Ray of light
Atlanta rapper B.o.B. embodies and embraces hip-pop culture
Published: April 14, 2011
“You all created me. I’m just an element of your imagination.” The Atlanta-based rap star, B.o.B., who begins an out-of-the-ordinary run of four shows in three weeks on Friday, April 15 – all at Universal Studios Orlando – offers up his gratitude to his fans. It’s an apt sentiment: The 23-year-old has graduated from dwelling in the mire of the mixtape-rapper scene to collaborating with mainstream figures like Paramore’s Hayley Williams, Bruno Mars and Weezer’s Rivers Cuomo. It’s an upward move that casts B.o.B. as a modern phenomenon. In another era, those collaborations would have seen him castigated by his hip-hop peers as a sellout – someone prepared to pander to the pop world in a blatant bid to score more sales. Not anymore. B.o.B. is a symbol of the times and a mirror of an iPod-propagated playlist culture defined by cross-genre commingling.
“I just think it’s the tempo, the rhythm right now,” B.o.B. says. “People want to see combinations of different colors, styles and genres.” B.o.B.’s music is that rhythm.
It wasn’t always that way. Born in North Carolina but schooled in Georgia, B.o.B. first grabbed a modicum of attention with 2007’s “Haterz Everywhere,” a song cut with Orlando rapper Wes Fif and produced by Atlanta’s Ribah. Stylistically, the production adhered to the trap-rap template with which T.I. rose to fame, while giving a nod to the rave-rap trend to come.
“That was the first song that really kinda popped with me and got me into the club scene,” he says. But it only got him into clubs where people already wanted to hear rap.
It’s what B.o.B. did next that elevated his career beyond that scene. Instead of following the aspiring-rapper party line and flooding the Internet with free mixtapes, hoping that a higher-profile rapper would co-sign his talent, B.o.B. started to flirt with a pop aesthetic. His 2008 track “Don’t Let Me Fall” opened with a rolling piano riff and was hooked around an emotive, sung chorus embellished by a shimmering wall of guitar fuzz that any female pop-rocker would be proud to warble over. It was less a single than a statement about B.o.B.’s new direction. With the release of his debut album in 2010, his pop ambitions were writ large.
Titled The Adventures Of Bobby Ray, the album was notable for its heavy reliance on guest artists singing poppy choruses. (Featuring B.o.B ... was the alternative-title running gag in reviews.) Bruno Mars’ extended hook on “Nothin’ On You” is layered over a track possessing the texture of a pop song; “Magic,” featuring Cuomo, comes across as infernally twee if you’re expecting “Haterz Everywhere Part 2” – but it sounds like a seamless fit for daytime radio’s drive- in segment.
Aligning B.o.B. with pop royalty was a decision that paid off. While his one-time peers such as J. Cole (still yet to release an album), Charles Hamilton (dropped from Interscope records) and Asher Roth (never recovered from tweeting about “nappy-headed hoes”) saw their careers flounder, B.o.B. watched his album debut at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 chart. He went on to score Grammy nominations for “Nothin’ On You” and an MTV Video Music Award for “Airplanes,” which featured Williams, whom B.o.B. says he always wanted to work with but he didn’t actually meet until they performed the song together live. Regardless of whether the direction was due to B.o.B.’s own artistic intuition or the canny molding of his talent by the Atlantic Records machine, the idea of bolstering a rap project with an overt pop sheen resonated strongly with fans.
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