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B.o.B is a multi-talented rapper and musician (he plays multiple instruments) and I've been a fan of him since I first heard some of his fantastic mixtape material back in 2008. I could immediately tell this guy was a rare talent, the kind of talent I hadn't heard in hip-hop since Eminem, he had that spark.
== His Debut ==
I'm obviously not going to review his prior album, in the review of this album, but just to give a little background to make this review resonate further; I will say that I think his debut was a little disappointing. And I think its effect and end result is comparable to this album (his second).
== Strange Clouds ==
This album opens with a stomper, the song "Bombs Away" features a cinematic intro from Morgan Freeman followed by an epic (I know, sorry) chorus and brilliant verses by B.o.B. There's some real sparkles of dazzling flow on display, and his lyrics are a step-up.
We go from a brilliant opener to a less artistically satisfying but ultimately very catchy and enjoyable song called "Ray Bands". This song has what you could sum-up as a bit of a silly concept, but its musical format and B.o.B's chorus and delivery are interesting, and different. This is a good song.
On to our third track then, called "So Hard to Breathe". This song is one for his core fans (although, he was always hard to pin down to a style or particular sound) who were used to his soulful singing and smooth, introspective rhyming. He didn't actually rhyme this introspectively much on a consistent basis prior to this song, he would actually just sort of 'glance' introspective content within verses or concepts that implied emotional depth but weren't ever too specific. This song deals with his rise to the top and attempt to 'keep his head above water', so there's a nice psuedo-concept to the emotion too.
Next we go to "Both of Us", and here is the appearance of the first truly musical collaboration on the album, with - Taylor Swift. On the surface it may look like some vague attempt to replicate the sound and effect of "Airplanes" and, maybe on some level it was (as he's clearly aiming for hits) but if you look past that, you'll hear a fairly beautiful song that's dedicate d to the 'average joe' who listens to his music and struggles like he struggled. The chorus of this song literally warrants a duet, whcih is what makes this collaboration feel justified, and why it resonates like it does. A touching, honest record.
Coming straight off the 'deep end', we get to "Strange Clouds", a collaboration with Lil Wayne (who is possibly the worst rapper... ever?); this song is nothing to write home about, it's not particularly engrossing or original, but it has a noticeably GIGANTIC bass line that shudders your brain cells. Lil Wayne's verse is typically annoying, but not as much as usual, he fits the song; whilst B.o.B rides the beat with a charming flow and endearing one liners. This song is an ode to what it sounds like, it's the title track, and somewhat of a throaway track, but oddly... doesn't feel out of place.
"So Good" is the track that follows, and this is essentially a romance track with a bit of a concept - that being: his in-character partner in love can basically 'spin the globe' and point as B.o.B is going to take her wherever. This song is an ode to traveling but more-so of course romance, exploration and love; traveling is simply a light conceptual backdrop to explore these themes inadvertently and to deliver some lines that seem to step outside the box with Bobby Ray name-dropping notable modern day artists and country landmarks and tourist attractions.
So far, 'so good'! up until this point I'd say the album is very solid, and very enjoyable. These tracks all differ in quality but are all of a different nature; but so much so (in theme and style) that it's quite impressive that they mesh so well. I think B.o.B has made that look easier than it is.
The reason I paused to analyze is due to the fact that the next two tracks feel like a pair of duds to me. They're not all that bad but I always find myself skipping them. The first of which, "Play for Keeps" is essentially like a freestyle song where B.o.B gets some lyrical gusto off his chest; and the other "Arena" has a chorus and intent that just feel too manufactured to feel authentic. "Play for Keeps" isn't a compromise, it's just a little boring, and I'm actually a lyrical fiend, but it just doesn't feel right here.
Luckily things pick back up and next up is a splendid collaboration with Nicki Minaj. You may have felt like you've heard her name a little too much lately, and she's certainly compromised to high heaven in terms of her solo work, but she more than proves her mic skills yet again here. She certainly steals the show (though doesn't DESTROY B.o.B like she did everybody on "Monster" (Kanye West track) back two years ago) by delivering a self-aware, oddball verse that makes the song what it is. This song, "Out of My Mind" is a racey, bouncy, spazzy track that is fairly entertaining.
