The Number Ones

May 1, 2010

The Number Ones: B.o.B.’s “Nothin’ On You” (Feat. Bruno Mars)

Stayed at #1:

2 Weeks

In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present. Book Bonus Beat: The Number Ones: Twenty Chart-Topping Hits That Reveal the History of Pop Music.

B.o.B. was the future. Around 2008, nobody could tell me any different. The young Atlanta phenom was everything that I wanted in a young rapper. He was smart and thoughtful and incisive, but he could also be tough when he felt like it. He loved rock music and played guitar, but he could also rap his ass off. Coming from Atlanta, he seemed to represent a new version of the smart-awkward-kid archetype that André 3000 had introduced to the rap mainstream, and he happened to come along at the exact moment that the real André rode off into the unofficial pseudo-retirement where he’d mostly function as a randomly occurring apparition — less likely to make rap music, more likely to be spotted playing a flute in the middle of a Tokyo intersection. A void needed to be filled, and B.o.B. seemed like he’d be the one to fill it.

The conditions for an up-and-coming rapper like B.o.B. didn’t really exist before 2008. Before then, new artists needed to connect on local and regional levels before anyone could decide that they were ready for prime time. Often, the route to fame came through co-signs from already-famous rap peers. Radio was important, too. Aspiring rap stars needed to walk impossible lines. They needed to be hard enough for the streets and pop-friendly enough for the boardrooms. Anyone who didn’t fit a pre-established template was shit out of luck. But things were changing. André 3000 and Kanye West had figured out a new template, showing that the art-damaged sensitive type could thrive in the hyper-competitive rap atmosphere. And the internet had changed things, leaving a lane for rappers who didn’t necessarily fit in with their local scenes. Mixtapes, once sold semi-illicitly on street corners, became zip-file downloads, and rappers figured out that you could get a whole lot of people’s attention by, say, freestyling over the strings from “Bitter Sweet Symphony.” (“Bitter Sweet Symphony,” the Verve’s only Hot 100 hit, peaked at #12 in 1997.)

This was rap’s fabled blog era — the moment when it seemed like everything was changing. In 2007, the rap magazine XXL got a whole lot of up-and-coming young rappers to pose together on the magazine’s cover, starting what would become a regular tradition for the magazine. On that issue, most of the young stars fit the glowering-regional-star template in one way or another: Young Dro, Lil Boosie, Saigon, Papoose, Crooked I, Plies. The lone exception was Lupe Fiasco, a fine-boned and bespectacled Chicagoan who got famous on the strength of a Kanye West feature and a song about skateboarding. On mixtapes, Lupe was warm and gregarious and endlessly self-reflexive, and his success foreshadowed plenty more to come later. XXL didn’t publish another Freshman Class issue until 2009, and by then, everything had changed. Most of the rappers on the 2009 issue fit the new mold: Wale, Curren$y, Charles Hamilton, Asher Roth, Mickey Factz. They all came from different places, but they really all came from the internet. One of them was B.o.B. (Another was Kid Cudi, who will eventually appear in this column.)

Of all the rising blog-era stars, B.o.B. was my favorite. B.o.B. mixtape tracks like “Generation Lost,” “Fuck You,” and the feature on Atlanta group Born Wit It’s “Stack My Paper Up” were some of my favorite singles of that moment. I was right there for the blog era, writing about all these songs as they came out, and I was convinced that B.o.B. was destined for big things. I was right and wrong at the same time. B.o.B. would briefly find stardom, but he wouldn’t become a generationally important artist. Instead, B.o.B. did something that wasn’t even supposed to be possible in 2010: He sold out. In a download-desiccated music industry, when even high-minded indie bands were happy to license their songs for TV ads, people weren’t getting mad at artists for making nakedly commercial decisions anymore. But B.o.B. still managed to torpedo his buzz in the pursuit of hits, and he burned his career out in a few short years.

B.o.B.’s first major single went to #1, and it introduced a huge new star. But the new star wasn’t B.o.B. himself. Instead, it was the cheesy-looking dork in the Jason Mraz-ass fedora who sang the hook. That guy, it turned out, was going places.

