Out of all the rap artists who emerged from Atlanta during the late 2000s, B.o.B — who was only 17 when he signed his first major-label record deal — was one of the most unique. His borderline eccentricity and artistic mind, belied by his music's conventional Dirty South sound, raised his stock above that of his Southern contemporaries and welcomed comparisons to OutKast (specifically, that group's offbeat half, André 3000). His commercial breakthrough came in 2010, a year in which three of his early singles either topped or peaked within the Top Ten of the Billboard Hot 100. All of those hits went platinum, as did several others that followed during a three-album run with Atlantic, after which the rapper/producer went independent.
Although he was born in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, Bobby Ray Simmons, Jr. grew up on the east side of Atlanta in Decatur, an intown suburb. Making music became an early hobby, and he played trumpet and other instruments throughout grade school. By the time he was in high school, he'd already secured management and had formed a production duo called the Klinic. At age 15, he even successfully sold a beat of his own to Slip-N-Slide recording artist Citty. When his partner left for college, B.o.B launched a solo career and subsequently recorded a hazy, spoken word-like ode to marijuana named "Cloud 9." It became the title track of his debut mixtape.
Around that time, B.o.B's manager helped sneak him into Club Crucial, owned by Atlanta rap star T.I., and the teenaged MC wowed the audience with a self-produced song. Industry veteran TJ Chapman was part of that crowd and agreed to co-manage B.o.B, a partnership that only one month later led to B.o.B's signing with Atlantic and its subsidiary imprint, Rebel Rock, run by Florida-based producer Jim Jonsin. His first single for Atlantic, 2008's "Haterz Everywhere," reached Billboard's Bubbling Under R&B/Hip-Hop singles chart. Before long, XXL, Spin, and MTV, among others, took notice, running "Artist to Watch" features and tagging him as the next Atlanta rap artist to blow up nationally.
After several mixtapes, some of which were issued through a joint deal with T.I.'s Atlantic-supported Grand Hustle label, and featured appearances on tracks by the likes of Killer Mike and T.I., B.o.B broke through in 2010. Early that year, he topped the Billboard Hot 100 with "Nothin' on You," featuring Bruno Mars, and reached number two with "Airplanes," assisted by Paramore's Hayley Williams. Both songs appeared on his full-length debut, The Adventures of Bobby Ray, released that April. The album topped the Billboard 200, quickly went gold — on its way to multi-platinum status, thanks in part to the Rivers Cuomo collaboration "Magic," yet another Top Ten single — and led to five Grammy nominations.
Originally planned as a mixtape, B.o.B.'s second album, the brasher if even more pop-savvy Strange Clouds, followed in May 2012. The title song, featuring Lil Wayne, was released several months in advance and became the fourth B.o.B. single to go Top Ten and platinum. "So Good" and "Both of Us," the latter featuring Taylor Swift, likewise earned RIAA certifications. Underground Luxury followed in December 2013 and sported another pair of platinum hits: the brash "We Still in This Bitch" (with T.I. and Juicy J) and whistling "HeadBand" (with 2 Chainz). B.o.B. returned in August 2015 with Psycadelik Thoughtz, a commercial mixtape more rock-oriented than his previous output.
Shortly thereafter, B.o.B. and Atlantic parted ways, prompting the rapper to work independently with his own label No Genre as his primary outlet, also home to the likes of Scotty ATL and London Jae. Several mixtapes followed through the remainder of 2015 and 2016. Four of them — Water, Fire, Earth, and Air — were bundled for Elements, issued commercially in early 2017. Ether arrived that May as the series' fifth installment and as B.o.B.'s fourth proper album. ~ Cyril Cordor & Andy Kellman