The novelty has worn off, and hip-hop gatekeepers seem to have grown weary of post-Kanye anti-gangstas: Wale’s Attention Deficit slugged its way toward lukewarm sales; Kid Cudi’s Man on the Moon: The End of Day, an album that loses most of its spacey appeal after the first listen, was met with similar apathy; even Drake, perhaps the world’s biggest new hip-hop star, is considered by many to be more cutesy than charming, more disingenuous than deft. Middle-class yuppies are so 2008.
B.o.B., with his sweet Atlanta drawl and snappy flow, offers a fun alternative to his hipster contemporaries, but those intoxicating strong suits don’t seep through “Nothin’ on You,” the anticlimactic first single from his debut, The Adventures of Bobby Ray. It’s a slow, lulling song that sounds like it was recorded in the midst of a drab winter, and I’ll take Sacha Baron Cohen’s Bruno over Bruno Mars.
But B.o.B., as evidenced by sublime older tracks like “Fuck You” and “Generation Lost,” has plenty to offer, and much of Bobby Ray throbs with vibrant energy. The diverse guest list, which includes Weezer’s Rivers Cuomo and Paramore’s Hayley Williams, seem almost too sundry on paper, and while failed experiments like the pop-punk-inspired “Magic” would have inarguably been better left on the cutting-room floor, the gems pack quite a punch: Most memorable is the dustily wistful “Airplanes” and its Eminem-featured sequel.
Other winners include “Past My Shades,” featuring Lupe Fiasco in blithe “Gold Watch” mode, and “Bet I,” which doubles as the major-label introduction of mixtape hero Playboy Tre. But Bobby Ray is most resonant at its most somber. On “Airplanes II,” B.o.B. remembers an adolescence full of endless longing and rhyme scribbling, while Eminem (at his most intense since “Patiently Waiting”) looks back on grimmer, less certain times spent in Detroit, food stamps and all.
The album’s middle sags futilely, with bigwig producers like Dr. Luke and Jim Jonsin turning in weak beats. But even then, B.o.B. carries the weight with burning charisma. He’s a vigorous young MC who throws a lot at you, and a sufficient amount of it works—though maybe not enough to constitute an adventure.