By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
Rapper B.o.B.'s song "Nothin' On You," is a massive hit, the kind that sells a million copies and sits at No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100. (Well, at press time, anyway; by the time you read this it very well could be No. 1.) With its lady-friendly R&B chorus and breezy beat, it's also set to radically re-align his fan base.
Adios, twenty- and thirty-something boom-bappers. Hello, Twilight fans.
His debut album, B.o.B Presents: The Adventures of Bobby Ray, is due out on April 27—the day of his Dallas show, in fact—and it will likely be a smash as well, considering it's got plenty of other radio-ready rap hits and guest appearances from bold-faced names (T.I., Eminem, Rivers Cuomo).
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But it was never supposed to be this way. In fact, if B.o.B.—born Bobby Ray Simmons—had his way, Adventures would have been a self-produced, experimental, rock-heavy work.
"I just wanted to bring something new," he told me in an interview last year, also speaking on his fights with his record label, his new band and his proclivity for the guitar. "You're trying to grow musically and not get bored. It's really a challenging thing."
The problem was that he had already seen success as a traditional rapper, with his song "Haterz Everywhere" becoming a local hit in Atlanta. This made it harder to convince his record company, Atlantic, to switch up the format.
"When you do something that is lucrative, you're supposed to do it over and over again until it runs out," he said.
Growing up in a downtrodden section of Atlanta suburb Decatur, Simmons was a musical prodigy, and by his mid-teens he had emerged as a multi-instrumentalist who could both rap and produce. Building a grassroots following as a money-and-hoes–minded emcee, he signed a deal with Atlantic in 2007 and was placed on T.I.'s Grand Hustle imprint.
His early mixtapes featured club beats, pop hooks, and lyrics that weren't exactly profound. "I get things moist/Call me SpongeBob/If I use my tongue/She'll be like, 'Well done, B.o.B.,'" he said on a track called "Grip Your Body." Still, it was hard to deny his dexterous skills and humorous turns of phrase. In December 2008, he was featured in an XXL cover story about the best emerging emcees.
But the more famous Simmons got, the more uncomfortable he became.
"I began feeling like I was boxed in," he said.
He also wanted to get rid of his moniker: "Certain [meanings] are attached to B.o.B., like 'Bring one Blunt,' or 'Bring one Beer,'" he explained, adding that substance abuse was no longer something he felt like glamorizing. He began telling journalists to call him Bobby Ray—reflecting his desire to be true to himself—although Atlantic Records didn't go for it.
And so, in the end, Adventures is more of a "B.o.B" album than a "Bobby Ray" album, a fairly standard big-budget work, concerned primarily with its singles and not taking many risks with the music. (Simmons only produced a few tracks, and most of its rock components have been thoroughly smoothed over.)
As for the success of "Nothin' On You," well, it could work against him or it could work for him.
Sure, it may make his label even more ravenous for crossover hits, but it could also give him the power to demand more artistic license.
For the sake of this compelling-yet-stunted young artist, let's hope it's the latter.