B.o.B vs. Drake II

Further to my article of last week on the two new rapping and singing Wunderkinder, B.o.B and Drake, I just wanted to add a few comments about the reception of their debut albums and what it might say about hip hop criticism today.

My colleague over at Rapspot, Toobs, dug both albums (warning: Danish), preferring B.o.B’s, but he pointed out something he saw as a shortcoming of his album in comparison with Drake’s: that it lacks lyrics of more personal nature. This would appear in direct contradiction of my criticism that Drake sounds like a record company product, promising to give us the “real” him, but instead offering polished formulae, wouldn’t it? Well, here’s why:

This is not a dig at my man, but I think a little too high a premium is placed on so-called “personal” lyrics in hip hop, probably because the genre has historically been more concerned with self-promotion and self-mythologising than self-searching. Sure, there are exceptions — think Bushwick Bill’s “Ever so Clear”, De La Soul’s “I Am I Be”, Xzibit’s “The Foundation”, Nas’ “Last Real Nigga Alive”, Sole’s “Da Baddest Poet”, or Aesop Rock’s “1 of 4″ — but by and large, rap hasn’t done emo. Or, that is, until recently, when it has almost become a subgenre unto itself, in large part thanks to Eminem and Kanye West. Where the former has at times succeeded impressively in lacing his dirty laundry into his verses, the latter seems largely to have made self-exhibitionism a formula, with the horrid 808s and Heartbreaks being his personal nadir so far.

These, it seems to me, are the formulae Drake is tapping into when he raps on the opening song of his album, “Fireworks”:

”How many of our parents’ marriages lasted?/ I was only 5, I bet I barely reacted/ I’m flying back home for the heritage classic/ searchin’ for that feeling, tell me where is the magic?/ let’s stay together ’til we’re ghost/ I wanna witness love, I never seen it close/ yeah, but I guess I gotta find it first/ that’s why I’m really going off, Fireworks”

Yes, he ostensibly opens up, but not only does he express himself solely in clichés — fresh, odd, or inspiring lyrical choices are few and far between on the album — but the delivery doesn’t sound honest. I mean, just check the name of the song — it’s in the vein of the kind pompous, solipsistic self-fashioning Kanye has been perfecting over the last few years. Any it’s really the same throughout: he repeatedly tries to get at problematic emotion — I talked briefly about the tentative subversion in the otherwise awful single “Find Your Love”, and songs like “Karaoke” and “The Resistance” center around feelings of selfishness and loss, but it comes off mostly as a way of glamourising his own fame by exhibiting the costs at which it has come, just like Kanye and so many other rappers have done before him. Anyway, I guess his willingness to at least try to mine this emotional territory is a good sign, and as I wrote he’ll hopefully mature into a more interesting artist, but in the meantime I’m not convinced that these “personal” overtures are more than gilding of his rims.

As for Bobby Ray, he is clearly dealing with similar issues. He seems inordinately busy discussing his fame and its discontents, even if he only appears to be standing on its cusp, and it can’t help but seem a bit dishonest, at least when it isn’t delivered with the sheer rapping chops of a song like “Fame”. To his credit, however, he mostly avoids emo territory in his lyrics, preferring a more general approach to love songs, which he then performs the hell out of, either by way of his natural charm, as on “Nothing on You”, convincing feeling, as on “Lovelier than You.”

And really, when I described his album as having more of a personal feel to it than Drake’s, I was thinking more of the whole package — its music, to which he himself contributed considerably, is more varied and adventurous than the smoothly solid star-studded production of Thank Me Later — less occupied with sticking to form than with creating a sound to fit the voice of its star.

Evidently not everyone agrees: Pitchfork’s reviewer pretty much describes The Adventures of Bobby Ray in exactly the terms I use for Thank Me Later — a record company product on which a greatly gifted rapper is smothered in banality. I don’t hear it at all, and suspect the fact that I came at it much less prepared than he seemed to, not really being aware previously of B.o.B as an MC. Little about his singing or even the pop stylings on this album strikes me as alien to his sensibility, even when taking into consideration his earlier work, as showcased for example on the propitious B.o.B vs. Bobby Ray mixtape — it rather seems a focused effort at building his audience and his music. Don’t get me wrong, I would also love to hear more bangers like “Bet I”, and there’s certainly room for improvement for B.o.B as well, but in the context I think it all makes eminent sense.

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