The World Loves B.o.B -
Reconciling the Grammy-nominated rapper's place in his hometown
Hundreds of rap fans have descended upon the corner at Third and Spring streets. It's the first night of A3C 2014, and they're hoping to get inside one of two showcases happening simultaneously at opposite ends of the block.
Inside Quad @ Spring4th Complex, hood-hipster media outlet Noisey is hosting a showcase simply titled "ATLANTA." The lineup features a long list of acts such as former underdog-turned-XXL Freshman Jarren Benton and current underdogs Key! and Father.
The line snakes along Spring Street to Quad's entrance, where it becomes a bottleneck of wannabe VIPs saying anything and everything to talk their way past security. They're clamoring for entry to see artists who, with a few exceptions such as Que and Ca$h Out, are acts that can be found performing along Edgewood Avenue any given night.
Down the block at Enclave, a showcase called No Genre has virtually no line. Platinum-selling artist B.o.B is the headliner, and the showcase is named after the rapper/producer's new record label. The bill also includes local favorites such as Scotty ATL in addition to out-of-towners who have come from as far as Seattle and Milwaukee. Many in the audience are here because they couldn't get into Noisey's ATLANTA show down the street.
No Genre's crowd is also full of rappers waiting for their turns to perform while the openers scream into the mics. By the time B.o.B hits the stage, the speakers are ruined. B.o.B gives the sound man a few minutes to "get this shit right" and then returns to perform a handful of his hits. He invites his No Genre artists on stage, starts a mosh pit, and shares his weed with some fans. After the show, B.o.B heads outside toward his Mercedes-Benz SUV. There is no mad rush to get backstage for photos and autographs. No VIPs. The scene is a far cry from the ATLANTA showcase, where fans hang out backstage all night, waiting on headlining newcomer ILoveMakonnen, who flaked out and never even performed.
"We've toured all around the world, and people go crazy when they see him, asking for autographs," says B.o.B's manager Brian "B. Rich" Richardson. "But when he comes home, nobody knows him."
This dilemma is strange, considering B.o.B's accomplishments compared to ones by many of his Atlanta hip-hop peers.
In 2008, B.o.B was featured on the first-ever XXL Freshmen cover. Since then, he has been nominated for six Grammy Awards, making him one of the most recognized XXL Freshman class artists. In 2013, B.o.B had one gold single, "We Still in This Bitch," featuring T.I. and Juicy J, and one platinum single, "Headband," featuring 2 Chainz — more than all of the ATLANTA artists combined. Last September, B.o.B rocked two of Atlanta's biggest stages with two of hip-hop's biggest names: Eminem brought him out at Music Midtown, and OutKast recruited him to open for its #ATLast Sunday night show. Oh yeah, he's performed for President Obama, too.
The difference in crowd size and reaction at the ATLANTA show compared to the No Genre stage sums up B.o.B's music industry journey so far: His name is recognized on international stages, but he's often overlooked at home. B.o.B's A3C performance was his last in Atlanta before he launched his monthlong, 23-city No Genre tour, which will touch down everywhere from Pensacola to Portland, but nowhere near Peachtree Street.
"No promoters in Atlanta booked a date," says B.o.B's co-manager TJ Chapman over the phone from B.o.B's tour bus, outside Tucson, Ariz. "To them he's just B.o.B from Atlanta. They don't realize how massive the movement is around the world. The shows we do happen to do in Atlanta are either for the Braves, corporate shows, or school shows. I guess people just don't see it."
B.o.B hit the radar in 2006 and dropped a slew of genre-bouncing mixtapes over the years until his 2010 debut album The Adventures of Bobby Ray hit No. 1 on the Billboard 200 chart. The gold-selling album spawned three Top 10 hits, including the double-platinum single "Nothing on You," featuring Bruno Mars, and the Grammy-nominated single "Airplanes," featuring Hayley Williams. His next two albums, 2012's Strange Clouds and 2013's Underground Luxury, both had at least one gold- or platinum-selling single.