Before we get into the beginning of the Bruno Mars saga, we should introduce B.o.B. as something other than a music-business parable. Bobby Ray Simmons Jr., the son of a pastor, was born in Winston-Salem, and he mostly grew up in Decatur, Georgia. (When B.o.B. was born, the #1 song in America was the Escape Club’s “Wild, Wild West.”) B.o.B. briefly played trumpet in his high-school marching band, but that wasn’t the kind of music that he wanted to make. He wanted to be a rapper and a producer.

B.o.B.’s parents were supportive of his musical aspirations; they bought him a keyboard and didn’t freak out too badly when he dropped out in ninth grade. At 14, B.o.B. sold his first beat. A rapper named Citty turned that beat into a track called “Da Cookie Man,” and it came out as a 12″ single on Slip-N-Slide in 2006. Shortly thereafter, an underage B.o.B. performed his song “Cloud 9” in an Atlanta club. That performance won B.o.B. a manager, and that manager got B.o.B. signed to “Lollipop” producer Jim Jonsin’s Atlantic imprint Rebel Rock. Eventually, B.o.B.’s contract became a joint deal with Rebel Rock and T.I.’s Grand Hustle label. People in the rap industry saw real potential in this kid.

In 2007 and 2008, B.o.B. released four mixtapes, which won increasingly breathless coverage from credulous young rap critics like me. In 2007, he also came out with the single “Haterz Everywhere.” At first, that song was a collaboration with fellow underground Atlanta rapper Wes Fifth. Then Rich Boy, the Alabama rapper who was part of that first XXL Freshman class, jumped on a remix, Atlantic made a video, and B.o.B. started popping up on Rap City. (Rich Boy’s highest-charting single, 2007’s “Throw Some D’s,” peaked at #6. It’s a 9.) “Haterz Everywhere” served as an early example of the kind of Euro-club-rap that would soon give us Flo Rida’s “Low,” and it just missed the Hot 100.

In 2008, B.o.B. rapped a guest verse on T.I.’s Paper Trail album. At this point, everything was lined up for him. He had industry buzz, respect from rap elders, and love from critics. I was so sold on B.o.B. that I wrote a Pitchfork Rising profile on Playboy Tre, who was basically B.o.B.’s hypeman. That doesn’t really look too good in retrospect, but I can assure you that Playboy Tre could really rap. In any case, the only thing that B.o.B. really needed was a hit, and a hit is exactly what he got. B.o.B.’s hit didn’t come through regular rap channels. Instead, it came from a group of producers and songwriters who chose, out of their own free will, to call themselves the Smeezingtons. This is where we get into the Bruno Mars story.

Peter Gene Hernandez comes from Hawaii, and his backstory is the stuff of industry legend. (When young Peter was born, the #1 song in America was Dire Straits’ “Money For Nothing.”) Peter’s ancestry is all over the place — Filipino, Puerto Rican, Jewish. When his parents met, they were performing together — his mother as a hula dancer, his father as a percussionist who called himself “Dr. Doo-Wop.” Peter’s father, a Brooklyn native, nicknamed his kid Bruno because he looked like Bruno Sammartino, the curly-haired wrestler who was a huge star in New York in the ’60s and ’70s.

Young Bruno was performing by the age of two. His parents put together a family show at the Sheraton Waikiki, and Bruno was singing for tourists as soon as he could stand. Bruno’s uncle was an Elvis impersonator, and Bruno quickly assumed that mantle for himself. At six years old, Bruno became mildly famous. He did his Elvis act in Honeymoon In Vegas, the 1992 movie with Nicolas Cage and all the Elvis impersonators. (The song that baby Bruno sings in that movie is “Can’t Help Falling In Love,” which peaked at #2 in 1962. It’s a 9. The UB40 cover of that song has already been in this column.) Pauly Shore and Arsenio Hall both interviewed young Bruno. He was living the dream.

