B.o.B. aka Bobby Ray pushed the boundaries of rap with his debut album The Adventures of Bobby Ray, which blended genres gave pop wings to his hip-hop sensibilities. With his sophomore album, Strange Clouds, which hit stores May 1, the Atlanta-based rapper says he sidesteps conventional categories and opts for art that has the sky for its limits.
The guest list on Strange Clouds gives some insight into the artist’s disdain for lines drawn between genres. The set draws on prominent voices from the worlds of hip-hop (Lil Wayne, T.I.) to Hollywood (Morgan Freeman), country (Taylor Swift) and more.
“The collaborations for this album came as they’ve always come in the past,” Bobby Ray told CBS Local. “It’s always been a mixture of spontaneity and fate.”
The most fitting collaboration on Strange Clouds features OutKast’s Andre 3000, a fellow ATL-based rapper who is also known for his musical experimentation. Both with style and substance, OutKast is an admitted favorite of B.o.B.’s.
“It’s funny because I ended up doing a song with Three Stacks (aka Andre 3000) and was supposed to get him on ‘Strange Clouds’ but we tried a lot of songs to get him on.”
B.o.B. ran down a list of songs that didn’t work for Andre 3000, including songs from his debut, “Don’t Let Me Fall,” and “Bet I,” as well as “Strange Clouds,” hes latest album’s title track, which features Lil Wayne.
“But the one that resonated with both of them was ‘Play the Guitar,'” continued the Atlanta artist, who will join Greg Street at 6 p.m. May 2 at The Adidas Store in Lenox Square. “I was fortunate enough to get him to play guitar at the end of the verse.”
The song plays off B.o.B.’s and Andre’s rock leanings and keen focus on instrumentation. B.o.B. taught himself to play the guitar at the urging of his brother, who just happened to think that it would be a cool component to B.o.B.’s repertoire.
“Obviously, the guitar became iconic through rock country and blues,” he said. “But I didn’t always like rock music. My brother put me on to rock. He was like, ‘You know what, you ought to play the guitar.’ And I picked it up.”
While Lil Wayne, Andre 3000 are known to tinker with the strings, B.o.B., who has dedicated more time to learning the guitar, turns diplomatic when asked about the skill level of his fellow rappers.
“I feel like they both approach it with a free spirit,” he said. “The guitar is about how passionate you are about it. I’m not the best lead guitar player in the world but I do a lot a lot of song write on the guitar.”
Many of B.o.B.’s early supporters applaud his experimentation but he’s been criticized for his evolving content, which sometimes takes on the hip-hop bling ascetic and pop leanings he seemed to once eschew.
On “Where Are You (B.o.B. vs. Bobby Ray),” he addresses the criticism from his fans who say he’s changed along the way, a once down to earth rapper who has been hijacked by a Hollywood spirit.
“Whatever happened to B.o.B., he once was my favorite,” he raps from the perspective of a thwarted fan. “I guess he stopped giving a f*** about all of us little people/ With your shades on we can’t even see you/ Is that what happens when somebody makes it off of rappin’/ They take the fame and change like it’s automatic…”
“I’ve always been honest to how I felt at that moment,” B.o.B. explains. “When I started making music, I began in the hip-hop world with ‘Haterz.’ Then I evolved into a rock & roll type, then to Pop and Top 40. Now I feel like I’ve encompassed everything I’ve done and combined it.”
Strange Clouds brings Bobby Ray and B.o.B. together in an organic way, nimbly switching speeds with musical experimentation that incorporates some aspects of his gritty 2007 mixtape, Cloud 9, into his far-reaching realm of arena rap. And he seems intent on blasting off further. While on “Ray Bands” he raps, “After Strange Clouds, I’mma drop my rock album,” he also says that he and T.I. will be finishing a dual disc, The Man and the Martian.
“We’re still working on it,” he said. “The Man and the Martian is really the best of Tip and the best of me. Putting our heads together and coming up with a sound. It’s really effortless and about having fun. There is no expectation and you can do whatever you feel like doing, a fun project.”
Despite his view from the clouds, it’s clear that B.o.B. has his sights on Outer Space and beyond.
Strange Clouds hit stands on May 1 along with sets from Carrie Underwood’s Blown Away, Norah Jones’ Little Broken Hearts.
–Erik Parker, CBS Local