If there were a more unlikely success story in 2010 than alternative MC B.o.B, you would have to make them up. The genre-merging Atlanta rhymer, producer and multi-instrumentalist has a major pop hit on his hands with the sugary ode, “Nothin’ On You,” featuring Bruno Mars. For a mixtape favorite who's considered the logical successor to OutKast, having the No. 2 song in the country is a coup. Now, B.o.B is set to release his long-delayed debut, B.o.B Presents: The Adventures of Bobby Ray, on April 27, with a guest list as eclectic as his hip-hop, rock and electronica influences (Lupe Fiasco, Janelle Monae, Hayley Williams). B.o.B spoke to VIBE about what's shaping up to be a wonderfully strange career. —Keith Murphy
VIBE: You’ve gone from being known as an alternative underground hip-hop act to having a pop hit with “Nothin’ On You.” Are you scratching your head at becoming a favorite on MTV and Top 40 Radio?
B.o.B: I definitely didn’t intend on it. Atlantic Records was like, “This will be a huge smash,” and I’m like, “Yeah, alright…show me.” [Laughs] Well, I showed Atlantic that alternative music could work and they showed me that "Nothin’ On You" could be a smash.
Did you have any reservations about recording an overtly commercial song like “Nothin’ On You?”
I’m not going to say that I didn’t like it, but I wasn’t like “Oh my God! I love it!” Bruno is a talented dude and I’ve worked with him before so I already knew that everything he does is very musical and I’m a very musical guy. I just think sometimes as a producer myself, my ego gets in the way a little bit. I embrace more the stuff that I produced—the music where I can say, Yeah, I did that.
You've shown a do-it-yourself mindset for your album project, even shooting your own videos for "Generation Lost,” "Put Me On" and "No Mans Land." How important is it for newer artists to take control of their own careers in today’s music industry climate?
It’s seriously important. Granted you have a group of people called the record label and they have their vision, but people are people. If you don’t do something, nobody else is going to do it. Whether you are signed or unsigned you are going to have to take the lead. If you don’t, your career will be completely out of your control. Either stuff will happen that you don’t want to happen or nothing will happen. So you have to be very proactive if you want to make sure stuff gets done.
You're signed to T.I.’s Grand Hustle imprint. What kind of career advice has he given you?
He told me, “Alright B.o.B, you are on roller coaster now. From this point on everything is going to speed up and you will never know how you got here.” He told me about finding my pace because I’m just getting my feet wet.
How ironic is it that you're being billed as an alternative hip-hop artist and you're on a label owned by one of the most commercial southern rap acts out today?
It’s crazy. Me being on Grand Hustle, being affiliated with T.I., being an underground alternative artist with a pop hit the next day. It’s fucking crazy. The Adventures of Bobby Ray is just a soundtrack to what I’m doing. I’m just enjoying the ride… The ups and downs is what make the rollercoaster ride fun. But everything is weird [Laughs].
Are you worried that newer fans that only know you from “Nothin’ On You” and not from your more experimental mixtapes will be expecting a more radio-friendly sound for the entire album?
There are fans that give me faith that the original B.o.B will not be forgotten ever. If one of your friends is like, “Ah man, I just heard this “Nothin’ On You,” you will be like, “Oh no, that’s just the surface. Let me educate you on the mixtapes.” I feel like because of the fact that a lot of people have heard the mixtapes, they will tell the new fans, “Man, I been on B.o.B, y’all late.” The foundation is there. All the work that I did over the past three years couldn’t have been better. It was hard and it took a lot of labor and a lot of sweat and losing my voice and my mind. But that hard work instilled the foundation so that a pop song wouldn’t crumble down on me.
So what type of sound should we expect?
I think Bobby Ray will be that happy medium. When I sat down with my label and told them what direction I wanted to go in, they thought I wanted to go the weird alternative rock way. I actually wanted to make more cohesive music. I want to make music that people could actually listen to and relate to, but still keep my alternative element.
You play guitar and several other instruments. Has your musicianship held you back in terms of fans not seeing you as a so-called “real” hip-hop artist?
The people that are discovering me now don’t know about my hip-hop shit and the stuff that had more of an edge. There’s so much involved with my music that it takes a while to make the rounds. I have my hip-hop crowd, my alternative crowd and now I have my pop crowd. That’s a lot to entertain, but it just takes time. I’m working on my next mixtape during the tour I’m on.
The running joke around the music industry was that B.o.B’s album would never see the light of day because it’s been in the making for about three years. Did you feel the same way?
[Laughs] I also thought that. There was definitely a period where people were saying, “Okay, another mixtape…but when is the album coming?” I even made jokes about it in a freestyle on one of my mixtapes: “My album saying B.o.B when will you release me?” It was just a joke because it was the obvious move to make if some of the label CEO’s are saying we need to get an album out by this guy because it’s obvious that I had fans. It got so ridiculous that we had to sit down with Atlantic to figure out what we were going to do. So, finally April 27… Jesus Christ, it couldn’t have came soon enough.