"The first time you have sex is way more exciting than the second time. Not that the second time isn't exciting, it's just ... the initial excitement of finally having that first album…”
Interesting analogy B.o.B., and as long as you brought it up, sure, let’s go for it. Much like that first time you have sex, when B.o.B. was making his first album, The Adventures of Bobby Ray, there was a lot of pressure on his lean shoulders. After all, you only get your first time once. On the other hand, if things hadn’t gone well, he could always fall back on that time-honored “it was my first time, cut me some slack” excuse. As fate would have it through, Bobby Ray proved to be a natural and success came quick (pause). The second time, however, is actually a much more complicated matter. Sure, the rush of that first thrust…into the marketplace was more thrilling, but on the sophomore effort, there are some larger expectations. You’ve still got a long way to go before you’re waking up the neighbors, but you’ve been there before. And in music the second time to be better than the first time, because unlike sex, if you’re not pleasing the populace on your second go around, there might not be a third time.
And the reason the sophomore slump exists is that again just like sex, that first initial rush has faded for the people as well. Can B.o.B. make it? Can he establish a real career for himself? Those questions made The Adventures of Bobby Ray a more exciting—yes, a sexier—release. I think it’s safe to say that on his second album, Strange Clouds, that thrill is gone. B.o.B. is very much a known quantity now, and so for Strange Clouds to be a success it can only rely on itself. There's the music and nothing; good thing then that the music’s damn good.
One good thing about having a hugely popular first album is that for your second album pretty much anyone will pick up the phone, even the best-selling rapper alive. And so we get Lil Wayne on the title track "Strange Clouds," a release that announced Bobby wasn’t hiding from his newfound fame and success. "Strange Clouds" doesn’t hesitate to let the world know that Bobby’s come a long way from the humble beginnings of Hi! My Name is B.o.B. In fact, this is an album that is very aware that it’s playing to a wide audience, resulting in both "Ray Bands," a club-ready track that not even B.o.B.’s distinctive flow can rescue from the weight of mediocrity, and "Arena," a track obviously meant to be played live at huge shows that manages to meet its lofty goals. Bobby is now a rich man and it’d be ridiculous for his music to pretend otherwise, but even though they’re largely enjoyable, Strange Clouds’ boasting tracks are the album’s least interesting and least compelling.
Thankfully B.o.B. is a complicated man, and he’s also talented enough to have the album address those complexities without sounding disjointed. "Where Are You (B.o.B. vs. Bobby Ray)" is an obvious response to the paragraph above, taking a page out of the T.I. vs. TIP playbook and examining the difficulties of keeping it real in the face of the extreme unreality that is fame. It’s a concept echoed on the heavily rock-influenced "So Hard to Breath," and in some ways the excellent "Just a Sign," both of which are excellent examples of B.o.B.’s ability to give fans something deeper to dig into. The small-minded think that only shallow music sells, but the truth is that giving people some real nourishment like B.o.B. does on Strange Clouds keeps them coming back for more, and more, and more.
On Adventures there was an oversimplification to divide the project into “rap” and “non-rap” tracks, and that’s doubly true on Strange Clouds. B.o.B. is constantly intertwining hip-hop percussion with piano lines, rock guitar with pop melodies until the distinctions between them are essentially meaningless. Instead, it makes the most sense to divide Strange Clouds by intent. Tracks like "Ray Bands" are intended to make you feel larger than life, tracks like "Where Are You" are intended to keep B.o.B. as real a person in listener’s minds, and then there’s a third category: just feel good music.
The same energy that propelled "Nothin On You" still pervades Strange Clouds, starting with that hits' closest cousin, "So Good," continuing with mega-crossover collaboration "Both Of Us" featuring Taylor Swift and wrapping up nicely with "Never Let You Go." You can mean mug all you want, but if you’re still capable of smiling, at least in the privacy of your own home, Strange Clouds might just drag a smile out of you.
So yes, Strange Clouds isn’t perhaps as thrilling as Adventures, mostly because the thrill of the unknown is gone, but B.o.B.’s second album is superior in almost every respect. Not that there was really any doubt before, but Bobby Ray’s officially in the music game for the long run. The man’s no one-night-stand.