**THIS STORY APPEARS IN THE MAY 2012 ISSUE OF XXL.
WORDS THOMAS GOLIANOPOULOS (@Golianopoulos) IMAGES ROGER ERICKSON
A few days ago, B.o.B was in Las Vegas filming an MTV spring break special at the palms hotel. While in town, he also attended a Young Jeezy concert and hung out with Big Sean. On this March afternoon, he sits in a midtown Manhattan Italian restaurant with Las Vegas still on his mind. “What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas—except for the hangover,” he says with a hearty laugh. “The hangover after Vegas is head-throbbing.” But that’s not enough to sideline him—Bobby Ray Simmons Jr. is in New York City to work.
Later today, he’ll hit the studio to complete the intro to his sophomore album, Strange Clouds, out this month. The album, he says, is 99 percent done, barring “a miracle.” Before that, however, he’ll record a song with jam band O.A.R. for a Duracell battery ad campaign set to run during the Summer Olympics. B.o.B hasn’t listened to the band’s music yet and plans on winging it tonight.
The Duracell/O.A.R./Olympics project seems like something that would be a pain in the ass to B.o.B, a gifted rapper, producer and multi-instrumentalist—an artiste with an “e.” But since breaking out with his gold-selling 2010 debut album, B.o.B Presents: The Adventures of Bobby Ray, the good-natured Decatur, Georgia, native has collaborated with a slew of strange bedfellows. The pop singer Bruno Mars, Paramore belter Hayley Williams and indie-rock deity Rivers Cuomo of Weezer anchored B.o.B’s three huge Billboard Top 10 singles—“Nothin’ on You,” “Airplanes” and “Magic,” respectively. He’s also worked with Ke$ha, Katy Perry and soft-rock group One Republic. B.o.B is now trying to shake things up a bit on Strange Clouds.
“It’s a very honest album,” he says. “It’s a lot more in-depth with just my opinions and allowing myself to be me.” At first glance, it appears B.o.B is pivoting toward a more hip-hop sound: He trades verses with Lil’ Wayne on the brilliant first single “Strange Clouds,” a weird, thumping banger, and the album has guest appearances from rap icons like Andre 3000 and T.I., who signed B.o.B to his Grand Hustle Records in 2009. Strange Clouds then takes a turn to a distinct glossier sound—it also includes a song featuring Taylor Swift and co-produced by Dr. Luke.
By now, the origin story of B.o.B’s Billboard No. 1 song “Nothin’ on You” is part of industry lore: The Bruno Mars–led songwriting team The Smeezingtons created the track during writing sessions for Atlantic Records artists B.o.B, Travie McCoy and Lupe Fiasco; Fiasco and B.o.B both recorded versions of the record; Fiasco’s was deemed “wack,” in the alleged words of Atlantic co-chairman and CEO Craig Kallman, so B.o.B was bestowed with the smash. The whole thing revealed the assembly-line hitmaking process deployed at major record labels these days. (In an interesting twist, B.o.B once lost out on a big record of his own, having passed on Flo Rida’s club jam “Right Round.”)
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