In hindsight, my growth as a listener of hip-hop and rap music was not necessarily what would be expected in the modern day. I rarely if ever listened to rap music that was released after the year 2000 before around about the year 2010. At that time, I was still a teenager that had not really developed his musical tastes to very much depth, and I was completely and totally into indie rock, electronica, and psychedelic music. In fact, I must admit that I carried a lot of bias against what was popular on the radio, which meant that hard rock and metal, country, R&B, pop, and rap music did not compel me very much. I have developed out more, thankfully, in the years since, with specific artists bridging me over in some way. For R&B, that was Janelle Monae. For hard rock and metal, it was Deftones. For country, it was Johnny Cash. All of these, amazing or even legendary artists who I could not deny even with my limited taste and closed mind to what they did. I learned life lessons from this that I carry with me, which makes me believe that any type of music can have value if it is judged for its own merits and not with bias. Well, in rap music, the artist that initially broke down my walls and made me re-think the genre was. . . B.o.B. I know, I know, he is not exactly the most respected artist now, and has never been considered all that cutting edge or praiseworthy. Nonetheless, The Adventures of Bobby Ray, B.o.B.’s debut album, was an album that I liked a great deal at the time for many reasons. In fact, I still like it, feeling like it has a distinct energy and audaciousness that a lot of pop rap fails to have by just being unrepentantly cheesy but also having a flow that clearly came from a person who knew what they were doing. It is what it is, as cheesy as it is sometimes, and I cannot help but like it.
That being said, B.o.B. has far and away alienated a lot of his fanbase, myself included, as well as the public in general thanks to conspiracy theories, being a flat-earther, and album after album of music that appeared to be trend-chasing more than establishing a distinct sound. The two former issues are especially problematic since it made B.o.B. a joke to much of the industry and the public, hitting a fever pitch when Neil DeGrasse Tyson released the diss track “Flat to Fact” against B.o.B.’s “Flat Line” diss track (which is about the theory that the earth is flat, if that was unclear), turning B.o.B. into a laughing stock for people to poke at for a while. For me, though, this was only part of the problem with B.o.B. after The Adventures of Bobby Ray, as I increasingly found myself disliking his music in general. While Strange Clouds was a decent follow-up, maintaining his genre experimentation and charmingly corny music (though the warning shots were here), and Underground Luxury is even worse by largely sticking to a basic hip-hop formula, both musically and lyrically. At this point, between that and the conspiracy controversies, I completely lost interest in B.o.B. going forward. However, I changed my mind with this latest album, Naga, because B.o.B. announced that it will be his last. I hoped that with this being the finale, B.o.B. might try for something grand and bold. I hoped the man might abandon his conspiratorial streak and martyr complex to just craft good music that could be easily enjoyed. I hoped that he might culminate what he had done in his career to this point into something worth the struggles and fulfilling the potential he once had.
But hope for that was not fulfilled, vanishing entirely at the opening track “Kumbaya,” a relentless assault of trap cliches and horrifically absurd lyrics. The first verse is more of B.o.B.’s crusade to make everyone “wake up” and think for themselves, which might hold more value if his idea of thinking for yourself was not to accept contrarian, conspiratorial views that have literally no basis in observable reality. It is also the case that many of these sorts of viewpoints tend to have the idea that not agreeing with their views is akin to not thinking for yourself, when blindly accepting conspiracies is just as brainless as the other way around. It also does not help his point when he raps “n***** wanna hold hands like Kumbaya/hold these hands like ‘Ali, bomaye,'” saying that an attitude of togetherness is bad when it breeds homogenized thought, and he does this over a homogenous trap beat that could not be picked out of a line-up. After this initial run, the song gets even more cringeworthy as B.o.B. sees fit to apply this same maverick attitude to talking of his sexual exploits, often being insulting and condescending along the way towards various groups of people (“Happy mother’s day (that just mean your pussy work)” and “she want that Gringo; she call me ‘Mandingo’/throw her like Dan Marino/I flip the bag like hyena, arm the torpedo” being just a few of the gems here). Honestly, if I do not just move on from this song right about now I could probably make fun of its lyrics line by line for the rest of the review, so suffice it to say I was not impressed by “Kumbaya” in the slightest.
Luckily, this song is probably the lowest point of the entire album, but that is not saying much and certainly does not mean Naga reaches a pennacle of songwriting from here on out. “Matador Bobby,” the next song on the album, is case and point, as it is not laughably bad like “Kumbaya,” but fails to drum up any real interest between its lackluster beats and more awful lines, though the joke has worn off well before now and they are just boring. Still, the occasional samples that attempt a Spanish flavor make it bearable, for the most part, though the refrains of inane sections like “bitch I’m bubblin'” and “Janet Jackson” midway through the track really work against it, to the point that I can say it still a song I would avoid. On better albums, this would be the worst song, but it manages to probably be in the top half here. Honestly, I can say the same of the next song, despite some moments I groaned at the same “I’ve got this really figured out” attitude that has stained most of B.o.B.’s career (and not just him either, which makes it even worse since he is not even unique at this point). This song is “Good N***** Sticker,” a song about how black people everywhere just following along with the crowd because it makes them acceptable. And he could not help but put a “the earth is flat” reference in the song either with the lines “It’s sad when you find out the world is trash, inn’it? (Wa-wait till they discover it’s flat).” The obnoxiousness on display is almost too much to take, though when I ignored everything he was saying, I found “Good N***** Sticker” to actually have a good lyrical flow and well-utilized instrumental sample in the background. Still, it is not good that I just had to say “ignore everything B.o.B. is talking about, and this song is not half bad,” since so much of rap music is about what the rapper is saying (all lyrical music has this to be sure, but, in my opinion, the connection is inherently stronger in rap music).