Little Bruno Mars was adorable, but “tiny child Elvis impersonator” is not a viable long-term career option. Bruno continued to play with his family band — “straight Partridge Family,” as Bruno told The New York Times — until he was 12. But then Bruno’s parents divorced. He lived with his father, who struggled financially. Bruno made a little money as a teenage Michael Jackson impersonator, and he moved to LA at 17, hoping to build a career for himself. He quickly signed a deal with Motown, but the label dropped him a year later, without releasing anything. Bruno was broke for years, even after signing a publishing deal as a songwriter.

Bruno took the Bruno Mars stage name in Los Angeles; the “Mars” was because he felt like an alien. Bruno’s mentor was a record producer named Steve Lindsey, who introduced Bruno to a number of fellow young songwriters and who tried to impart the importance of hit songs upon all of them. Bruno got together with two other songwriters, Philip Lawrence and Ari Levine, to form a team called the Smeezingtons. Around the same time, Bruno also played around LA in a cover band called Sex Panther, which is a much better name than the Smeezingtons. In 2008, Bruno’s former manager was doing A&R work for a rebooted version of Menudo, the long-running Puerto Rican boy band, and he gave the Smeezingtons $20,000 for “Lost,” a song that Bruno had intended to record himself. “Lost” wasn’t a big hit, but it put the Smeezingtons on the map, and the money was enough to keep them going. (Menudo’s only Hot 100 hit, 1985’s “Hold Me,” peaked at #62.)

In 2009, the Sugababes, the great British girl group, had a big UK hit with the Smeezingtons track “Get Sexy,” and Bruno Mars sang backup on it. That same year, Bruno and Philip Lawrence co-wrote Flo Rida’s smash “Right Round.” Both tracks were built around big, obvious interpolations, and that pastiche-heavy style would serve Bruno well. In one 2009 writing session, the Smeezingtons came up with the demos for two tracks that would become big hits. One was “Nothin’ On You,” and the other was “Billionaire,” which Gym Class Heroes leader Travie McCoy took to #4 in 2010. (“Billionaire” is a 3.)

Bruno Mars and Philip Lawrence had the “Nothin’ On You” hook for a while, but they didn’t have a vehicle for that hook until their fellow Smeezington Ari Levine put together some drums and Bruno played piano over that beat. The drums on “Nothin’ On You” come from soul great Joe Tex’s 1966 single “Papa Was Too.” (“Papa Was Too” peaked at #44. Joe Tex’s highest-charting single 1972’s “I Gotcha,” peaked at #2. It’s an 8.) That “Papa Was Too” breakbeat has appeared on hundreds of rap songs over the years; it’s crazy to think that “Nothin’ On You” has the same drums as “Wu-Tang Clan Ain’t Nuthing Ta F’ Wit.”

Originally, “Nothin’ On You” was earmarked for a different rapper. Lupe Fiasco, the OG blog-era star whose success paved the way for B.o.B. and his peers, recorded the original version of “Nothin’ On You,” and it leaked later. Lupe and B.o.B. were both under the Atlantic umbrella, and B.o.B.’s label head Jim Jonsin claimed that he lobbied Atlantic boss Craig Kallman to give the song to B.o.B. instead. In a 2011 interview with The Guardian, Lupe says that Kallman told him his rapping on “Nothin’ On You” was “wack” and that Kallman’s disrespect alienated him from the label: “That was the tipping point. It was less about the bruised ego but more the audacity of it. It was mentally destructive… It fucked me up. I was super-depressed, lightly suicidal, at moments medium suicidal — and if not suicidal, willing to just walk away from it all completely.” (Lupe Fiasco’s highest-charting single, 2010’s “The Show Goes On,” peaked at #9. It’s a 4.)

I truly don’t hear much difference between the Lupe Fiasco and B.o.B. versions of “Nothin’ On You.” Both of them are big-eyed love songs, and both of them treat their rappers mostly as afterthoughts. “Beautiful Girls” might have a classic breakbeat and an actual rapper listed as lead artist, but neither of them really sound like rap songs. Instead, the production, with its guitar-stabs and its murmuring live bass, sounds more like radio-ready adult-contempo — the kind of music that young Bruno Mars might’ve once played for the tourists at the Sheraton Waikiki. In the version of the song that finally came out, B.o.B.’s most memorable contribution is the “nut-nut-nut-nothin’ on you” ad-lib on the chorus, rather than anything that he says on the verses.

