So due to various musical obsessions/general laziness in the last couple years, I haven't really got around to checking out B.o.B until now. Some of his earlier mixtapes could be better, I wouldn't know at the moment. But listening to B.o.B vs. Bobby Ray, this might actually be a mixtape worth showing up on year-end best of rap lists as if it were a real album. Granted I'd hope that the guy's debut album has better production, but given my general expectations for mixtapes with original beats the material here is certainly pretty interesting and distinct.
B.o.B's rapping is a great example of the type of flow I tend toward in most of the hip hop I like. He's got a lot of bounce in his delivery, he doesn't think cramming an excessive amount of rhymes into each bar makes you great, he flips different styles, and yes, he even understands that nebulous concept of swagger (i.e. personality, presence, charisma, all that crazy stuff.) He also benefits from possessing something of a vocal resemblance to Andre 3000, because, I dunno, it makes you think he's doper by association? 'Course if we were talking Guerilla Black vs. Biggie style, this might be cause to write him off as a biter with none of the bitten's talent, but B.o.B's rapping is distinct enough that he transcends this criticism.
The Andre similarities run a little deeper than the voice, though, as B.o.B sets aside the Bobby Ray half here as his mini-Love Below of sorts. And you know how the rapper ternt singer business tends to start all sorts of complaints about rock critics being dumb, how X weirdo street rapper is where the real experimentation is, etc. etc. Don't get me wrong, I get as annoyed as the next guy when I'm told I don't "get" supposedly next-level shit that sucks, but the reverse elitist mentality of rejecting self-consciously experimental projects out of hand is just as lame. I enjoy hearing rappers like Cam'ron and Lil Wayne play with language and flow just like I enjoy N.E.R.D., 808s & Heartbreak and the half of The Love Below that isn't aimless bullshit. I'm not really concerned with which form of innovation is supposedly purer or what post-rap side projects should be considered critic bait, the latter of which seems to be more about basing your opinion of something on its perceived fanbase than, you know, whether it's good or not.
All of which is to say that I kind of dig the Bobby Ray half here. It's a success of mood over anything, but you don't have to be a particularly great singer or melodist to make music that works for other reasons. There's a nice atmospheric vibe going on, and B.o.B's singing meshes well with the soundscapes he gives himself, although he actually raps a bunch in this section as well. Lyrically he likes to remind you of how space-age everything's supposed to sound, but the music's good enough that it doesn't come off as a bad gimmick. "Wonderland's" skittering synths and the airy, acoustic "Put Me On" are particular highlights. B.o.B could definitely use improvement as a producer -- some of these beats are fairly tepid -- but this is an aesthetic I could see really working on his album if he got help from a more talented producer or something.
As for the B.o.B half, it ranges from uptempo synth-driven beats on "Say what you want" and "Voltage" (where dude's practically a dead ringer for Andre 3000 on the chorus) to country rap tunes as Pimp C would say, but B.o.B's rapping is what really stands out. Even though there's guests on almost every track, he's easily the focal point. I wouldn't say anyone outshines him here, whether we're talking T.I., Killer Mike or the few guys from the dreaded blog-rap set who pop up. He does seem a little too preoccupied with haters in an overly self-conscious way (and caring about what people blog about you is a little too Lupe Fiascoan for my tastes,) but the technique's there. And I've got another rap album to look forward to, which in 2009 is a very good thing.