In basketball, when a young player is characterized primarily by his natural ability, he’s often described as being “more of an athlete than a basketball player.” For Atlanta multi-threat B.o.B, he’s always been more of a musical talent than a finished artist – he can rap, sing, produce, play instruments, and craft crossover hits, but he’s never quite been able to piece it all together over the course of an entire album. On his third LP, Underground Luxury, he’s still struggling to make his talents work for him.
With the spoils of pop radio success starting to dry out – at least in terms of album sales – Underground Luxury marks an aesthetic shift to a more rap-centric sound. Having established himself as something of a single’s artist, it’s an occasionally awkward transition. When you go from collaborations with Taylor Swift to calling for chicks to bust it “Wide Open” in the space of a year, it’s hard to be convincing.
Without a true go-to sound of his own, B.o.B tries his hand at a few popular contemporary rap styles – whether it’s sounding more or less at home alongside Future on the claustrophobic trap-rap of “Ready,” or being shown up by a freewheeling 2 Chainz on DJ Mustard’s Hyphy-whistling “HeadBand.” For a guy prone to theater kid over-eagerness, B.o.B is surprisingly comfortable on more understated tracks like the night-crawling “Back Me Up” (which shares an ominous minimalism with his recent Ty Dolla $ign collaboration “Paranoid”).
Not that there isn’t radio fodder on Underground Luxury. The ironically impersonal “John Doe,” with its sugary piano and Disney Channel sentimentality, is B.o.B’s latest instance of what has been hilariously dubbed “Hallmark Card Rap,” while “Coastline” is a far less heavy-handed example of sweeping alt-pop. In misunderstanding the criticisms lobbied against him – it’s not so much resentment of his Top-40 success as much as disappointment in the stagnation of his genre-bending instincts – B.o.B has largely roped off his rap and pop selves, leaving behind an artist without a true identity.
On “Back Me Up,” B.o.B exclaims that he “ain’t even got no genre.” It’s assumed to be taken as a boast, but it flies in the face of his own recipe for artistic progression: self-mastery. At a certain point, talent without a sense of direction tends to breed mediocrity.