While Adventures of Bobby Ray is not as un-urban as when Andre 3000 decides to sing, it’s still a straightforward hip-pop record—the arrangements, the soft drums, the layered vocals on the choruses and the guitar solos make Andre’s The Love Below seem modest in comparison. More often than not, the genre-stripping and mixing works, which is exactly why some of his earliest supporters may be stuck playing catch-up.
T.I. says he keeps a hands-off approach to B.o.B.’s music but he’s there to guide him wherever guidance is needed. “We bounced ideas of theories and logic back and forth,” he said. “At the end of the day, he came up with this: He cares a lot at some times and a little bit at other times.”
BOBBY RAY IS ON THE verge of being all things to all fans. As one of music’s rising stars, he’s feeling the age-old growing pains of a genuine artist—urban? pop? alternative?—made to create art that is also product. You can’t blame some folks for thinking that, maybe somewhere along the way to selling millions of records and necklaces and, again, earbuds, Bobby Ray might have “sold out,” or lost a part of himself in his own evolution.
“I come up with B.o.B, so I’m more in tune with him,” says Willie Joe, the Atlanta-by-way-of-Vallejo, Calif., rapper who created B.o.B’s stage name by offhandedly spelling out his name one night. But even Willie Joe has much to learn. “I’m getting to know Bobby Ray more and more as we go. I appreciate Bobby Ray at the same time, I know why he’s here. The people that have been loyal since the first mixtapes and they’re saying that he went pop, I don’t think they fully understand the music industry and how it works.”
Time and again he has refused to reach for the obvious crossover move. When he was tapped as one of the artists to promote Reebok’s Classic Remix Collection in 2009, he recorded “Put Me On,” transforming A Tribe Called Quest’s “Bonita Applebum” into a song about being in the moment, manifesting his dreams and self-expression. He actually used those New Age-y terms with a straight face, while simultaneously talking about his kicks. He also passed on the chance to record a song called “Right Round,” even though he knew it was a hit. It just wasn’t the hit that he wanted to make.
“When it comes to decisions like that, it’s not necessarily whether it’s a hit or not,” he says. “From the label standpoint they’re feeling like, ‘We’re trying to give you a hit record and you don’t want it?’ But from an artist standpoint you may not just want to go in that direction.”
When Flo Rida’s version of the song was released in 2009, it broke the record for first-week digital sales with 636,000 paid downloads, and topped charts across the board. “When it popped off, I wasn’t like, ‘Damn!’ because I didn’t want to do it,” B.o.B insists. “It’s not even a knock on any artist. I respect every artist who is completely dedicated to the music business. Not necessarily just the music, but the music business. I may not go in a certain direction that the label may want to go in, but that’s life.”
For B.o.B’s part, he says his conscience is clear—his music is still art, and his business is important. “As an artist, you take a gamble when you are willing to completely compromise the business side of music for the art when you’re trying to make a living off of music,” he says. “Some artists aren’t in it for the artistry—which is absolutely fine, there’s nothing wrong with that. If I got into the business of selling refrigerators, I’m selling refrigerators to make money. I’m not selling refrigerators because I just love the idea of refrigerators.”
Before he falls too far on one side, he teeters on the line and shifts direction. “I’m not a corporate rapper,” B.o.B says. “My loyalty is not to any corporation, my loyalty is to the music. That doesn’t mean that I don’t work with corporations, it doesn’t mean that I don’t sell music—it just means that first I’m an artist, regardless of anything.”