Album Review: B.o.B – Strange Clouds

Morgan Freeman provides all the introduction that B.o.B’s most recent album, Strange Clouds requires.
As the war between light and darkness begins
Heroes and villains become harder to identify
Kindred spirits separated at birth
Fighting for their place in time to be solidified
The clock ticks faster and faster
While time runs a marathon in this babylon
But see, the end is only the beginning
The beginning of the calm before the storm


Really, most of my feelings about B.o.B’s masterpiece of an album can be summed up in Morgan Freeman’s introduction to the first track, “Bombs Away”: genius and thoroughly epic. I’m surprised no one else has commissioned the man who played God to feature on a track because it works brilliantly. The entire song is filled with a swelling urgency that does justice to the lofty featuring credit. “Bombs Away” isn’t the only track with a made-for-stadium larger than life quality; “Play For Keeps” and the aptly named “Arena” build into larger than life sounds. The latter features a solid verse from T.I. and a lighter-waving hook from Chris Brown.

The first two singles, Lil’ Wayne collaboration “Strange Clouds” and solo hit “So Good”, do a great job building B.o.B’s repertoire as a premiere pop-styled rapper, but the third single “Both Of Us” with country pop’s go-to girl Taylor Swift is his clear ticket to the top of the pop charts. Swift delivers a yearning chorus which serves as a perfect compliment to B.o.B’s sharp verses. B.o.B employs newcomer Lauriana Mae to similar effect on “Chandelier”, which plays off like a less powerful version of “Both Of Us”.

Though the best tracks on the album trend more serious in tone, Strange Clouds is also full of great playful tunes. In “Ray Bands”, B.o.B casually boasts, “And after Strange Clouds, I’m gonna drop my rock album” and its an entirely believable proposition. “Never Let You Go” mellows the album out with a soothing acoustic guitar and none of Ryan Tedder’s usual bombast, while “Castles” is probably the most light-hearted track in which Trey Songz sings of building castles in the sky over a bouncy synth line.

Where “Out Of My Mind” and “Just A Sign” prove that some collaborations just don’t add anything, “Circles” and “So Hard To Breathe” show that B.o.B can do it all on his own. “Circles” is punctuated by infectious plucked strings and a grooving electric guitar, where B.o.B’s capable singing voice is placed front and center. My favorite track on the album ends up being “So Hard To Breathe” where B.o.B sings his own compelling hook and infuses the song with a gorgeous, wistful, longing quality.

The album closes with the self aware “Where Are You – B.o.B vs. Bobby Ray” which chronicles his journey from gritty mixtapes into the commercial world of pop rap. And while I’m admittedly not aware of all his mixtapes – I can’t say I’m too upset that he’s decided to deliver this beautifully crafted, hard-hitting, and, yes, decidedly commercial album.

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