BOBBY RAY SIMMONS, AKA B.O.B, looks around the photo studio like someone trying to put a name to a face. He grabs a pen, glides his lanky frame over to a kitchen counter and positions two ceramic mugs. He taps each in different spots with the pen, then with a piece of silverware—each time creating a distinct sound. “Now you could fill up those cups with different amounts of water to get different notes,” he says, walking back to the table. “And I’m pretty sure they got plenty of dishes.” He sits down, tipping back on his chair with his hands folded behind his head, satisfied that he’s made his point. “There’s no limit to how you could make a sound. You could use digital synthesizers to sculpt it and bend it and do all types of shit to it.”
He’s been struggling to explain some abstract idea, which left him pretty much sounding like a musical hippie. Not because he’s high or anything. To be sure, he makes his adoration for burning leaves apparent in his music and in conversation, but he showed up to this photo studio in Adair Park, Atlanta, extremely clear-eyed and eager to talk.
If the 22-year-old Decatur, Ga.,-bred rapper/singer/instrumentalist/producer sounds a bit spacey, perhaps it’s because he’s been talking about creating “sounds that don’t exist.” It all began with a simple question about his production techniques, and—as he does with most questions thrown at him—B.o.B spun it into some odd sort of theory, which he’ll eventually make understandable. Or not.
First he was talking about his equipment: “I use a variety of keyboards that they don’t make anymore,” he said. Then he spoke of newer keyboards, sound modules, computer programs like Logic and ProTools. And then: “Most of the shit that I do, I kinda make myself. I don’t like using sounds that already exist.” Stopping to giggle at his own comment, he digresses onto a tangent about ROY G. BIV—the pneumonic device kids learn to help remember the colors of the rainbow, i.e. Red, Orange, Yellow and so on—and inventing his own colors.
There is a point to all this, and it relates to the origins of his production theory. B.o.B recalls the time he played a beat for someone and they told him what kind of keyboard and sound he used to make it. “From that day forward, I was like, ‘Everything—you have to sculpt it yourself,’” he says. “It’s basically like taking clay—if the air was clay, you’re basically molding that shit to make a sound you want.”
His sound-shaping paid off with critical acclaim. Eminem was so impressed that he signed B.o.B to a publishing deal through his Shady Music Publishing in 2007. Em was betting that the young rapper—who sounds like a mash-up between Ludacris and Andre 3000—would be creating music that resonates with listeners for some time.
In 2009, while promoting his comeback album, Relapse, Eminem offered a mighty public cosign. “B.o.B is crazy,” he said on BET’s 106 & Park. “That dude can rap, he can sing, he makes his own beats, he can play guitar, he can play the keyboard.” From the first time he met the rookie, Em said he was astonished: “I was like, ‘Do you dance, too? What don’t you do?’”
Thus far, it looks like Em was way ahead of the curve. B.o.B’s 2010 debut album, B.o.B Presents: The Adventures of Bobby Ray, has proven to be a commercial success in today’s cash-starved music industry. It’s been certified gold, spawning three Top 10 singles, “Nothin’ on You,” featuring Bruno Mars (double platinum); “Airplanes,” featuring Paramore’s Hayley Williams (triple platinum); and “Magic” with Weezer’s Rivers Cuomo (platinum). He’s been nominated for over 30 major music awards, including five Grammys this year: Record of the Year, Best Pop Collaboration With Vocals, Best Rap/Sung Collaboration, Best Rap Song and Best Rap Album.
His growing catalog of music is only being matched by his ability to cash in on his likeness. The rapper has appeared in an Adidas commercial, and the sneaker company also had subtle product placement in his “Magic” video. Meanwhile, his record labelĐcontrolled Web site, bobatl.com, hawks wares based off his music that features his likeness or poetry, including $20 earbuds and “Beautiful Girl” necklaces, $10 guitar picks and “Past My Shades” sunglasses—all the kinds of novelty items labels once gave away free as promotional landfill. Now, in an age of 360 deals, which allow labels to profit from an artist’s ancillary revenue streams like touring and merchandising, B.o.B’s every word, fashion choice and bead of sweat represents a potential donation into the coin purse of his contract owners.
B.o.B’s in tune with this reality, in which he finds himself somewhere between being a cog in the machine and raging against it. He walks a line—sometimes not so nimbly—between pop commodity and urban artist. In this instant, he’s the latter. “I’m a horrible salesperson,” he says. “I couldn’t sell water to the desert.”