During the same period, a handful of Atlanta rappers have either been crowned king of Atlanta hip-hop or recognized as kings in waiting. T.I. claimed the throne with his 2006 album King. Trap king Young Jeezy held the crown after him, and then rap jester Gucci Mane crashed the royal court toward the end of the decade. Since 2011, 2 Chainz and Future have shared the crown. As far as the New Atlanta upstarts go, a range of artists including Trinidad James, Raury, and Two-9 have had their names thrown in the ring for the "who's next" discussions.
"As far as Atlanta goes, B.o.B is probably a bigger international artist than T.I. and Jeezy because he has spent more time overseas than them," says long-tenured V-103 (WVEE-FM) evening radio personality Greg Street.
Street goes on to liken B.o.B to past local-turned-global acts such as Kris Kross and TLC. "He is not just an everyday ordinary street rapper," Street says.
All things considered, B.o.B, born Bobby Ray Simmons Jr., should be looked at as one of Atlanta's leading voices. The 26-year-old's ability to straddle genres is viewed as diverse in some ways, but indecisive in others. Music listeners want options, but they also often want to know what to expect.
"One minute he wants to make rap, then he wants to make rock, then he wants to make ratchet, then he wants to make classical," B. Rich says, laughing. "People say it's all over the place, but that's why he's using the label 'No Genre.' There's not too many people that can make a song with Taylor Swift and Juicy J."
B.o.B agrees. "Of course it's human nature to want to be noticed," he says while reclined on a plush sofa inside West Midtown's Mean Street studios, where he just hosted a private listening preview of his yet-to-be-titled fourth album. "But I'm enjoying this storyline, the brewing tension of B.o.B fans upset that I'm getting slept on."
It wasn't until last year, with the release of the singles "We Still in This Bitch," featuring T.I. and Juicy J; "Headband," featuring 2 Chainz; and with a cameo appearance on Ty Dolla Sign's hit "Paranoid," that B.o.B's voice could be heard daily on V-103 and Hot 107.9 (WHAT-FM). Previously, the only time B.o.B's music was heard on Atlanta radio was on the now defunct 95.5 The Beat (WSBB-FM).
"I'm enjoying the story because it feels like a movie," says B.o.B, as he puffs away on a blunt. "When you look back at my life, it's going to be more interesting than a story that says, 'There was once this very talented guy who put out music and everybody praised him, it was great, the end.'"
B.o.B's "movie" began in 1988 at his birthplace, Winston-Salem, N.C. Just as he began walking, his parents moved the family to Georgia. Their first stop was Lawrenceville, then Decatur when Bobby Ray was 9 years old. He lived the life that most kids on the Eastside did: He played Little League Baseball at Gresham Park, youth football for the Tucker Lions, and basketball at Henderson Middle School. The middle child of three, he didn't make music much of a priority back then. His parents' attempts to get him to join the choir or pick up the trumpet never worked. He thought he wanted to play piano when his younger sister started lessons. But even then, the idea of following the rules in music didn't quite compute.
"I tried to teach him the basics, but he would be like, 'I want to play a song,'" says B.o.B's younger sister, Arielle. "Every piano piece I had, he tried to play ... but differently. He always followed his own rhythm."
One day B.o.B and his older brother, Jamal found $20 on the ground. They spent it on DMX's first album, It's Dark and Hell Is Hot. The record ignited a real interest in music, specifically rap. Around the same time, B.o.B started acting up in school, writing raps instead of essays in class. Concerned, his mother called on B. Rich, her best friend's son, to mentor him.
"She was worried about him acting up in school," says B. Rich, who at the time was working as a pharmaceutical sales rep by day and an open-mic promoter by night. "He told me that he wanted to rap, so I told him I'd start helping him with that if he did better in school."
"I learned a lot from B. Rich and I still do," says B.o.B. "I used to be somewhat anti-social because I was typically the youngest person in most situations. B. Rich taught me how to shake that off and get in people's faces and interact with people. That type of interaction goes a long way."