After some crazy spitting, we get to what is probably now one of my favourite B.o.B tracks to date: "Never Let You Go". This track is essentially another romance track but within the theme of romance and mutual struggle, B.o.B blends the themes of redemption, a lack of need for materialism and the idea of living by your word. You could say this is a contradiction given his earlier bragging and lyrics which pretty much contradict what he's implying are his true (and I feel they are) feelings here, but I also feel that contradiction in an artist's views can sometimes make an album more interesting. This song has a luscious chorus and musical composition and heartfelt verses that resonate well.
"Chandelier" is what comes next, and this is another great song. The chorus is sung by Lauriana Mae, who I personally hadn't heard of until this song, but she does a fantastic job. Being a fan of rap myself - I usually don't get overly impressed with singing within itself, as I rarely listen to music for 'just a voice', but Mae's soulful and unique tone, and huge vocal abilities are very notable here, they give the song a blistering drive that I doubt would exist without her, or something similar. As for themes and verses: B.o.B again steps it up and aims for a higher level of substance, attempting to rap positively and encourage the listener to embrace life and each moment as it comes. This may sound simplistic on the outset, but so few are able to pull this off, it's harder to sell positivity, and make it sound cool.
Another love interest song follows, and it's called "Circles". I think, though I'm not sure, that I hear some musical influence of Coldplay within the composition here, and given that B.o.B is a huge Coldplay fan, that would make sense. What's very interesting about this song in particular is its hook. I sadden myself a little with this review in seeming to always be obsessing with hooks when in fact; I am a lyrics and concepts man, it's just that B.o.B can be so damn good at hooks, and they elevate his songs to a new level. This chorus is a two-part chorus, which feels a little longer, and more enjoyable, and the rapping is fun. Another light concept to support the underlying themes is the attempt here; and it works well.
Now we come to quite an amazing track, so I can presume why they left it this late in the tracklist, it certainly could be seen as a closing curtain in my eyes and it's maybe a shame that's it's not. In this song B.o.B reaches a little further, he widens his scope and this is one gigantic melody - what's so interesting is, this song is as catchy as it is slow. A lot of catchy music is fast, with short, memorable choruses or structures... where as this song, is like a game of chess, it's long-lasting and rich. Listen closely to this song and what B.o.B is singing, and I'm sure you'll appreciate his ambition. This song also sounds beautiful, even irrespective of theme, it sounds like a harmony.
What comes next is "Castles", this is another light conceptual emotional track and it's intended to be uplifting and to promote ambition, but the concept feels a little formulated, which is a problem with parts of this album - it's almost like a room full of five debated on how to most effectively reach x demographic or how to phrase or conceptualize obvious emotion... overall it's an okay song, but just a little anticlimactic after the awesomeness of "Just a Sign".
We finish off with something quite classy, a song called "Where Are You Now". When I call this song classy - I am referring mainly to its music. This is a musical composition by B.o.B himself, and the authentic piano is welcomed, and towers above some of the digital beats that come before it. On this track, B.o.B takes the imagined view of annoyed fans and attempts to analyze his own career and progression thus far a little with a sideways glance. This song has enjoyable verses, and a very enjoyable hook, all done by B.o.B; a welcomed relief from the array of guest artists.
== Overall ==
This album has some fairly amazing songs and high-points, but it's a little frustrating as it feels B.o.B just missed the mark of a classic by compromising or 'thinking about his audience' or TRYING to aim for a demographic, which I think personally, is a mistake for any artist to do. They should do it for themselves, and whoever likes it: likes it. Why would you pander to people who don't like or get what you're truly doing anyway... it does feel like there are elements of compromise here and there's no real excuses for Bo.B, unless they weren't compromises and people just assume they be.
Anyway, I enjoyed and still enjoy most of the songs from this album, It's a solid effort.