Two of the biggest hits of 2010 came courtesy of the rapper B.o.B. Both ” Nothin’ on You” and ” Airplanes” (from his debut album) featured standout contributions from performers who hailed from outside the rap circle, Bruno Mars on the former tune and Paramore chanteuse Hayley Williams on the latter. And while rap is typically built upon catchy wordplay, B.o.B’s hits focused on soaring, emotive melodies—a rarity in the genre.
He’s at it again on his second effort, Strange Clouds. The man born Bobby Ray Simmons dishes up some traditional (read: raunchy) rap as he teams up with several of the genre’s usual suspects: Lil Wayne, Nicki Minaj and T.I. But just as he did two years ago, B.o.B also fearlessly jumps out of the rap box in melody-filled collaborations with Taylor Swift, OneRepublic’s Ryan Tedder and Chris Brown.
“Both of Us” features Taylor Swift singing the chorus, “I wish I was strong enough to lift not one but both of us/Someday I will be strong enough.” The song ponders the daily struggles of poverty (“Open up the fridge ’bout 20 times/But still can’t find no food in it”), suggests that we worry about the wrong things (“And sometimes I wonder why we care so much about the way we look”), rejects the superficiality of fame (“Everybody ain’t a No. 1 draft pick/Most of us ain’t Hollywood actors”) and ponders our common human bond (“‘Cause if life is an uphill battle/We all tryna climb with the same ol’ ladder/In the same boat, with the same ol’ paddle”).
“Chandelier” ponders the lessons we learn in life, the need for change at times, and what it takes to leave a positive legacy (“They say life’s about choices/In the face of defeat I declined/Put your soul into everything, never back down/That’s how you leave a legacy behind”). “So Hard to Breathe” describes fame in claustrophobic terms and reflects on the toll celebrity can take on family and friendship, as does album closer “Where Are You (B.o.B vs. Bobby Ray).”
B.o.B’s collaboration with Ryan Tedder yields “Never Let You Go,” a song in which a man says that no matter what life takes away, he’ll never let go of the woman he loves (even if she ends up imprisoned, as the woman on this track seems to). Among other things, we’re asked, “What’s the one thing in this life that you live for?/Who do you know in the world you would die for?” “Just a Sign” dabbles similarly in existential questions, as B.o.B ponders what’s real and what isn’t (“Looking at the world from my rearview/Searching for an answer up high/Is it all wasted time?/ … Everything appears to be fine/Or are we all digitized?/ … Sometimes I’m wondering/If what I’m seeing in front of me is even real”).
On “Arena,” B.o.B brags, “My nightlife’s like a soap opera with two chicks like it’s Noah’s ark/They got nice dresses with no bras and good bodies like ‘Oh god.'” “Play for Keeps” mentions a threesome and includes a reference to oral sex too explicit to describe any further. Another oral sex reference turns up on “Strange Clouds,” as does guest performer Lil Wayne’s exceedingly crude description of how he interacts with the female anatomy.
“Strange Clouds” is all about smoking marijuana … and getting drunk. The chorus proclaims, “All we do is pour it up/All night, drinks out/That’s how we do it/That’s how we do it/And all we do is light it up/All night, all you see is strange clouds.” And when he and his stoned friends wake up, marijuana (combined with the oral sex mentioned above) is the first item on the agenda. On “Ray Bands,” we hear, “Quit being annoying, do something useful and roll a joint.”
F-words and/or s-words turn up on seven tracks, including the rapper’s collaboration with Nicki Minaj, a song that repeats the phrase “I’m out of my f‑‑‑ing mind” over and over again. Rebellion rules on “Bombs Away,” with B.o.B spitting, “F‑‑‑ rules, f‑‑‑ boss.” A very harsh slang term for someone who performs oral sex is used once, and even on milder songs, you’re likely to hear “d‑‑n” or “n-gga.”
B.o.B’s high-profile guests, combined with his knack for crafting massively melodic hooks may very well elevate this young rapper’s stature even further. After all, what other rapper can you name who’s (successfully) asked Taylor Swift to join him for a duet? And who in the hip-hop world is embracing instruments as diverse as acoustic guitar, piano and banjo, all in the service of three- and four-part harmonies that wouldn’t have sounded out of place on a Beatles or Beach Boys album. In that respect, B.o.B has carved out a unique niche in the music marketplace, one in which he continues to mine for gold with all his artistic strength.
Alas, that uniqueness doesn’t extend fully to the subject matter B.o.B raps and sings about, as he’s just as likely to embrace rap’s rebellious side—and all the bad behavior that comes with it—as he is to offer something constructive. In a spoken-word into to the album’s first song, actor Morgan Freeman says, “As the war between light and darkness continues, heroes and villains become harder to identify.”
I beg to differ: The heroes and villains on this album are pretty easy to sort out.
After serving as an associate editor at NavPress’ Discipleship Journal and consulting editor for Current Thoughts and Trends, Adam now oversees the editing and publishing of Plugged In’s reviews as the site’s director. He and his wife, Jennifer, have three children. In their free time, the Holzes enjoy playing games, a variety of musical instruments, swimming and … watching movies.