When Lil Wayne plays the guitar, audiences aren't sure whether to laugh, hurl tomatoes or demand their money back. When B.o.B pulls out his axe, however, crowds eat it up. Dude is no dilettante when it comes to musical instruments – he also plays the piano, raps, sings and produces. Though folks come to see him spit in his crisp, brisk, seemingly effortless way, they're quickly sold on his and his band's experimental rock and reformatted rap songs.
In fact, the 21 year old, born Bobby Ray Simmons and already a burgeoning star via his hit tune "Nothin' on You," is a hyper-creative savant with profound musical abilities. Though he's justly compared to Andre 3000 because of his hip-hop chops and progressive vision, Simmons nonetheless seems to have skipped the Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik phase of his development and skipped directly to Stankonia.
But you wouldn't know it from his debut, B.o.B Presents: The Adventures of Bobby Ray (Rebel Rock/Grand Hustle/Atlantic). During its creation, he engaged in a protracted battle with his record company, Atlantic, about everything from the work's content to his artist name. He would have preferred to go by Bobby Ray, you see, but the label thought he'd already been sufficiently "branded" as B.o.B. Indeed, Atlantic appears to have won most of these arguments (funny how that tends to happen), and as a result, Adventures is a confused, limping beast, one that hints at B.o.B's ferociousness but mainly confines him to a glossy, candy-coated musical cage.
When I talked to him last year, he expected to produce 90 percent of this long-delayed album, and for his band to play on half the tracks. As it turns out, only a handful of his beats made the cut, he plays very few live instruments and his group barely shows up. Instead, Adventures is a typically overproduced, big-budget effort, featuring a mush of R&B-accented radio-hop ("Nothin' on You"), rappity-rap tracks with heavyweight guests stars (T.I., Eminem, Lupe Fiasco), and the requisite discourses on the glories and pitfalls of fame ("Airplanes, Part II" and, naturally, "Fame"). "Do you wanna be famous?" goes the latter's chorus. "Everywhere you go, people know what your name is/Everyone you know trying to tell you you changin'."
Has there been a hip-hop debut, ever, without this type of song?
Despite his valiant efforts to shake things up, the disc's play-it-safe nature was inevitable. Still, there's much to like about it. Even if you've never craved Simmons taking on Vampire Weekend and collaborating with Rivers Cuomo, for example, both his charming-if-gratuitous update of "The Kids Don't Stand a Chance" (called "The Kids") and his collaboration with Weezer's front man ("Magic") are jaunty and inspired.
But the songs composed and produced by B.o.B himself are even better. Unlike the micromanaged, ADD-style production that dominates contemporary rap, Simmons gives his tracks an opportunity to build, to create suspense. "Ghost in the Machine," starts with the plunk of high-end piano keys, over and over, segueing into a dreamy synth riff before finally unfurling its bombastic hook: "So I grab my bags and go," Simmons sings. "As far away as I can go/'Cause everything ain't what I used to know/And I try to hide, but I just can't hide no more/There's nothing worse than feeling like a ghost."
Just as good is "Don't Let Me Fall," the disc's soaring, Radiohead-influenced intro, in which he pleads: "I was shooting for stars on a Saturday night/They say what goes up must come down/But don't let me fall." It's worth noting that these two best songs on the album have short liner note credits, about four lines, while many others approach a half page. (This reflects the corporate mentality that too many cooks make a delicious meal.)
Simmons spent much of his childhood on tough Decatur streets, and once nearly convinced himself to sell dope. Like many rappers he has a good personal story, but unlike most he's able to clearly articulate it, and his progression from a drugs-and-booty-focused gangsta MC (B.o.B) to an evolving, artistic-minded singer/songwriter (Bobby Ray) is potent grist for an album. Indeed, that was the focus of two standout, pre-Adventures releases, "Generation Lost" and "I'll Be in the Sky," both of which are inexplicably absent here. Without the anchor of his narrative, the album doesn't tell a coherent tale. Like Kid Cudi – whose successful 2009 debut, Man on the Moon: The End of Day, is clearly what the Atlantic suits are trying to emulate here – Simmons comes off as a confused, intelligent, spacey kid. But that's inaccurate. Simmons is not confused, and he's not spacey. He knows exactly what he wants, which is to be left alone to evolve as an artist. Unfortunately, that isn't going to happen anytime soon. Even Andre 3000 had to go platinum as a materialistic player before he could indulge his eccentric tastes.
But there's hope. After all, "Nothin' On You" recently sold its millionth copy, and as Simmons wins over audiences around the country with his compelling live show, he'll pick up a bargaining chip or two for label negotiations. Until then, we'll have to accept Adventures for what it is – a collection of some of Simmons' weakest work.
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