B.o.B.’s rapping on “Nothin’ On You” is perfectly serviceable while also being deeply, depressingly forgettable. There’s some melody in his delivery, but there’s no swagger, no charisma. “Nothin’ On You” is a song about how none of the other beautiful girls all over the world could measure up to you, babe. B.o.B. starts the track off by admitting that he’s been messing around with other girls but that it hasn’t brought him any satisfaction: “No directions, just tryna get some/ Tryna chase skirts, livin’ in the summer sun/ And so I lost more than I had ever won/ And honestly, I ended up with none.” That’s not exactly an original insight, but it’s something — or it would be, if B.o.B. didn’t devote the rest of the song to limp attempts at flirting.

When B.o.B. tells this girl how amazing she is, he can’t really think of much to say. What he ends up with is this: “Baby, you the whole package, plus you pay your taxes/ And you keep it real while them others stay plastic.” He also offers this: “You’re my Wonder Woman, call me Mr. Fantastic/ Stop, now think about it.” I’m pretty sure the Mr. Fantastic thing is about him having a stretchy dick, and I regret to report that I am currently thinking about it. Mostly, though, I’m thinking about how Wonder Woman and Mr. Fantastic come from two completely different comic-book universes, how they have nothing to do with each other. If you’re going to be a nerd, you need to be a nerd. Maybe some A&R guy convinced B.o.B. that a line about “you my Invisible Girl” would send a weird message, but there’d already been two terrible Fantastic Four movies by then. You’d think that would be enough that B.o.B. wouldn’t need to fuck up his own reference.

In any case, the focal point of “Nothin’ On You” isn’t B.o.B.; it’s Bruno Mars. This song was my first exposure to Bruno Mars, and from the very first moment I saw him, I hated everything about this guy. I hated his hat and his wan smile and his barely-there soul patch. (The “Nothin’ On You” video, with its crumpled-collage aesthetic, is just really annoying on every level. It seems designed specifically to make B.o.B. look as unthreatening as he possibly can, and it’s not like that guy was ever DMX in the first place.) It felt like some cheesy VH1 crooner had invaded my favorite young rapper’s first big song, like he’d just ruined it. Bruno’s “Nothin’ On You” hook is a legit earworm, but he delivers it with such simpering self-satisfaction that it immediately put me off. After “Nothin’ On You,” it took me a long time to accept the idea that Bruno was a seriously gifted pop artist with some great songs to his name. We’ll get into the good ones soon enough; Bruno Mars will be in this column lots of times.

B.o.B. will not be in this column again, but he did have more hits in him. Before releasing The Adventures Of Bobby Ray, his first proper album, B.o.B. built anticipation with May 25th, a mixtape named after the album’s release date. “Nothin’ On You” made its debut on that tape, and Atlantic started pushing the song to radio the day after the mixtape came out. “Nothin’ On You” took off so quickly that the album’s release date got moved up to April, thus turning the mixtape title into a lie. When “Nothin’ On You” reached #1, B.o.B. already had another single in the top 10.

Atlantic’s strategy was to do everything possible to prevent the world from figuring out that B.o.B. was a rapper. B.o.B. had rock-star aspirations, and he was happy to play along. (B.o.B. also tried to change his stage name to Bobby Ray in the lead-up to the album release. Everyone ignored his name-change request.) For his “Nothin’ On You” follow-up, B.o.B. teamed up with Hayley Williams, singer for the great Nashville emo band Paramore, for the searching and contemplative “Airplanes.” The combination worked nicely; rap fans have always loved Paramore. It’s just one of those things. (Paramore’s highest-charting single, 2014’s “Ain’t It Fun,” peaked at #10. It’s a 7. Hayley Williams will eventually appear in this column as a retroactively credited songwriter.)

