I’ll never forget when Shake from 2DopeBoyz released Should Have Been The First Album, a mixtape consisting of great B.o.B mixtapes songs and a few leaks that spilled onto the net. It was 2009 and the gesture was meant to put pressure on Atlantic Records to get the ATL rapper's long-awaited debut off their dusty shelf.
The demand to hear new B.o.B records inspired the veteran blogger to rally in his favor, hoping a little fire would inspire action. The collection was mostly rap records; a few potential radio jewels, but most of the songs he chose showcased the Eastside emcee's rap abilities, a gift of storytelling and idiosyncratic perspective. Underground rap fans were enthralled by the Atlanta-bred lyricist unlike T.I. or Ludacris, who could make music for clubs but not quite like Lil Jon or Young Dro, and who had tales from the hood and an impoverished upbringing but painted a different picture than Jeezy or Gucci Mane. He existed within and outside of what was being offered from the thriving southern state of Georgia.
2009 didn't bring B.o.B's long-awaited debut but another mixtape, the pivotal B.o.B vs. Bobby Ray. He spilt himself into two personas―the traditional rapper and the guitar-playing singer with crossover promise. The mixtape proved that, artistically, he had more to offer, a range that was only previously teased. Without leaving his roots, the popular project allowed for a smooth transition to a debut album that explored more of Bobby Ray than B.o.B. “Nothin' on You,” the album's first single, was the rap/pop crossover hit that couldn’t be denied by the populace, complete with a feature from burgeoning pop prince and Atlantic Records labelmate Bruno Mars. B.o.B's debut single became the No. 1 song in the country.
Even more surprising than the glowing success of "Nothin' on You" was Hayley Williams being featured “Airplanes,” the first time rock band Paramore and rap intertwined. Despite the song being rap-driven, it became clear there was a desire to turn Bobby Ray into a crossover act who could reach fanbases far outside of hip-hop. "Airplanes" hit No. 2 on the Hot 100, and the album's fifth single, "Magic," peaked at No. 10.
With three top-10 singles, The Adventures of Bobby Ray proved B.o.B could reach the other side, and there was an obvious label desire to see him cross into pop prominence. What other album had Hayley Williams and Lupe Fiasco, Playboi Tre and Janelle Monáe, Rivers Cuomo and Eminem, Bruno Mars and T.I.? It wasn’t the album Shake would’ve made, but instead a project that shot B.o.B to a completely different universe.
B.o.B was the first blog darling—a 2009 XXL Freshman—to ascend and reach the mainstream before any of his contemporaries. From 2010 through 2013 he was a Hot 100 mainstay, seamlessly floating between being a rapper who could impact clubs, provoke thoughts and dance with pop darlings. His massive success from the outset was on a downward spiral, though. There was no crash, but rather a slow decline as his first three albums spiraled from 2x Platinum to Platinum to Gold.
In 2012, B.o.B’s Taylor Swift-assisted “Both Of Us” peaked at No. 18. It was the last time he would break the top 20.
The singles that followed would feature fellow rappers―Nicki Minaj, Juicy J, Future, 2 Chainz―but none of them had the power of his crossover hits. It’s not to say rap features haven’t been successful for B.o.B, 2011's “Strange Clouds” single with Lil Wayne peaked at No. 7 and the solo “So Good” at No. 11. There was a change in direction, though—a pivot away from what brought him major success and an attempt to return to the sound that first brought him notability on the blogs.
Even without charting high, singles like “We Still In This Bitch and “HeadBand” received Platinum plaques, but after 2013, B.o.B started to lose momentum. The next time he would truly capture the public's attention wouldn't be for music but tweets about Earth being flat, the impossibility of landing on the moon and countless other conspiracies. Twitter fingers transitioned into complete mixtapes filled with brain blasts of theories. The music wasn’t bad, he still delivered bangers, but conspiracy theories aren’t the best over trap thumpers. It wasn’t a sudden change in sound but another drastic change in direction. B.o.B put down the guitar and started arguing with Neil DeGrasse Tyson about the planet.
B.o.B expressed during this strange phase in his career how the label ceased to push, promote and spread his new music. He blamed them for suppressing his social media, blocking his exposure and limiting the reach of his message. The label was fine with him alongside Bruno and Hayley, even 2 Chainz and Nicki Minaj, but once he started preaching topics that are usually found in the deep corners of YouTube he seemed to fall from the face of the flat Earth.
