In this column I mostly review mixtapes, which have a pretty unique and modern place in music culture. They are put out for free, for one thing, and usually exist only on the Internet. The production is often faster, more raw, or less complex, and, being a more casual form, MCs sometimes display their personalities a little more bluntly. Not to say that mixtapes are inferior. Indeed, I have come to enjoy Kid Cudi’s recent CUDDERISBACK mixtape somewhat more than his much acclaimed freshman album, Man On The Moon: The End of Day. But whatever mixtapes are, it clear that full studio albums are another beast entirely.
For one, studio albums are sold, on iTunes and in so-called brick and mortar stores. As bizarre as it might seem today, people do still buy physical CDs of music. Heck, some people still buy vinyl records! Since albums are intended to make money and have the backing of large music labels, they also tend to be preceded by much more hype than mixtapes, months of promotion on websites, on the radio, with music videos, with posters on the streets, sometimes with whole mixtapes. People wait months for new albums by their favourite artists (years, if it is Lupe Fiasco’s Lasers). Mixtapes just kind of show up. If you read the blogs you may get a sense that so-and-so is working on such-and-such mixtape, but most of the time mixtapes don’t have a long announced release date to build anticipation (except for Ski Beatz’s 24 Hour Karate School, which I’m still waiting for long after it was supposed to come out…). The point is: studio album’s get hyped, and few studio albums have received as much hype lately as Atlanta rapper B.o.B’s freshman release, B.o.B Presents: The Adventures of Bobby Ray.
B.o.B, whose full name is Bobby Ray Simmons, has gotten attention as one of a rising generation of up-and-coming rap artists that are, if I might over-generalise, more hipster than gangster. This list also includes A Man and His Mixtape favourites like Kid Cudi, J. Cole, Wale and Drake. For the past couple months references to B.o.B’s album have been a constant presence on hip-hop blogs, here the (truly excellent) album artwork, there the tracklist, here comments by collaborators like Lupe Fiasco or Eminem, there an occasionally leaked track. It has all had a certain mood to it, a mood that has given me the impression that The Adventures of Bobby Ray was going to be not only significant but innovative.
Does B.o.B’s first studio album live to the hype? I suppose it does. B.o.B is undeniably talented, both as a rapper capable of fast, persistent flow or more measured, contemplative recitation, and as a singer who easily carries choruses with an addictive, sing-along quality. His lyrics are personal and emotionally evocative but also ephemeral, at times floating in abstract realms divorced from the materially grounded gangster world of guns, drugs and money. His vocal charisma is on par with some of the best of his generation.
Much of The Adventures of Bobby Ray has this whole singer-songwriter feel — lots of powerful piano instrumentals introducing or dominating more traditional beats. Other parts stray into the sounds of alternative rock (one song features Rivers Cuomo of Weezer!), or high energy rhythms reminiscent of Outkast. Between his genre-blurring style and the quality and tenor of his own voice, comparisons between B.o.B and Outkast’s Andre 3000 would not be unreasonable. All in all I think the singer-songwriter style is a great direction for hip-hop to take. After the dark years of boy-bands and “rapcore” in the mid-to-late 1990s, hip-hop (well, Jay-Z) saved pop music by finding ways to be more accessible to a wider popular audience and by offering the innovations of rap vocals to other genres. It makes sense that as hip-hop aesthetics come to dominate pop charts ever further, hip-hop itself will take up some of the strengths of other half-poppy genres.
Perhaps the best part of Adventures is that there are no bad apples to spoil the barrel. After giving it a few play-throughs, every song seems more or less equally entertaining and fun to listen to. The whole thing sounds natural in a way that doesn’t require that much attention, while still holding up to more detailed scrutiny. It’s all quite good. The ability to listen to an album all the way through without skipping a few annoying tracks is a critical quality that is hard to achieve indeed — a musical page-turner, as it were. In this way I expect Adventures to be replacing CUDDERISBACK as my easy listening soundtrack for the foreseeable future.
The Adventures of Bobby Ray dropped this week, and after listening to it a couple times I went back and downloaded B.o.B’s last mixtape, May 25th (the original release date of Adventures, before radio success of his single “Nothin’ On You” prompted the label to push things up a month). The contrast is as expected: a little cruder, a little less consistent, a little more disturbed by annoying DJ interjections. But still very good. And at one point B.o.B takes us aside from the music to discuss the emerging aesthetics of hip-hop in 2010. “I feel like we, as a generation, are pushing the envelope a little bit further than what the industry standards can accommodate,” he says, “and because of that we have to treat mixtapes as albums.” I think he is right, of course, but it still seems a bit ironic to hear; B.o.B’s studio album has turned out to be far more groundbreaking, in my opinion, than this mixtape. Maybe I just got sucked in by all that promotional anticipation, but in this case I can’t help but feel: the hype was well worth believing.
Check out B.o.B’s new album B.o.B Presents: The Adventures of Bobby Ray at his website, http://www.bobatl.com, and the preceding mixtape May 25th at http://www.2dopeboyz.com/2010/02/01/b-o-b-may-25th-mixtape/.