From here, B.o.B. tones down the pseudo-intellectual lyrics to focus more on all the sex he apparently has and how “jealous” people are because he is a “renegade” that does “his own thing”, which is still not delivered in a very compelling way but is surprisingly less uncomfortable. “Elbows,” in particular, gets it’s title from the line “I wanna see your ass in your elbows,” which I suppose is meant to be sexually-charged in some way. Regardless, I just find it a moment where I am taken aback at how B.o.B. could possibly think this is good. Yet it is delivered with such conviction that I know he must be thinking it is a great line, and that this song is amazing. The latter idea of B.o.B. as industry firebrand is pushed by the next two songs, “Gerald Lavert” and “Dontbenobodysbitch.” “Gerald Lavert” is actually one of the better sounding tracks on the entire album, and lyrically is a bit less viscerally unappealing. Unfortnuately, this is primarily because it is one of the blander tracks on the album, and ends up being mostly forgettable in the sea of everything else. Regardless, though, it is a tick up in quality, and sets the stage for improved quality on the album’s second half, starting with “Dontbenobodysbitch,” which has a synth-lead that might be the best sounding musical arrangement on the entire album. While the lyrics are not much more than B.o.B. talking himself up again, this type of hook really makes me wonder what this album could have been if B.o.B. had toned down the bloated self-importance and goofy sexual lyrics. I am not saying a masterpiece would have come, but something better than this might have.
And I only felt more strongly about this as the last four songs kicked on, starting with “T.M.I.” where B.o.B. drops the best, most trap-appropriate bars of the entire album. Some of the conspiracy talk creeps in, to be sure, with a line going to the World Trade Center attacks (“9-11, turn your twin towers to a burning rubble”), though it is not so bluntly soaked in the paranoia and ignorance to register badly. It is more context that makes these references seem worse than they would be otherwise. Overall, though, “T.M.I.” ends up being the best use of the trap influence, showing B.o.B. possibly could have done better if this song was by itself on a record that experimented more. To further this point, “Cuello,” the song that follows, is probably the best demonstration of what made B.o.B. appealing at one point in the past, containing nine kinds of quirkiness and a serious lack of self-seriousness. It is a short, fun song that stands out like a rose in a junkyard, with a beat and melody that actually got me moving along to it.
However, the prize for best song goes to the penultimate effort of “How It Is,” having a piano-driven melody with a female vocalist singing “that’s how it is” in the background which actually makes the song not just good in the context of Naga, but good in general. Lyrically, B.o.B. is still not throwing out the degree of “truth-bombs” he thinks he is, but there are remarkably more actually intelligent moments here than almost the entire rest of the album put together. One such moment was the lines “You can’t love the culture and hate the people; embrace the flaws, elevate what you call evil.” The depth here is actual depth, even if it is not completely unique to this song or to B.o.B. It is disappointing to see then how this gets buried in an album that is so amazingly bad in the first half, only okay to start the second half, and then moves to some truly decent quality. “Bad Computer” closes out the album with a slowburn trying to drum up the emotions and make one last claim of being the one who is conscious of what is really going on. I will agree that people do need to be more active and not just wait for things to happen, but B.o.B. is not exactly the best messenger for this idea, proving why both inside and outside of Naga itself. The song is more just a reminder of why this album is overall extremely subpar: it was made with an intent to convince everyone else that B.o.B. is a free-thinker and the rest of us sheep for not thinking the way he does, even if the way he thinks is patently ridiculous sometimes. The song itself is not bad, but it does offer that one last gut-punch that ends the album on an appropriate note by not ending on a good one.
In the end, B.o.B. will likely go down as a joke within the music industry, with efforts like this not doing much to absolve him. However, I find B.o.B. to be a tragic case of the ego of one individual causing them to inflate their self-importance to the point of not even recognizing how ridiculous they are anymore. If this is the last B.o.B. album (and who knows if it really will be, forever), but if it is then I have conflicting feelings about it. Part of me is still wishing for something that lives up to what B.o.B. could be as a rapper, and another part is feeling good that he is gone since his output is musically unentertaining at best and actively harmful to public discourse at worse. “How It Is” and “Cuello” show me that I was never truly wrong about the artist all those years ago by thinking that this daring pop rapper who made inspirational hits like “Airplanes (feat. Hayley Williams),” wide-eyed love songs like “Nothin’ On You (feat. Bruno Mars),” and cheesy pop-rock tunes like “Magic” (feat. Rivers Cuomo).” Still, what Naga also showed me is that I was not wrong to lose touch with the rapper either, since his ideology has affected his music negatively, and the music itself is far from the carefree fun that I once had with B.o.B. that made me look more at rap than I had before.