Bobby Ray Simmons' recent mixtape B.o.B. vs. Bobby Ray pits his thugged-out, gritty persona, B.o.B., against his introspective, more tuneful one, Bobby Ray. Alternating singing and rapping, each mocks the other and gives Simmons an opportunity to show off a wide range of musical chops.
Alter egos are, of course, common in hip-hop. Whether it's Slim Shady vs. Eminem or T.I. vs. T.I.P., these ersatz multiple-personality debates usually set up a good cop/ bad cop dynamic and quickly grow tedious. But Simmons' conflict isn't a gimmick. It's the 20-year-old artist's honest attempt to balance his commercial instincts with his artistic ones.
Growing up in a downtrodden section of Atlanta suburb Decatur, Simmons was a musical prodigy, and by his mid-teens he had emerged as a multi-instrumentalist who could both rap and produce. Building a grassroots following as a money-and-hos–minded rapper, he signed a deal with Atlantic Records in 2007 and was placed on T.I.'s Grand Hustle imprint.
His early mixtapes featured club beats, pop-rap hooks, and lyrics that weren't exactly profound. "I get things moist/Call me SpongeBob/If I use my tongue/She'll be like, 'Well done, B.o.B.,'" he rapped on "Grip Your Body." Still, it was hard to deny his dexterous skills and humorous turns of phrase. In December he was featured in an XXL cover story about the best emerging MCs. Anticipation for his debut, The Adventures of B.o.B., was high.
But the more famous Simmons got, the more uncomfortable he became. "I began feeling like I was boxed in," he says. "I wanted to grow artistically, to bring something new."
By the end of last year he had begun crafting a new batch of songs, which featured R&B-influenced production, crooned vocals, beats crafted from live instruments, and lyrics dealing with his artistic evolution. As he explains on the uplifting sing-along "I'll Be in the Sky": "The one in the mirror ain't me/It's just someone that I call B.o.B./It's kind of me, but it's not/It's just a mask that I got/So I can rhyme and get off my block."
Next he decided it was time get rid of his moniker. "Certain [meanings] are attached to B.o.B., like 'Bring one Blunt,' or 'Bring one Beer,'" he explains, adding that substance abuse was no longer something he felt like glamorizing. "I just wanted to go by my real name, to not be caught up in the hype, and to not be acting."
Earlier this year he began telling journalists to call him Bobby Ray, and he even recruited a band to play rock songs with him at South by Southwest. But he hasn't fully transitioned away from his old persona. Despite changing the title of his debut CD — due later this year — to The Adventures of Bobby Ray, it will still be released under the artist name B.o.B.
Though he doesn't say so explicitly, one gathers this was a compromise made with his record label. "When you do something that is lucrative, you're supposed to do it over and over again until it runs out," he explains. "But as an artist you always want to grow, and growth and consistency are very challenging to balance."
Containing both hip-hop and rock, the album will feature Simmons' production and his piano and guitar playing. He says it's still a work in progress. He knows what he wants to minimize — i.e., B.o.B.'s bravado — but hasn't quite figured out what he wants to maximize. "The hardest thing is figuring out what you actually enjoy doing," he notes.
Much of Bobby Ray's short career has revolved around such existential crises, and thus far, they seem to have served him well.