In ninth grade at Columbia High School, B.o.B started a rap group called Da Klinic with Jamal and a cousin, Stephen Hill. The group didn't make much noise past Candler Road, and Hill left to attend college. But B.o.B's production skills got noticed, namely his production of a regional club hit in 2006 called "Da Cookie Man" for an Atlanta rapper named Citty, who was signed to Slip-N-Slide Records. Eventually, B.o.B began making music on Atlanta's open mic circuit.
"Every day he kept saying, 'I'm going to get signed before I turn 18,'" Arielle says.
One fateful night, B. Rich snuck the underage rapper into Bankhead hangout spot Club Crucial for an open mic. When he performed his sing-songy ode to cannabis sativa "Cloud 9," well-connected music mover TJ Chapman of TJ's DJs took notice and signed on to co-manage the new artist. B.o.B wound up signing a recording contract with Atlantic Records through über-producer Jim Jonsin's Rebel Rock imprint. He signed the deal before he started his senior year in high school, which he never returned to finish.
"It hurt because me and his father were very big on education," says B.o.B's mother Karen.
Both of his parents have Master's degrees and wanted their son to be "a lawyer or something." "We did try to work something out because he only had one more quarter to go," Karen says. "I asked the school if he could get a tutor while he toured and recorded. But they said he had to be present. They wouldn't work with us at all."
B.O.B was still in for some crash courses, though. After landing on a remix to Danity Kane's "Showstopper" and the initial success of his 2007 single "Haterz," Atlantic Records was hesitant to push the hype button on their young new rapper. "We had 'Haterz,' but the label didn't know what to do with him," says B. Rich.
It didn't help that the rapper, just entering his 20s, didn't want to rap anymore. B.o.B was going through a stage of self-discovery, performing at spots such as Apache Café and the Drunken Unicorn alongside other future stars in record label limbo, including Yelawolf and Janelle Monae. B.o.B traded in his Braves hat and sunglasses for a straw fedora and a guitar and began making everything from rock to pop to folk under the name Bobby Ray. He looked completely comfortable with the change, but some listeners were thrown off, seeing the guy who called himself "the beast from Decatur" strumming an acoustic guitar.
"I kinda went through a phase," he says, laughing. "My music is like a neutron in a laboratory that got out of the container and started bouncing around like, 'the fuck is going on?'"
Arielle played keyboard for Bobby Ray's touring band from 2009-2012.
"He wanted to just wake up and do what he felt like doing," Arielle says. "But he didn't have that luxury yet because he was a new artist. He wanted to do the music he felt, but because he came out with 'Haterz,' he couldn't just follow that up with a rock song. I saw him fighting, trying to be himself."
Apart from wearing sunglasses indoors at his listening party, not much about B.o.B screams "rapper." He's tall, but not imposing, and a man of few words when the cameras are off. In conversations he punctuates most of his words with a smile or a joke. Since starting his career, he's kept the same small circle of friends and family that operates more like a support system than an entourage.
Rebel Rock/Atlantic linked B.o.B with T.I.'s Grand Hustle imprint to add some street cred to B.o.B's quest for pop appeal. To try to make sense of everything, B.o.B's management borrowed a page from the Rubberband Man's book and released a mixtape, B.o.B vs. Bobby Ray, to showcase all sides of his musical personality.
B.o.B gained a few fans with his new musical direction, but he didn't win over the world until his debut single, "Nothing on You," exploded on the charts in 2010. The follow-up single, "Airplanes," added gasoline to the fire, leading to sneaker endorsements, intercontinental tours, and Disney radio play.
"When I first came out, I had 'Haterz' and wanted people to know I was more than just a rapper," says B.o.B, ashing his blunt. "But then when I became a pop star," he says, his eyes widening and his hands making an explosion gesture, "I was like, noooooo, I'm a rapper!"
B. Rich adds, "It was a good thing monetarily to have a number one hit and have the accolades, but it hurt us in the sense that people just thought he was a pop artist. It kind of had a negative connotation to it."
