There was a time, not that long ago, when rappers didn’t apologize for their success. They reveled in it, prided themselves in it, and flaunted it. Success was meant to be envied. But in the age of the introspective rapper, success is a burden that must be qualified and defended. On his sophomore album Strange Clouds, B.o.B. becomes the latest star to voice his fame-induced anxieties, and he has more reason to be insecure than some of his more privileged peers. A rapper with André 3000’s ambitions but Skee-Lo’s skill set, he was nonetheless once one of the most respected acts on the mixtape circuit, an XXL freshmen-class pick back when that honor meant something. On his 2010 debut B.o.B. Presents: The Adventures Of Bobby Ray, though, he too convincingly played the clown, shucking and jiving his way through sticky Dr. Luke productions with coloring-book simple rhymes.
That album was a blockbuster, yet B.o.B. had less to do with its success than guests like Bruno Mars and Hayley Williams, who carried its hits singles. People may love his songs, but they don’t have particularly strong feelings about B.o.B. himself. And so on Strange Clouds, the rapper sets out to reveal the real B.o.B., confiding his uneasiness with fame. “Someone called my cell and left a voicemail that said ‘congratulations on the million record sales’ / As I’m flipping over furniture, knocking shit off the shelf,” he raps on the brooding “So Hard To Breathe.” “I told myself I’d never get too deep not to take a breath, but I’m sinking.”
Like Kanye West, B.o.B. broadly dismisses his haters even as he seems to internalize every insult, and with its emphasis on the pressures and temptations of celebrity, Strange Clouds sometimes feels like his own Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, though it’s not nearly as unflinching as West’s tell-all. That’s partly because B.o.B.’s vices are pretty tame (weed and sunglasses, primarily), but mostly because he tries to have it both ways, making a statement album that begins with a lofty, Morgan Freeman-narrated opener and pauses for long, hard, Eminem-esque looks in the mirror, but still plays to the broadest Top 40 base with feather-light Taylor Swift and Chris Brown features.
The album is at its best when at its fluffiest. With its “Empire State Of Mind” piano and unabashedly cheerfully “na nah na nah na nah” chorus, “So Good” is as earnestly catchy as anything on The Adventures Of Bobby Ray, but Strange Clouds is ultimately too weighed down by joy-killing self-importance to match that debut’s hit ratio. Unfortunately for B.o.B.’s pop fans, this record may not be his last assertion of creative independence. “After Strange Clouds,” he raps on “Ray Bands,” “I’mma drop my rock album.”