Bobby Ray, Drake, and the Prescience of Hip Hop

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The synthesis of rapping and singing surely has its prehistory in church, and found precursors in such acts as the Last Poets, while on record it goes back to the early days of hip hop, when The Fatback Band invited Tim Washington onto their 1979 record for “King Tim III (Personality Jock)”, which was shortly followed by the game changing “Rapper’s Delight”, on which an ad hoc assembly of non-rappers killed it over Chic’s “Good Times.” Since then, the genres have continuously converged, while the rapper-singer has been a staple since at least The Sequence, and boasts a long history written by such diverse acts as UTFO, Queen Latifah, Teddy Riley, Bell Biv Devoe, Boyz II Men, Domino, Warren G, Fugees, Mikah Nine, The Roots, OutKast, Mos Def, Cee-Lo Green, N.E.R.D., and Kanye West.

drake-thank-me-later-album-cover_t.jpgToday, multi-talented vocalists who shift effortlessly between rapping and singing fetch top dollar at record companies looking for the next hit. Right now, this is evidenced by two young (early 20s) rapper-singers topping the charts: the 23-year old Canadian Drake just dropped his debut album Thank Me Later on Wayne and Birdman’s Young Money Records, while the North Carolinian Bobby Ray aka. B.o.B. has recently released his first longplayer B.o.B Presents: The Adventures of Bobby Ray on Grand Hustle/Atlantic. Their superficial similarities elicit a comparison, which reveals real differences in concept, skill sets and, ultimately, quality.

Thank Me Later is a polished, autotuned catalogue of timely pop formulae. On the first single, “Over”, Drake asks himself, “what am I doing?”, answering his own question, “Oh yeah, that’s right, I’m doing me”. He doesn’t seem sure though, and one can see why: he comes across more like a product than an artist.

As a rapper, he sounds like Li’l Wayne’s straight-laced clone, exhibiting none of his mentor’s inventiveness or versatility, sticking almost invariably to recitation along a very basic abab structure. Perhaps his most successful rap verse on the album is “Light Up”, which again ends with him promising “to always give you me, the real me.” Sadly, however, the most sophisticated quatrain he can muster is “Yeah, and I’m just filling up this daily planner/ Gettin’ busy ’cause I’m a star, no spangled banner/ Jealous dudes get to talkin’ in they music/ And I just say I wrote it for your girlfriends, Kelsey Grammer” That little stagger at the end breaks the monotony of his delivery, which I guess is OK, and with Drake’s background in TV acting, a TV reference (Grammer produced the series Girlfriends) is par for the course, but as a punchline? Kind of obscure and obvious at the same time.

It doesn’t help that he shares the track with Jay-Z who, even though he’s not really on form, glaringly outshines him. But what’s worse really, is the presence of Wayne himself on the following cut, “Miss Me”. In what is easily the best moment of the album, Weezy in an essentially throwaway verse, still packs enough unexpected, silly, evocative and funny metaphors in there to shame his protegé’s lack of imagination: “I walk light, so I don’t piss the ground off”, or “Turn you to a vegetable like you lining soup”, or “Man, I got so many styles… I am a group”, and so on; in other words, typical, playful Wayne.

As a singer, Drake is very talented, but his buttery delivery is stuck in the kind of pompous veneer popularised by Kanye West, and he is too occupied with swagger ever to reach for the depth of feeling necessary to pull off the bathos for which he shows such propensity. His second single, “Find Your Love” is a case in point: ostensibly about following your heart with hints of self-searching hopelessness, he never transcends cliché in his choice of words and fails really to challenge his voice, leaving it stuck within a structure as simplistic as his raps.

The video pretty much sums it up: it undermines the apparent idealism of the song in becoming a tale of shallow infatuation and betrayal, but is at the same time too naïve, even offensive, to ring true, what with it’s Jamaican setting and its pitting of the light-skinned Canadian heartthrob against a dark, scarred rude boy, in conflict over a (light-skinned) bikini-clad stereotype gyrating in the surf. Anyway, the guy’s still young and stuck in the rap game. We may yet get the real him if he grows.

bob-adventures-of-bobby-ray-cover_t.jpgB.o.B doesn’t quite escape some of the same problems that plague Drake — his current hit, “Airplanes” is kind of overblown, making the entreaty, in the second verse, for a return to the days before he was a professional, before wealth mattered, when he was rapping for the hell of it, sound a little insincere (Eminem’s verse on the remix is fyah, however). However, his charm, vocal agility and conceptual ambition more than make up for such shortcomings — we get a much more real sense of a personal vision, of getting the real Bobby Ray.

My first exposure to B.o.B was his unremarkable verse on T.I’s “On Top of the World”, off the ill-conceived and pretentious Paper Trail album in 2008. If I’d paid more attention, however, I would have caught him doing his Stevie Wonder bit on the ebullient and thoroughly fresh “I’ll Be in the Sky” that same year. It’s as good an example as any of how he evokes the early 1990s, when artists such as A Tribe Called Quest made music that suggested a bright future for hip hop — a time when anything seemed possible. That being said, his music happens in the now, lining his Southern-fried funk basis with the gleam of contemporary pop.

One point of comparison is Lupe Fiasco, with whom B.o.B shares not only his melodic approach to rapping, but also the positive message, but he evidently owes the most to the OutKast/Dungeon Family constellation so crucial to the development of his adopted city, Atlanta, into the hip hop capital of today. Indeed, in his lyrics he himself often laments the inevitable comparison to André 3000, a comparison that nevertheless makes sense, not because he sounds like an imitator, but due to their shared musical versatility, enthusiasm and conceptual adventurousness.

The Adventures of Bobby Ray is not eclectic, however, maintaining through most of its duration a focus on vivacious, positive songs about life, love, and everything, only occasionally over-stretching itself as on “Airplanes”. There’s the wonderfully celebratory love song, “Nothin’ on You”, to which Bruno Mars lends his falsetto croon; the street banger “Bet I”, where Bobby rides the beat effortlessly with an uptempo verse, holding his own in the company of a T.I. rapping as if getting out of prison has made him hungry again, as well as a swaggering Playboy Tre; and there’s the great ballad, “Lovelier than You”, where he hits the kind of emotional high notes that seem entirely outside Drake’s purview, despite his weaker register. As mentioned, not everything about the album is perfect, but it showcases an ambitious and greatly energised young artist going all out. It’s not quite a Southernplayalisticcadillacfunkymuzik, but recalls its mojo enough to make one hope for the kind of exponential growth that OutKast experienced after that auspicious debut.

These days, when music increasingly defies genre and audiences identify themselves less with specific subcultures than ever before, it is interesting to see hip hop artists successfully (whether commercially or artistically) updating the formulae that launched the genre in the 70s to speak to current generations of listeners. Hip hop’s postmodern prescience continues to astound.

Read the addition to this essay here. Photo of B.o.B taken from here.

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