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Bobby Ray by any other name



B dot O dot B was the name
I ain't like Bobby Ray 'cause I was ashamed
But you can call me Bobby Ray from this day forth and
I could give a damn about the fame and fortune
                                 — Bobby Ray, "Generation Lost"

Rapper Bobby Ray Simmons is one of Atlanta's most promising young talents. His feverishly anticipated debut album is due later this year, and his soaring, OutKast-evoking smash "I'll Be in the Sky" is approaching 5 million MySpace spins.

But what to call him? The Decatur 20-year-old now prefers to go by Bobby Ray, despite being signed to Atlantic Records at age 17 as B.o.B. and going on to grace the covers of magazines including Urb and XXL under that moniker.

His name change reflects a change in philosophy, both musical and personal. It was years in the making but crystallized last year after he was catapulted into the public consciousness with his mixtapes My Name Is B.o.B. and The Future, the latter of which spawned the local radio hit "Haterz Everywhere."

If you only heard those works, it would be easy to think him a typical — if talented — lowest common denominator rapper. After all, The Future features more than its share of club songs about chicks, gats and blunts. "Puffin' Mary J with my main dame from Brooklyn," he raps on one. "Bang bang boogedy bang bang we bustin' like/eight sprays of bullets from AKs, your pussy."

It was all a façade that left him creatively unsatisfied, Simmons says now. "I always felt like I had to play a certain role," he adds, calling his gangsta bravado "acting." "I never really considered myself to be just a hip-hop artist."

It would have been easy to maintain the charade, however, considering fame and fortune awaited him. But Simmons decided to risk it all by dramatically changing his sound and his image.

The first thing that had to go was his name. He had come to loathe B.o.B, he explains, an acronym that never stood for anything in particular but carried associations like "Bring One Blunt" or "Bring One Beer."

"I'm not really like an alcoholic type of guy, and to me weed is more of a ceremonial drug than a recreational drug," he says. "I didn't like what B.o.B. represented. I just wanted to go by my real name."

The identity crisis reflects the two phases of his upbringing. He attended a diverse magnet school in Tucker from kindergarten through fourth grade, but after fourth grade went to school in Decatur. He says the environment at Columbia High School rubbed off on him. "I was like, 'Man, I think I need to get some weight and just move some dope,'" he remembers with a laugh. "I was really considering that, honestly!"

The B.o.B persona sprung from that line of thinking, and with his prodigious rapping and production abilities, he was snatched up not just by Atlantic, but Jim Jonsin's Rebel Rock imprint and T.I.'s Grand Hustle label as well. But B.o.B was stifling Simmons, and so more recently he began crafting songs closer to his heart.

Tracks like "Ghost in a Machine," "Mr. Bobby" and "Generation Lost" are shockingly sincere, affect-less works that stray closer to rock, reggae and the neo-soul of artists like Janelle Monae. "A lot of them are me expressing my deepest emotions," he says. As he explains on "Generation Lost": "I used to wear a grill, because it was the trend/... I was lost, I ain't know who I was/What else was there to do besides look like a thug?"

On his new songs, he plays piano and guitar, and some of them feature his new band — tentatively called the East Siders — which he debuted at this year's South by Southwest festival.

It's been a pretty dramatic transition for someone who doesn't even have a proper album out yet. And therein lies the problem. For his debut, he knows his labels won't let him abandon his old, buzzed-about persona entirely. So in a move that reeks of compromise, it will feature both his old and new styles. He has changed the work's title from The Adventures of B.o.B to The Adventures of Bobby Ray, but it will still feature his artist name as B.o.B. (In person, though, he'd still prefer Bobby Ray.)

Though the transition poses risks, one suspects that his "enlightened" persona will likely be as marketable as his old one, especially since his new songs are equally infectious. For someone who still isn't old enough to drink, it's a remarkable, inspiring breakthrough, considering he's had to do it under the watch of notoriously inflexible label heads.

"When I was signed, I was really, really young," he says of his evolution. "You don't really realize the situation you're in, but [later] you realize the influence and the type of responsibility you have. And then you start to try to let go of all the old, immature things.

"I just figured, I'm not gonna waste my time. Let me play the part that's best for me."

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