When B.O.B’s debut album descended on the Billboard Hot 100, it signposted the arrival of a new crossover superstar. Just one year on from becoming an XXL Freshman, B.O.B Presents: The Adventures Of Bobby Ray achieved a feat that not even his 2009 classmate Kid Cudi has equaled: instantly securing the top spot. Catapulted to number one thanks to radio friendly hook-ups with Bruno Mars and Paramore’s Hayley Williams, the success of his sprightly pop-rap was a far-cry from the developmental turmoil that prompted 2DopeBoyz’ Shake to construct his own B.O.B debut back in the days of his internet buzz.
Perched at the top of the world, the Atlanta rapper seemed predestined to become an integral part of hip-hop’s commercial foreground by the time he netted five Grammy nominations in 2010. Yet like those nominations never translated into wins, the upward trajectory gradually slipped through his fingertips, transforming him into an interesting anomaly rather than the globe-trotting force that he was groomed to become. Released as the first single from his debut LP, the comments on the video for “Don’t Let Me Fall” has altered its intended purpose as an empowering anthem into a grimly prophetic track that foretold his plummet from the mainstream.
How did a man that had allegedly been “passed the torch” by Andre 3000 on 2012 “Play The Guitar” secede from the forefront of hip-hop? Based upon all the evidence that’s before us, it can mainly be attributed to an identity crisis that was waged between creative and commercial interests. Prior to the release of his Three Stacks collab, B.O.B was the picture of optimism as far as his career path went. Primed to be one of the “lead singles” from his new album, the Decatur native saw his sophomore effort Strange Clouds as a massive step-up:
“I don’t really like hyping things up beyond belief and all that shit, but the album is definitely progressed tremendously. I sacrificed – I ain’t sleep, missing family events, everything. Just basically living in the studio, so this next project, I’m really excited about it.”
Where his debut album attained first week sales of 84,000, its 2012 follow-up fell short of its lofty success by peaking at number 5 and shifting 76,000 units upon release. Although many artists would clamour for these physical figures today, they have a far greater significance in B.O.B’s career as they mark the beginning of a downturn that he’s never been able to shake off. In fact, the end of May 2012 marks his last appearance on the Billboard Hot 100, courtesy of Taylor Swift team-up “Both Of Us,” before he’d fade from the pop-realm once and for all. Just a year on from Strange Clouds and two lowkey mixtapes, B.O.B provided his next major release on Atlantic with Underground Luxury. While its title seemed oxymoronic, B.O.B clarified his intentions with another self-assured statement. “This is connecting the dots, from who I was as an artist before the major success to where I’m at now,” he explained. “And it’s a lot more unfiltered and unedited than anything I’ve ever done.”
During the project’s promotional circuit, a visit to Hot 97 resulted in a hotly contested debate with Ebro around whether or not his career had reached its apex. In his rebuttal, B.O.B not only claimed that hip-hop had “tunnel vision” by not taking his overseas impact into account but believed he was set to artistically course-correct. “It’s like a reintroduction,” he stated. “For the people who caught wind of me from “Airplanes” and “Nothin’ On You”, that’s how they know me. So, it’s like nah you gotta know the whole picture.”
For all that he’s never shied away from collaboration with top-tier commercial artists ranging from Eminem, his mentor T.I, Nicki Minaj, Chris Brown and 2Chainz, all of his post debut-album rhetoric highlighted an unease with the confines of being a chart-topping artist. Even in the lyrics of “Airplanes” itself, Bobby Ray seemed reticent about trading passion for profitability and pined for the days when “he was rappin’ for the hell of it, but nowadays we rappin’ to stay relevant.” Aside from his considerable pedigree as a lyricist, B.O.B is a talented multi-instrumentalist and has been waging a war to be beholden to No Genre for many years. Expressed through mixtapes such as the funk-laden Psycadelik Thoughtz, a pivotal factor in why he’d never reach the heights of his debut is due to his vision flying in the face of his label. Although he expressed his gratitude to T.I’s Grand Hustle imprint for their continued support, he blasted its mothership of Atlantic Records on Twitter for “suppressing” him, claiming that “they boycott me, they are afraid I’ll get too much exposure.”
In the years that have elapsed since his commercial high watermark, his move to independent artist and CEO of No Genre have been unmistakably productive but overshadowed by a steady stream of public controversies. Long before Kanye opted to forego conventional wisdom in favour of off-kilter theories, B.O.B was finding himself in the headlines for his alternative views. Where he’d been largely bypassed in the mainstream press since the start of the decade, he was suddenly garnering column inches again in 2016 as a proponent of the flat earth theory. Due to his refutal of modern science, he found himself in a collision of disembodied worlds when Dr Neil Degrasse Tyson took issue with his claims. Two ill-advised diss tracks later, the animosity of the “beef” may have simmered but it did considerable damage to B.O.B’s credibility to the casual observer. As opposed to being an isolated incident, B.O.B has doubled down on this new role of a conspiracy theorist and provocateur in recent years by claiming that the slave trade never happened among a litany of other controversial views on mind programming and cloning.
Granted, there is nothing to say that artists- or humanity in general- should take everything we’re told at face value but the real issue lies in the fact that it has made him into an internet punchline. Due to satirical websites and message boards making remarks about how “Flat Earth Theory Explains What B.o.B’s Career Fell Off Face Of”, the notable career renaissance of the past couple of years has been eclipsed. Since parting ways with Atlantic, Bobby Ray has been lauded by fans who’ve been willing to cast aside the wariness over his radical thinking and embrace the material itself.
After embracing his genre-blurring tendencies on the Elements mixtape series, B.O.B produced his best work in many years on fourth studio album Ether. Distributed by Empire, the 2017 record forced many critics to side-line their misgivings and objectively praise the merits of this Jacque Beats and 3O Roc-helmed project. A year later, B.O.B would follow up with NAGA, claiming it to be his final album. If that indeed proves to be the case, then he left the perfect epitaph for his hip-hop career on “Good N***a Sticker (Freestyle).” Rather than the traditional fall-off, B.O.B rationalizes his fall from the pop charts as a result of a conscious decision to be an outlier:
“These are the chronicles of a black magician, left the rap business, Made some plaques with an unthreatening a black image. But that’s finished, you n****s still ass kissing, catfishing. Before I was rap fishing, I had visions of mostly millions and packed buildings.”
As evidenced by the above quote and the confounding punk rock of Halloween track “Mind Control,” B.O.B is no longer catering to the audience that embraced the pop-rap stylings of The Adventures Of Bobby Ray. When it came to his placement on a major label, B.O.B was always a square peg in a round hole, attempting to compromise on his artistry in order to appease his Atlantic overlords. A million miles removed from the spotlight that “Nothin’ On You” had placed on him, B.O.B may have faltered in the eyes of the mainstream but retains a cult fanbase that will follow him and all of his idealistic quirks to the hilt.