Ever since the commercial success of his debut album, B.o.B Presents: The Adventures of Bobby Ray, Bobby Ray Simmons, Jr., more widely recognised by his stage name of B.o.B, the Georgian rapper has continuously strived for the same pop appeal that launched him into the limelight to begin with, whilst incorporating elements of various musical trends, particularly through the inclusion of trap-infused instrumentals and eminent guest features, as a means of maintaining a degree of relevancy to his sound. However, a lack of creativity or compelling charisma has led to the artist fading away from the spotlight as of late, with many of the recent happenings to involve B.o.B coming across as blatant attempts to retain what little relevancy he currently has. Such efforts have seldom had much to do with his music, however, with the rapper only recently receiving a significant amount of attention after a series of Twitter ramblings, in which Simmons put forward his belief that the Earth is flat. Whether or not such absurd statements represent his genuine beliefs or are merely a reflection of his desperation to reclaim some level of relevancy is not entirely clear, but these comments have hardly helped his career, with the musician likely being more commonly referred to as “that rapper who thinks the Earth is flat” rather than B.o.B. Then again, Simmons is the only rapper in history, to my knowledge, to have had a scientist release a diss track about them, which is perhaps some kind of accomplishment. Erroneous conspiracy theories aside, B.o.B’s most recent selection of undertakings have come in the form of a series of mixtapes named after the various elements, with his fourth and latest studio album, Ether, rounding off this saga. With the artist’s focus recently being devoted to churning out as many mixtapes as humanly possible, Ether comes as B.o.B’s first LP since 2013’s Underground Luxury, a release that saw the rapper, more than ever before, sacrifice substance for mainstream appeal, with the album being comprised of below par performances, uninventive lyricism and songs that were so heavily focussed on crafting rudimentary hooks that the overall structuring suffered as a result. Based on his most recent mixtapes, there was really no reason to expect anything different from Ether and, indeed, this new studio release doesn’t see B.o.B acclimatise himself to a widely accessible pop-rap format any more than Underground Luxury. At best, the rapper is arguably more successful in accommodating his style to the trap-tinged tracks on the record, but ultimately, the odd conveyance of maturity is largely drowned out by the tiring lack of creativity that arises from B.o.B appealing to the basics of every hip pop archetype he possibly can.
The opening track, Fan Mail, displays B.o.B at his most creative across the entirety of Ether, using this song as a means of addressing much of the gossip concerning the rapper in recent times, in a way that is slightly evocative of Stormzy’s First Things First, which introduced his new album Gang Signs & Prayers by putting to rest many of the rumours spread about him during his break from recording. Of course, Stormzy certainly had a much more justifiable reason for clearing up his image, in that several music publications had genuinely spread misinformation about him and his reasons for taking a hiatus, whereas B.o.B primarily uses Fan Mail as a means of retaliation against former fans who have found it hard to relate to his conspiracies and attempted pop crossover, but the rapper’s presentation of his thoughts nevertheless maintains some merit. Firstly, Fan Mail boasts what is perhaps B.o.B’s only genuinely charismatic performance on Ether, with the rapper’s punctuated flow and general energy over the heavy trap beat playing to the strengths of the aggression that he attempts to translate. Moreover, the added sound effects of Simmons opening a letter before his first verse at least give the sense of some more credibility to what he is saying, in that it implies that his bars, which are supposedly reciting out this letter, perhaps have some grounding in reality, as opposed to being completely contrived. Similarly, the fact that this verse ends with the sound of this letter being scrunched up is a relatively effective portrayal of the rapper’s disregard for these opinions, whilst the succeeding phone call that he receives, during which he again raps to himself from the standpoint of a former fan, continues the style of presentation pursued on this track without resorting to using the same tactic throughout. This being said, such a delivery is nothing entirely new for a hip hop artist, nor does B.o.B follow it through with some substantial lyricism, rather he presents these arguments from former fans, most of which amount to complete straw men, without even countering their points. The fact that he would merely regurgitate a handful of common criticisms directed at him and his work without so much as writing one bar in response makes the entire track, including its somewhat compelling presentation, futile at best and self-defeating at worst. This is only worsened by the fact that B.o.B doesn’t even seem to understand why he has been the subject of such criticism, misinterpreting the backlash he received from his flat Earth comments as people not wanting to hear his opinions, when, in reality, he was simply being ridiculed for being so wilfully ignorant. Indeed, it’s a shame that B.o.B’s disconnect from reality cheapened one of the few compelling conveyances of charisma on Ether, as the majority of the rest of the record adheres to a cut-and-dried pop rap formula that seldom displays any semblance of growth for the artist.
For the majority of Ether, B.o.B simply follows a mainstream rap archetype without advancing his style beyond these clichés in any notable fashion, rather the artist seems to be mimicking as many of his contemporaries as possible, all whilst conveying little character of his own. This is ultimately what Ether boils down to; the genuinely egregious moments are relatively few and far between, but there is such a consistent lack of personality, and a complete absence of anything even somewhat resembling a bold artistic move, that it’s hard to imagine even B.o.B fans being able to recognise this as an album of his were they not told. The formula followed on practically every song on the record is to simply establish the hook at the beginning of the cut, then alternate between verses and refrains until the three minutes are up. Such a basic, cut-and-paste blueprint is by no means a bad thing on principle alone, but with these hooks and verses being as ten a penny as they come, there is barely anything of substance to provide these tracks with any sense of memorability. When not writing refrains that are clearly playing to the territory of another prominent hip hop artist, such as the Drake worship on Middle Man, Finesse and 4 Lit, some of the hooks across Ether are so underwritten that, when placed at the beginning of a track, they sound more like extended introductions. The barely coherent mutterings from London Jae that comprise the chorus on Tweakin, for instance, sound more like ad-libs than a hook, especially when mixed with the tinny vocal effect that leads to his performance nearly being drowned out by the instrumental. For a chorus that, overall, takes up well over half of the four-minute song’s runtime, it’s fair to expect it to be composed of more than eight unique words in total, but Tweakin essentially sees London Jae intermittently blurt out words, some of which amount more to arbitrary mouth noises, over an inconspicuous trap beat. Substance Abuse is, ironically, equally lacking in substance, with the refrain, once again, being comprised of periodically reading out the title of the song atop a ploddingly bland beat that features a whirling, siren-like melody, which becomes grating rather quickly. Many of the other cuts from Ether, at best, fulfil a generic purpose, with I Know being the washed-out, syrupy smooth bawler, whilst Big Kids is the sentimental, piano-driven end to the album, complete with corny, crooned choruses from Usher and CeeLo Green. All of this reads as if Ether is B.o.B’s attempt at a completely focus group-tested album, but in the process, he has created something so generic, innocuous and forgettably dull that the appeal to be found here can be found in abundance elsewhere, leaving the record highly unlikely to aid the rapper’s cause for relevancy.
Ether is one of a particular brand of album that is especially difficult to review, in that, for the most part, it is completely nondescript and inoffensive. As such, it’s easy for a critic to latch onto the remarkably bad moments across the record, which will often make it seem as if their negative feelings for the project are stronger than they really are. In this specific instance, it is certainly rather effortless to dissect the outstanding flaws of Ether, but, by and large, the album is merely drab to the point of redundancy. There is surely a handful of points of praise to be found concerning this album, such as the rare witty wordplay or the odd production quirk, but outside of both the especially negative and positive points to be made about Ether, its underlying fault is its triteness and resultant forgettability. The lack of character, charisma and creativity to have featured on B.o.B’s recent output recurs once again on his latest studio effort and thus, it will be soon be forgotten just the same.
The Vinyl Verdict: 4.5/10