It’s no secret that rapper B.o.B wants to be a rock star. He makes it a little bit more explicit on his sophomore release, Strange Clouds - even spitting “after Strange Clouds, I’ma drop my rock album” at one point – but it’s been in the back of his mind since 2009′s The Adventures of Bobby Ray, the Atlanta emcee’s hit-spawning debut. On that record, pop-punk princess Hayley Williams lent her bruised coo to the contemplative “Airplanes”, while Weezer frontman Rivers Cuomo lent a power-pop hook to the effervescent “Magic”; elsewhere, Bobby enlisted fellow genre-jumper Janelle Monae to rework Vampire Weekend’s “The Kids Don’t Stand A Chance” and flexed his robust singing voice at every available opportunity.

And, honestly, it’s nice to hear. Pure rock and hip-hop has its place, of course, but B.o.B, like Andre 3000, Cee-Lo, and Travie McCoy before him, readily acknowledges his vast range of influences, and this resistance to being pinned down is largely refreshing. On Strange Clouds, his flow remains impeccable – he’s not a perfect emcee, of course, propping himself up on more than one silly punchline, but that percussive, winding technique of his remains a gift – but he indulges more frequently his penchant for vast, arena-ready choruses, and often flexes his instrumental acumen. It’s not a classic album, but it’s a pretty good one, and as refreshing in 2012 as Adventures was two years back.

That said, Strange Clouds is a pretty fluffy album. It’s not quite as carefree as Bobby Ray, but B.o.B often gives himself over to fairly basic examinations of post-fame life like a less-challenging My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy - bare-bones existentialism in “Just A Sign”, rags-to-riches victory lap in “Castles”, examination of self in “Where Are You” – and the introspection is generally funneled into easily-digestible soundbites. This works for Bobby – he’s a renaissance man, sure, but he’s also a pop star, and deftly navigates a series of big-hearted choruses like one. Kickoff single “So Good” troubles itself with none of that self-exploration, preferring instead to hinge on a catchy chorus – it sounds like the midway point between “Nothin’ On You” and “Airplanes”, come to think of it – and a series of verses that promise the object of B.o.B’s affection that she stands to get lots of stuff from hooking up with him, because he’s rich now. It’s fairly mindless and self-celebratory, but also breezy and pleasant.

More satisfying is “Bombs Away”, which opens with Morgan Freeman narration – yes, B.o.B scored the ultimate coup and got Morgan Freeman to narrate stuff on his rap record – over sweeping, circling strings; it’s a thrilling, cinematic opening salvo with a crunching, martial beat and wonky arcade-game synths, and hints at the sort of theatrical, conceptual madness a focused B.o.B is capable of curating. It’s the album’s high point by a yard, but there are pleasures to be found elsewhere – “Out Of My Mind” finds Bobby trading psychotic verses with a delightfully off-the-rails Nicki Minaj, echoing his appearance on Tech N9ne’s schizoid “Am I A Psycho?” last year, and the acoustic-flecked “Never Let You Go” sounds like B.o.B’s very own take on indie-rock, ever sincere and stirring, even with the increasingly-dire Ryan Tedder in tow. (Shades of The Script on this one, in both minor-key chord progression and rhythmic falsetto vocals; fitting, considering the emcee’s guest verse on that band’s 2010 record Science & Faith.) Even the superficially boneheaded “Ray Bands” – B.o.B, you see, pretty much just digs sunglasses, weed, and fame – is insidious enough to be charming.

Some of Bobby’s more high-profile airplay bids fall flat, of course; it’s a natural side affect of hip-hop stardom that follow-up records are generally overstuffed with recognizable guests, and while Strange Clouds largely reins that tendency in, it yields a head-scratcher or two. Chris Brown and T.I. dropping by for a track is a given – Brown, in particular, is hip-hop’s go-to hookman these days – but the deflated “Arena” is as forgettable as, well, a Chris Brown song; Taylor Swift contributing a chorus to “Both of Us” sounds like a novel idea that sounded good on paper, but plays like a calculated bid to do something different. (It also sounds exactly like a Taylor Swift song, a conceit that doesn’t really play out well on a rap album.) The title track has Lil’ Wayne Lil’ Wayning all over the place – generally an unpleasant thing if you enjoy, you know, music – but is salvaged by a lurching, apocalyptic beat and B.o.B’s characteristically solid flow. (Oddly enough, it’s Trey Songz, basically the Chris Brown who doesn’t punch people, who contributes the best non-Bobby Ray hook on the record – his refrain for “Castles” is an elastic, celebratory beauty.)

Given his ear for a good hook, instrumental proficiency (Strange Clouds is draped in a wall of B.o.B’s guitar and piano playing), and rock-solid flow, B.o.B is promising – given his restless muse, innate skill, and youthful age, it’s only a matter of time before he drops a stone classic. Strange Clouds isn’t that record – honestly, it might not even be better than his first – but it’s exciting to hear the B.o.B sound take shape, and it’s got replay value to spare. Also, Morgan Freeman narrates things, so there’s that.

Grade: B

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