In two weeks the first rap album of 2010 that matters will be released. How much rap will appear on The Adventures of Bobby Ray is still a mystery. But the recent hip-hop trend of paradigm-shifting MCs–e.g., rappers who don’t always seem interested in rap–continues with the big top arrival of B.o.B. There has been something preordained about his rise, but it’s been an intermittent ascent for Atlanta’s Bobby Ray Simmons. Unlike his comrade in genre obfuscation, Drake–who became famous virtually overnight–B.o.B’s trajectory has been a slow burn climaxing in, finally, a flash of light: the hit single “Nothin’ On You.”
B.o.B, named for the OutKast song of the same name, emerged in 2007 at just 18, with the woozy, billowing weed anthem “Cloud Nine” and a DJ Smallz mixtape of the same name. “Haterz Everywhere,” a song by the little known Wes Fif that somehow became a song by B.o.B, came next. Record pool impresario T.J. Chapman and producer Jim Jonsin, early B.o.B boosters, were behind many of the rapper’s early moves, plowing industry inroads and supplying bold, sample-happy favorites like “Grip Your Body” and “Use Your Love.” Comparisons to Andre 3000 came fast, with fans noting B.o.B’s complex, fast-to-slow phrasing and twangy melodicism. Enthusiasm grew. Blogs bit. It was all happening.
Then things get a little blurry. Months went by without new music. Then, reportedly, B.o.B retired. Or didn’t. Then he changed his name to Bobby Ray. Then changed it back. Or didn’t. Or it was an alias. His career began to resemble an elaborate prank.
B.o.B’s label history is just as confusing. Sometime in 2007 Atlantic came onboard, shepherded by Jonsin’s Rebel Rock imprint. Then delays set in. Cut to March 2008: in an act that smacked of desperation, T.I.’s Grand Hustle got in the B.o.B business. The mutual benefit? Mainstream street cred for the Coldplay-namechecking novice and a veneer of oddball intrigue for Tip. “On Top Of The World,” from T.I.’s Paper Trail, followed, with B.o.B on a hook he co-wrote with Playboy Tre, a Southern veteran who parlayed their association into two stellar mixtapes last year. Soon B.o.B. was rolling again. New songs like “Generation Lost” struck like a lightning bolt of clarity, personal but universally understood. A flurry of new mixtapes came next, some good, most rehashing previous achievements.
Today, B.o.B has six mixtapes to his name (only Cloud 9 is essential), including the recent May 25th, meant to indicate his album’s release date. The speedy success of “Nothin’ On You” pushed the date to April 27, making that title look a little silly, but the tape itself revealed a cleaner, more hook-driven artist. It was all part of the plan. As Atlantic Records President Julie Greenwald says in this bizarre but strangely endearing clip, “He ain’t interested in no fly-by-night shit.” It’s a rare peek into the machine–how record label executives (they still exist!) talk to their company’s perceived meal tickets.
And make no mistake, B.o.B has been anointed and handled very carefully. He’s been shaped slowly over time, getting the chance to fail with the 2008 single “I’ll Be in The Sky,” before scoring with “Nothin’ On You,” a song that, while catchy, probably doesn’t distinguish B.o.B. Hook man Bruno Mars can claim much of the credit for the song’s success, thanks to his wet-lipped chorus. The song will make B.o.B famous, but what makes him important is everything that isn’t “Nothin’ On You.”
Last year, I saw B.o.B perform at a South by Southwest showcase curated by Nah Right and The Smoking Section. Before taking the stage, industry disaster Charles Hamilton performed a dull, pleading set in an adjacent room–a nice lowering of expectations for the afternoon. Then B.o.B took the stage, rapping hard and crazy-eyed, but also playing drums, then acoustic and electric guitar, moving from wifebeater-tearing fury to plaintive stool-sitting singer-songwriter territory. It was a weirdly electric set; sloppy, fat on the edges, but also ambitious, hinting at OutKast’s Three Stacks, certainly, but also dead prez’s M1, Fishbone, and James Taylor. (It wasn’t as bad as that sounds.)
The showcase also officially signaled what B.o.B wants to be: A two-sport athlete. B.o.B’s affinity for another genre–in this case, a hybrid folk-rock–makes him a more valuable commodity than any other recent young star aside from Drake. To become viable in 2010, young rappers must be about more than rap. And these days, B.o.B seems to be favoring the singer-songwriter stuff, as this recent performance of “Letters To Vietnam” attests. Rather than worry about alienating hardcore rap fans–who don’t buy albums–B.o.B has wisely teased The Adventures of Bobby Ray with spacey fluff like “Satellite” and “Don’t Let Me Fall.” His Coldplay allegiance (they were his first concert and primary inspiration) is all over these songs. More good news: The guy is Justin Bieber’s favorite rapper. That’s a win. The one rap song that has leaked from the album is “Bet I Bust,” a knuckleheaded banger that features Playboy Tre and a freshly-sprung T.I. It’s a vision of what B.o.B could have been 10 years ago, but can’t be now: A rappin’ ass rapper.
And yet this morning, B.o.B released his next single, “Airplanes,” a serious if a bit rote collaboration with Paramore lead sprite Hayley Williams. The sequel will feature Eminem. Other guests on the album: likeminded rap re-evaluator Lupe Fiasco, Janelle Monae, and, erm, Rivers Cuomo. These are not cynical decisions. B.o.B, who also produced nearly half of the album and is still just 21, loves these artists. But ultimately, in a rap landscape in which rappers can’t succeed just by being rappers, it sure helps to have a sideline. And B.o.B’s is about as au courant as they get. Whether people will love The Adventures of Bobby Ray has not been left to chance.