Since he signed his very first major label deal with Atlantic, B.o.B's career has soared, taken unexpected twists and spiraled downward, but he didn't crash and burn. Ether, B.o.B’s newly-released fourth studio effort, is also his first-ever independently released album―the label is no longer involved, he is no longer suppressed. Seven years after thriving commercially with his debut, B.o.B is still here.
"Fan Mail," Ether's opening song is the most brutal piece of fan mail any artist could receive. Bob opens the verse reading a letter from a former fan; it’s a personal, scathing attack highlighting all the reasons why Bobby Ray is washed and forgotten in 2017. The second verse begins with a phone call from a livid label executive who also feels that he’s losing his fans along with the ability to make songs. It’s a twist to imagine this call being real, and it leads B.o.B to deliver one of his most passionate, emotionally-driven verses I’ve ever heard him spit. There has to be a breaking point, where an artist becomes overwhelmed by pressure and has to scream. Bobby screams.
Awareness is apparent from the jump; this isn’t an artist who is naive about his circumstances. He’s no longer the darling of his yesteryears, but an artist whose artistic audibles weren’t well received by those who once adored him. It makes for a perfect segway into “E.T.,” where he explores how it feels to be alienated. (The song also houses an incredible Lil Wayne feature.)
Paranoia, self-awareness, the gift and curse of fame, and awareness of how the world perceives him make the first half of Ether some of B.o.B's most compelling music in years. He raps, “DJ say they support but they still phony, they don’t play my shit unless Tip on it,” on “Middle Man.” Even an artist of B.o.B’s stature understands he’s overlooked these days without a big feature for radio and club spins.
An early favorite is “Peace Piece” with Big K.R.I.T. The phrase "Make America Great Again" is B.o.B’s target, revisiting history and the darkness of both past and present, especially for black Americans. It's a moment where B.o.B's gift for packing information and delivering it with precision is showcased, in another life he would’ve made an excellent history teacher. Krizzle, another recent escapee of the major label system after splitting with Def Jam, follows in Bobby’s footsteps with an excellent, socially conscious verses that is fitting of the times. Independence sounds great.
Ether’s second half takes an odd, druggy, yet enthralling turn with “Xantastic.” Sonically, the song feels like flying on a kite after devouring an entire veil of Xannies. The weightless synths that give the instrumentation a cloudy quality, drifting in a fantasy world complemented by drums so light they wouldn’t startle a ladybug. Young Thug is the eccentric martian, with enough room for him to slither around the beat like a rhyming Orochimaru. Bobby's verse takes a dark turn by the end, “I keep sayin I’ma quit, I keep sayin’ I’ma quit, but everyday I contradict,” capturing that his drug use has gone from recreational usage to a strangling addiction. He sounds like Fabo on "Gik'd Up" more than the carefree stoner of "Cloud 9."
The overindulgence of weed, alcohol, and drugs are confronted with the schizophrenic “Substance Abuse,” while “Avalanche” stares in the mirror and admits to struggles with depression and desires of acceptance. It’s B.o.B allowing Bobby Ray to get weird and brutally honest.
Club B.o.B appears on the first single “4 Lit” with assistance from T.I. and Ty Dolla $ign. It’s a good song; catchy, meant to attract radio's attention. “Tweakin” also leans closer to the club, and Young Dro turns in a great performance but what may hold it back is B.o.B dedicating an entire verse to the conspiracies he’s known for. The song feels like being in the club, popping bottles, and suddenly having your friend lean over and explain how there’s no oxygen in space so how is a rocket ship fueled? Bobby Ray kills the vibe of a perfectly fine party record.
The album’s brightest highlight comes at the end on “Big Kid,” the most promising pop record that Ether offers. Most of the album is covered with rap features, B.o.B waits until the very end to pull out Usher and CeeLo Green. The record is beautiful, a gorgeous tribute to all the grown kids around the world.
Ether is well-rounded, not weighed down by overthinking and theory deductions, but an artist revealing internal conflict and external circumstances. There’s druggy trap songs, social commentary, and self-reflection. It’s almost like he’s searching for balance within himself again.
Being free from the label has allowed a reset, and maybe that’s what he needed to find his voice again. The album is satisfying, the most enjoyable Bobby project I’ve heard in some time. He isn’t running the pop charts, not conquering the clubs, but when the music returns to form, old doors are able to open again.
Ether is a reminder that B.o.B hasn’t lost his mind, and while he's no longer the blog darling and no longer the superstar, he still contains the talent that made us cheer for his success in the first place.
By Yoh, aka Yohtastic, aka @Yoh31