B.o.B. can best be described as “Andre 3000 Lite.” He’s got Dre’s swagger minus the eccentric style, the flow minus the lyrical proficiency. And that’s not so much a dig at B.o.B. as it is a testament to Andre 3K’s prolific lyrical genius; B.o.B. has real musical talent, no doubt about it. His sound straddles the line between vapid hipster rapper and introspective conscious rapper, with a little bit of southern twang and carefree drug references thrown in for flavor. He was most notably featured in XXL’s “Freshman Ten” issue, a list of the hottest, buzz-worthy rappers to watch out for in 2009.
Yet B.o.B. is a cut above the rest, particularly in regard to his fascinating engagement with issues of feminism. I know, I was a bit shocked when I first heard it too. What’s especially unique here is that B.o.B. embraces themes of feminism, rather than adopting the full “feminist rapper” label. It’s refreshing to listen to a thoughtful guy rap about issues that matter to him—be they feminism, the unforgiving hip hop blogs, or, sometimes, getting high—without the excessive grandstanding usually associated with so-called “conscious” hip hop.
In his new mixtape, B.o.B. vs. Bobby Ray, B.o.B. delivers one of the more poignant depictions of female exploitation on his aptly titled track “Camera.” Verse one profiles an aspiring model that sleeps with photographers and producers in the hopes of making it big in the entertainment industry. She’s used and abused, objectified and exploited, promised stardom but ultimately dropped like a bad habit. Verse two turns to a small-town girl that moves to Atlanta to become a dual threat actress/singer. She tries her best to keep up with the speed of the city, hoping one day to bask in fame’s limelight. Using music videos as her breakthrough medium, she falls victim to the darkest sexual exploitation of the music industry:
She from a town far away,Kinda makes you view hip hop videos in a different light, no?
Then she moved to the A to go to Georgia State
Then she got turned out, yeah she dropped out
Now she’s an actress that wants to sing,
But aint nothing pretty,
She’s just tryin to mimick the life in the city,
Trying to keep up with the limelight-livin
Just wishin, for one audition, the video position
But that aint how she used to be,
At 2 or 3, now she’s a hoochie freak,
So, that aint what the viewers see, just another cutie with a booty, booty.
Verse three discusses a high school dropout with a young child, struggling to support her family. Much like her own father, her son’s Dad is (all too predictably) absent. After working at Wendy’s for two years, she turns to stripping to make quick cash: “Twerking that bunn-ay/ Just to make her some daycare mon-ay/ And to pay for the rent bill month-lay.” Fifteen years later, she’s past her prime and unable to find work in the entertainment industry. Literally stripped of her innocence, she’s ashamed to look her son in the eyes.
The chorus, taken out of context, could have been lifted from any misogynistic rap song on the radio today: “Watch, her take of her bra/ Posing like star/ Smiling for the camera, camera/ Aw, she’s a movie star/ With that runway walk/ Just smiling for that camera, camera.” But in the context of the three young women B.o.B. vividly portrays, the hook paints a depressing picture of exploitation and despair. It’s a tragic picture, to be sure, but one that captures female martyrdom beautifully and respectfully.
These feminist undertones are not uncommon in B.o.B.’s music. In another mixtape, Hi! My Name is B.o.B., the rapper puts a Lifetime movie to song—and I don’t necessarily mean that in a bad way. In “Room 34,” B.o.B. offers a compelling story about a young high school girl, wooed by an older classmate. The young man charms her with his smile, offering her a ride home from school. His flirting makes her feel special, obscuring his nefarious intentions. What happens next is heartbreaking: He invites himself into her home, only to overpower her and repeatedly rape her. Beaten and battered, she blames herself for the vicious attack. With the grief too difficult to bear, she ultimately commits suicide by jumping from her bedroom window.
These tracks are certainly explicit, but not in a gratuitously sexual sense. Rather, the words B.o.B. puts to song are explicitly emotional. They convey a feeling of empathy for women that, surprisingly, doesn’t feel contrived or suffocating. To delve into the raw exploitation and degradation associated with being a woman in the entertainment industry—or simply being a woman, period—is nothing short of remarkable. And it’s all the more impressive when it comes from the mouth of one of hip-hop’s most talented up-and-coming rappers. Every now and then your favorite rapper probably cuts a lone “conscious” track buried in a sea of nonsense. It might be a song about his mother, or an ode to a past love. But, more often than not, it’s a distraction from the artist’s overall message rather than a central theme. With B.o.B., feminism appears to be a dominant topic, carefully discussed and artfully analyzed.
B.o.B. may never reach widespread stardom. He may never be your favorite rapper’s favorite rapper. But, with these strong themes, he just might be your favorite feminist’s favorite rapper.