**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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B.o.B claims Strange Clouds’ second single, “So Good,” is the only song created in a similar manner to “Nothin’ on You,” and that the album is a bit more “organic.” It’s one of his favorite words. “I have a record called ‘Circles,’ which is like ‘Nothin’ on You’ but more organic,” he says. “This is how I’ll explain the whole project: It’s not about having a good song or a hit song, it’s about having songs that are organic. At least for me, that’s what it’s like. For me, this album is a lot more organic but just as good [as The Adventures of Bobby Ray]. Do you like burgers? Well, these burgers are organic and they taste better.”

No matter how the songs were constructed this go-around, putting B.o.B front and center is a top priority for his team—at times he seemed little more than a bit player on his own hit singles. “We didn’t build a brand for Bob,” says his co-manager Brian Rich. “It was like, ‘Do you know who B.o.B is?’ ‘Nah.’ ‘The guy who did ‘Nothin’ on You’ and ‘Airplanes’? ‘Yeah.’ He’s finally caught up to the records. ‘Nothing on You’ got so big, so fast, that it got bigger than the artist.”

Part of the plan seems to be letting the rapper do a little more rapping. The first sign of a more aggressive-sounding B.o.B was “No Future,” his response to Odd Future’s Tyler, the Creator, who slammed him on the song “Yonkers.” Over a sparse track, B.o.B retaliated: “You see the shit I got to deal with from these beginners?/I ain’t circusing around with these clown-ass niggas/You snapping at the heels of a world-class sprinter.”

The 23-year-old rapper square dances around questions about Odd Future and the diss track. He’s more enthused talking about “Am I a Psycho?,” his collaboration with Kansas City veteran spitter Tech N9ne and newer rhyme slinger (and XXL Freshman) Hopsin, which materialized following a chance meeting in an Atlanta studio between Tech and Brian Rich. B.o.B had stashed away the song’s track and chorus long ago, but it was perfect for Tech. “I was like, Man, I would love to get Bob on it. I know he’s got some psycho going on,” Tech N9ne says of the track, which appeared on his All 6’s and 7’s. “People think Bob’s just ‘Beautiful girls all over the world.’ Nah, he’s that and then some. He killed it. He’s a lyricist. It doesn’t matter what music is behind him.”

Even though B.o.B has utilized his nimble flow a bit more lately, another fortuitous studio encounter might be more indicative of where his heart and mind lie. While in New York last year, the MC was in the same studio as one of his favorite bands, Coldplay, during sessions for their album Mylo Xyloto. Naturally, B.o.B struck up a conversation with front man Chris Martin. “I’m like, ‘I don’t want as many features. I want to show myself,’” he remembers. “Martin was like, ‘Why the fuck not? Don’t go against what works.’ I understand what he was saying and why he would say that, but I don’t necessarily need to have a feature to have a hit record. At the same time, I don’t want to deny myself from collaborating with an artist just being afraid of having a big feature.”

B.o.B says he then played some music for Martin, who had some advice afterward. “He told me to add some more harmonies to it, so I added more harmonies to it,” he says, laughing. “You can’t get advice from Chris Martin on a song and not take it.”

It’s the morning after B.o.B’s studio session, and he’s rolling a blunt with a Swisher Sweet in downtown Manhattan photo studio Brick Space. The night before is a little hazy, and it’s not because of the weed. The intro to the album is done. And the Duracell song? “Aww man, I forgot that I did that yesterday,” B.o.B says. He chuckles at the suggestion he blocked it from his memory. “So many things happened at one time that you forget what you did. Last night I was awake and forgot that I was in New York until I heard a truck drive by.”

He’s then asked whether he deserves to be a dubbed a sell-out—that antiquated term from the 1990s—in response to working with Duracell or all the pop songs with pop singers. “I think its funny,” he begins. “At first, I was like, What? Me? I’m the exact opposite. Now it’s funny because it’s an inevitable thing. It’s kind of like the sibling who moves away and gets a really good job in the city. ‘Man, you got that big fancy job now and you can’t stay in touch with your uncle.’”

It sounds like he’s heard that one before. Bobby Ray grew up in the South, an introverted child interested in writing, painting and music. And in some ways, he’s still that kid. Rather than moving to New York, Los Angeles or even nearby Atlanta, B.o.B recorded most of Strange Clouds in Decatur last year. He now lives down the road from his parents—a hop, skip and a stone’s throw away.

Life in his hometown, though, isn’t the same. He wants to hang out with old friends, but it’s tough acting like nothing happened. And he’s holding on to more of the memories from the times before he was collaborating with Taylor Swift or getting drunk in Las Vegas. It’s something he wants to tell his listeners. It’s because he realizes that all this is fleeting—pop songs come and go, and talent isn’t everything. There’s more to it than that.

“It’s about the connection you make with people,” B.o.B says. “With Tupac, it’s not his lyrics that stand out the most in society. His personality and character and persona left the biggest impact. I think really it’s just about establishing yourself as a personality and a person and what you stand for in your music. I think I’m still learning that for myself. I feel like there’s definitely something there. I’m still finding out exactly what that is. I’m evolving.”