The title of B.o.B.’s debut album, The Adventures of Bobby Ray, is at least an exaggeration, if not an outright misnomer. Perhaps a callback to Slick Rick, the title seems out of place on a record where nothing exciting or adventurous is recounted and only a narrow patch of thematic ground is covered. B.o.B. largely sticks to three subjects: that fame is alienating, that anonymity was alienating, and how all other girls are inferior to his girl. There’s a refreshing lack of braggadocio, misogyny, and aggression, but the problem is that there’s also hardly any fun to be had here. At least Bobby Ray followed his convictions to their logical conclusion; enlisting Hayley Williams of Paramore for two songs, B.o.B. has staked out emo rap — no longer the domain of Rhymesayers — as his own, and stands to reap the commercial rewards.
Despite some vocal similarities to Andre 3000, B.o.B. has far more in common with the similarly mediocre Kid Cudi, namely a pre-disposition toward self-pity and Vampire Weekend samples. He presumably smokes less weed, which makes for a more consistent and coherent album than Cudi’s meandering Man On the Moon; but it also means that The Adventures of Bobby Ray is less weird, less specific, but unfortunately, no less repetitive and numbing.
It’s futile to lament the many missed opportunities here, considering that B.o.B. is going to make a fortune off this album. “Nothing On You,” the record’s lead single, is already number one on the Hot 100, and “Airplanes,” its hastily-released follow-up, is creeping in on the top 10. The former is invigorating, but the latter, enervating, represents the record’s tone far more accurately. Maudlin, clichéd, and — worst of all — dull, “Airplanes” somehow inspires aggravation and indifference simultaneously. B.o.B. deserves credit, at least as much as scorn, for the song; perhaps it’s little more than a crass grasp toward the youth market, but you’d never know it from B.o.B.’s sincere delivery. The chorus, expertly emoted by Williams, hardly makes sense, but that won’t stop it from inspiring legions of Facebook status updates. It’s an awful song, but one poised for ubiquity.
Those young enough to remember the sullen spell cast by puberty might be more forgiving of The Adventures of Bobby Ray. Adults, on the other hand, will likely feel little more than mild embarrassment at the constant lyrical overripe-ness. The credit — or fault, depending on one’s perspective — for the album is due to Bobby Ray alone. As a rapper/singer/producer/guitarist, B.o.B. proves himself to be quite able and talented, but rarely exceptional. He acquits himself throughout, convincingly approximating modern rock radio, without ever — like kindred spirits, Gnarls Barkley — synthesizing it into anything unique.
All this pissing and moaning fails to convey some fundamental truths about the album: it isn’t a trainwreck. At times, The Adventures of Bobby Ray is enjoyable, even respectable. “Nothing On You,” in particular, transcends its sometimes clumsy analogies and manages to be charming and unabashedly sweet, without coming across as cloying. It’s the sort of pop song that is absolutely deserving of its success. “Bet I,” the only song that resembles hip-hop in any conventional sense, is a tight, fast bit of shit-talking. Backed by T.I. and Playboy Tre — both of whom succeed outside their comfort zones — B.o.B. exhibits more energy and vigor than he does anywhere else on The Adventures of Bobby Ray. The contrast between “Bet I” and the rest of the record is striking, and not only for genre-related reasons. For once, B.o.B. doesn’t strive for profundity, but rather says nothing, and says it well. There are other, sometimes isolated elements to appreciate; Eminem’s verse on “Airplanes (Part 2)” is inspiring, resembling material from the 8-Mile soundtrack. His delivery — tense, urgent, and devoid of any baffling Caribbean lilt — bodes well for the upcoming Recovery. Any long-term follower of B.o.B.’s career knows of his fondness for the AOR hits of decades past. Rivers Cuomo’s guest appearance on “Magic” is magnificently, triumphantly corny, enough to give Steve Miller and that guy from The Outfield a run for their money. Magic isn’t good by any stretch of the imagination, but it is goofily enjoyable.
Some of the more alt-rock-leaning material succeeds at being less aggravating than “Airplanes.” “Don’t Let Me Fall,” the album’s moody opener, is overwrought, but nonetheless competently crafted. But competence is not the issue with The Adventures of Bobby Ray; there are few pop albums that are this well-designed for mass appeal. The album is a major label dream, polished, savvy, and inoffensive, with appeal for multiple demographics. Selectively, these songs are tolerable, notable for their craft; but consumed in a single sitting, B.o.B.’s mawkish vapidity becomes oppressive. So, while it’s hard to hate a major label album that introduces Playboy Tre to a massive audience, The Adventures of Bobby Ray proves itself capable of meeting that challenge.
There’s plenty of room to do some interesting deconstruction of The Adventures of Bobby Ray’s politics, its placement within the wider, multicultural (read: post-racial) context of the 00s, but the album just isn’t interesting enough to deserve it. Pop music can be better, more creative, and more indelible than it is here. B.o.B. might be the product of a culture that no longer sees things in terms of Black or White, but that’s no reason for this whole enterprise to be so damn beige.
As far as products go, B.o.B. is, at the very least, highly marketable, if not terribly satisfying. The Adventures of Bobby Ray, like bubblegum, loses its flavor after about 15 minutes. For less discerning listeners, it might well be irresistible. And as with gum, the enjoyment experienced, even temporarily, does not make it anything other than inherently disposable.