“Where You Going? Outer Spa-a-a-ace”: Why B.o.B Soars

20 Apr

Shortly after publishing this post, I saw this passage from Sound of the City’s Zach Baron:

“Airplanes Pt. 2” sports an Em verse far better than what B.o.B probably deserves, and virtually guarantees that a guy who once threatened retirement before he had even released a record will have one of the ten or twenty biggest songs this summer. Somewhere Andre 3000 is shaking his head.

This calls for a list!

  1. “Deserves” is really troubling, here and in most music contexts, because most art is part and parcel of the artist and the artist’s backing. Is Baron insinuating that maybe Bobby Ray Simmons got a jolt from an Eminem verse when lots of other talented artists didn’t because Atlantic is pushing him and there was a big price tag involved? Maybe. But if Atlantic believes in B.o.B enough to go get that verse, they must be hearing something in the music that makes it worth selling. And music worth selling is music worth hearing — to someone, or many someones, at least.
  2. I’d like to think Baron is confusing B.o.B with that other melodic rapper who actually did make a big stink out of retiring, because the B.o.B retirement rumors seem faint and faded. In any case, that seems like a cheap shot, good for impugning but pretty much irrelevant to the artistry.
  3. Hey! An Andre 3000 comparison! That’s totally novel and funny, especially considering the song makes reference to Andre 3000 comparisons! I wish I could write this in the sky in fluorescent scarlet smoke: ARTISTS ARE DIFFERENT. There may be influences that people can hear and that artists admit, but it’s really really hard to be exactly the same as another artist, and constantly comparing one artist to another will eventually poison the conversation about that artist. (Note: Calling B.o.B a “rapping Coldplay acolyte” feels wrong, too, Sean Fennessey, but I like you, and you actually made an effort to stretch beyond the 3K comparions, unearthed that awesome Julie Greenwald clip, and actually explained the headline. So thanks for that.)

Worst, Baron barely even mentions that “Airplanes Pt. 2” is pretty good!

The Hayley’s-mixed-too-high problem that plagued the first version is mostly fixed, a nifty little post-hook gets added before the first verse (“Dreamin’/Of fallin'”) and B.o.B lets two fantastic “Let’s pretend” verses unfurl, wishes about sales and a killer one-liner (“But I ain’t have neighbors, that’s why they call it hood”) tumbling out, before a wistful, melancholy bridge drifts in and Marshall Mathers channels his childhood and ratchets up the rage up to gale force for the best guest verse of the year.

It’s a great song that will be a hit. But it’s far from a “final gambit” to populate pop radio, nor is that something B.o.B needs. In fact, “gambit” just feels wrong: Why let the game that B.o.B is winning be the story, rather than how well he’s playing?

Focusing on the ample theatrics around B.o.B — or Bobby Ray, his other name that he was going to go by before he dropped it; again, drama — or placing him in the rap constellation ignores the fact that he’s a damn good rapper, an above-average singer, and a gifted compelling music-maker. The Adventures of Bobby Ray, which is 66% leaked by my estimations, is filled with space (“Satellite”), sky (“Airplanes”), and flying (“Don’t Let Me Fall”) motifs that connote a certain soaring aimlessness. That makes the message riveting to me as a 20-year-old college kid, and probably similarly affecting for slightly younger and slightly older folks. But the tone is less important than the music it goes with—often beautifully, delicately vast, frequently buoyant—and the writing that is superbly crafted in the traditional sense but nontraditional enough in tone to stand out.

“Nothin’ on You” is a love song to one woman in a sea of groupies and to monogamy that doesn’t mention the word love explicitly, but either hints at a stifled admission of infidelity, or the magical first declaration of those three little words, or both:

It’s so much nonsense that’s on my conscience
I’m thinking maybe I should get it out
And I don’t wanna sound redundant, but I was wondering
If there was something that you wanna know?

It also doesn’t hurt that the hook is massive, sun-kissed, and infectious. (But I’ll leave the Bruno Mars praise for another time.)

B.o.B blends that deftness of songcraft, which reminds me strongly of Taylor Swift’s modernization and teenaging of tales told a thousand times, with similar updates to the come up of every rap artist who ever came up from nothing that come with guitar-strumming and singing. “Generation Lost” is the signature song in that vein, but “Sing My Song” and the graceful update of “Bonita Applebum” that is “Put Me On” show that B.o.B’s still a kid coming to terms with his talent and striving for more, and that we get the music as a byproduct.

Also: B.o.B can rap his ass off, can ride a beat like Kelly Slater rides a wave, and can put both of those things together on a song that shows up on his album. I’m not ruling out a rappity-rap album some time down the road.

B.o.B makes me smile, makes me marvel at his considerable talents, makes me think, often makes me laugh, and makes me follow his stories. He’s grown into one of my favorite artists, and might be for a long time. So I’m happy that he’s going to be enormously famous, and around for a while.

It will give him a chance to do so much more with music.

One Response to ““Where You Going? Outer Spa-a-a-ace”: Why B.o.B Soars”

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