While B.o.B was "drinking a German beer, with a Cuban cigar/in the middle of Paris, with a Dominican broad" as he raps on his 2012 hit "So Good," groups including Travis Porter were getting played in every (strip) club in Atlanta. Going out and not hearing his own music get played or enjoyed by his peers began to have an effect on B.o.B. The result was 2013's rap-heavy Underground Luxury.
"I wanted to get back to what I was doing, having fun," B.o.B says about the album, which despite not selling as much as his previous efforts, still had gold- and platinum-selling singles. "I don't want to be the good guy. I don't want to be where everything B.o.B does has to be conscious or has to be serious or musically eclectic. I don't want to have to do anything, I just want to do what I want to do."
And therein may lie the problem with B.o.B's popularity in Atlanta. Whereas Outkast has created some of the most mind-bending music ever heard, you can still trace them back to their days as "2 Dopeboyz in a Cadillac" on Headland and Delowe. T.I. can make a pop song but can still be tracked back to being one of the "Dope Boyz" in the trap off Bankhead.
B.o.B introduced himself as an artist willing to go all over the place with his music. His gift of crossing musical styles can also be seen as a curse when someone is trying to identify him.
B.o.B doesn't disagree, shooting smoke from the side of his mouth and quipping, "Maybe it's because I'm a Scorpio, we do that type of shit. I'm just a person who likes to be a sponge, I adapt to things. I can be in a cipher with people having a politically conscious discussion or in a cipher with guys talking about the new Jordans coming out. I can relate to both."
B.o.B proved that in September when he performed twice at Music Midtown, once for his own set, and again as a guest of Eminem. A week later he was opening up for Outkast at the final show of the #ATLast weekend. Music Midtowners were treated to the pop hits, whereas the ATLiens were given the rap-heavy set list. Though there were some groans on social media when it was announced that B.o.B would have his own 45-minute set at Outkast, his high-energy performance impressed the antsy crowd. People who knew the words sung along; others finally realized, "Oh, he sings that song?" It was a far better response than what fellow East-of-Atlanta rapper Childish Gambino got the night before.
"Bob has a big enough catalogue where he can perform for any crowd," B. Rich says. "He is seasoned enough to know how to get a crowd going. A lot of people were won over at that #ATLast show alone."
Perhaps the key to B.o.B earning that elusive Atlanta love is getting around to showing some back. His new label, No Genre, named after his successful mixtape series, recently held "American Idol"-style auditions at the Westin Hotel downtown. Nearly 400 people lined up to perform for B.o.B in hopes of signing with his label.
B. Rich envisions B.o.B working with more of Atlanta's street-oriented artists and showing that his production can co-exist with the likes of Mike Will Made It, Zaytoven, 808 Mafia, Sonny Digital, and other producers currently defining Atlanta's underground sound.
If his new single, "Not for Long" featuring Trey Songz, is any indication, B.o.B plans to continue flirting with the pop sound that made him and his managers rich. Judging from the other songs he previewed at the recent listening party, he's also sticking to his "do what I feel" philosophy when it comes to making music. On one untitled track, he laments anyone who's tried to deny his skills. Another track titled "Ladies," featuring T.I., is self-explanatory, while "America the Beautiful" has him doing spoken word over the patriotic melody. As the music played, it was hard to tell which listeners were nodding their heads to the beat, and which were just chewing extra hard on the free food.
"I don't care if people don't get the point. The people who get it, get it," B.o.B says.
"We are making an album with pop and rap on it," says B. Rich. "We want him to become more of an A-list artist. You have a black kid from Decatur, raised on Candler Road, making big-ass music the world loves, and I don't think people understand that, but I think they will start understanding that now."
Barely home but always repping, B.o.B still has plenty of time to win over the city. Since a new sound or language comes from Atlanta every year, B.o.B's no-genre approach may be the thing that finally gets him his hometown recognition. In his mind, though, he's exactly who and where he's supposed to be.
"It feels good to be from Atlanta," B.o.B says, taking one last puff from his blunt and brushing ash off his No Genre T-shirt before sneaking out of the studio. "I can move anywhere in the world, but I'm still here."