “Both of Us”, Taylor Swift delivers an emasculating chorus, while Simmons confidently starts to veer away from the script, addressing the rigors of the everyday world. This track transforms into an overt attempt to identify with normalcy under the prism of his nascent fame, as Simmons raps, “Sincerely yours/From one of yours.”
Where Strange Clouds begins to take shape is on ”So Good”, a blithe summer song that will invade beaches around the world from June until September – it’s B.o.B’s “California Gurls”. With a little help from his friends, Simmons reels off five consecutive tracks that ultimately give the album legs. You can picture the lighters in the air while Chris Brown belts out the chorus on “Arena”. Nicki Minaj delivers clever barbs, wordplay, and her signature funky range during the maniacal “Out of My Mind”, while Simmons spends two entertaining verses contemplating his mental instability. As meta as the track is, it’s also his ode to Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (sans the inimical aura, of course).
“Never Let You Go” and “Chandelier” are straightforward tracks bolstered by top-notch production and cathartic choruses sung by Ryan Tedder of One Republic and Lauriana Mae. Simmons even contributes an Akonian chorus on “Circles”, singing, “Circles through my head/there she goes again.” Unfortunately, the sizable momentum is put to a sudden halt during Trey Songz’s fluffy appearance on “Castles”. The track will undoubtedly irk many listeners. Its premise–about dreams coming to fruition and the inherent seclusion that arrives with fame–aligns with Simmons’ quest for veracity, but the construction makes his radio-friendly song “Magic” off of Adventures sound like Tupac’s “Hit ‘Em Up”.
The crux of the album comes in its closer, “Where Are You (B.o.B Vs. Bobby Ray)”. The song gives insight on pressure felt from fan expectations, as well as personal ruminations regarding the pitfalls of the game. Again, these are issues pertinent to few, but this time around, B.o.B saves himself, closing each verse by rapping, “Just when I thought I would give up on everything/I heard you play this familiar melody,” as a soothing piano line ensues. The device speaks to his genuine passion for making music. To Simmons, nothing else–not the fame, rivalries, or women–supersedes his affinity towards his craft.
In the end, B.o.B just can’t help himself, and, at times, lyrically struggles to demarcate honesty from originality. As a producer, though, Simmons compensates for the variegated cliches. The misplaced agendas piercing Strange Clouds are minor hindrances to an otherwise creditable album that has enough juice to maintain significant staying power.
Essential Tracks: “Out of My Mind”, “Chandelier”, and “Where Are You (B.o.B Vs. Bobby Ray)”