For a minute, it seemed like “Airplanes” might turn B.o.B. into a respected artist. Eminem jumped on a remix of the song. That summer, I saw B.o.B. open for Eminem and Jay-Z in Detroit. During his headlining set, Em brought B.o.B. to the stage and performed that “Airplanes” remix with him. Em’s other guests at that show were people like Dr. Dre, 50 Cent, and Drake, the man who would turn out to be the real blog-era superstar. B.o.B. was breathing rarefied air. (“Airplanes” peaked at #2. It’s a 6.)

B.o.B.’s more rap-friendly singles didn’t do so well on the charts. “Don’t Let Me Fall” peaked at #67, while the T.I./Playboy Tre collab “Bet I,” the only Adventures Of Bobby Ray song that I really liked, only made it to #72. B.o.B. tended to do a lot better when he had alt-rockers singing his hooks. Weezer’s Rivers Cuomo did hook-singer duty on “Magic,” a Dr. Luke production, and that song peaked at #10. A few years ago, I took my kids to see a magic show at our local library, and the magician used “Magic” as his outro music. The force of sheer vicarious embarrassment made me want to jump out a window. (“Magic” is a 2. Weezer’s highest-charting single, 2005’s “Beverly Hills,” also peaked at #10. It’s a 7.)

The Adventures Of Bobby Ray eventually went double platinum. In 2011, B.o.B. rapped a guest-verse on Jessie J’s “Price Tag,” which only made it to #23 in the US but which topped the UK singles chart. That same year B.o.B. also released his sophomore album Strange Clouds. Former Number Ones artist Lil Wayne guested on the title track, and that song reached #7. (It’s a 5.)

“Strange Clouds” remains B.o.B.’s last top-10 hit. A couple of other singles from the Strange Clouds album made it into the top 20; one of them was “Both Of Us,” a random-ass Taylor Swift collab that made it to #18. It might’ve been Taylor’s first song with a rapper? (I’m not counting “Thug Story.” Taylor Swift will be in this column many times, including once for a remix with another rapper who’d been a XXL Freshman.)

The Strange Clouds album eventually went platinum, but things were trending downward for B.o.B. In presenting himself as a polyglot rock-star type, he never really developed a base within rap itself, and he didn’t convey enough personality for people to get invested in his story. In interviews, B.o.B. would make big promises. He was working on a full album with T.I., or he was about to come out with a rock record. Those things never happened. Instead, the returns kept diminishing.

In 2011, the hungry young Los Angeles rap collective Odd Future was on the rise, and leader Tyler, The Creator targeted the parties responsible for “Nothin’ On You” on his own breakout single “Yonkers.” Back before he became an avatar for queerness in rap, the teenage Tyler was an avatar for rap homophobia. (People are complicated.) On “Yonkers,” Tyler called B.o.B. the F-slur, offered to crash his plane, and promised to “stab Bruno Mars in his goddamn esophagus.” Odd Future defined themselves in opposition to the blog era; they were furious that all the big rap blogs rejected their music. To Tyler, B.o.B. represented the establishment — a machine to rage against. You can see why he might’ve felt that way. (Tyler’s highest-charting single, the 2019 Playboi Carti collab “Earfquake,” peaked at #13.)

B.o.B. did not like serving as Tyler, The Creator’s punching bag, and he clapped back on his track “No Future.” Nothing really came out of that feud. B.o.B.’s 2013 album Underground Luxury went nowhere; lead single “We Still In This Bitch,” which featured T.I. and Juicy J, peaked at #64. B.o.B. started publicly venting about how Atlantic wasn’t properly promoting his music. Pretty soon, he was off the label. As lead artist, B.o.B. hasn’t been on the Hot 100 since 2014, when “Not For Long,” a non-album single with Trey Songz, peaked at #80. In retrospect, that song title feels oddly appropriate.

B.o.B.’s last Hot 100 appearance came in 2015. That’s when he and 2 Chainz rapped on Kansas City cult star Tech N9ne’s “Hood Go Crazy,” which peaked at #90. That’s still Tech N9ne’s only Hot 100 hit, but that guy has had a huge independent career without messing with the pop charts. Maybe B.o.B. thought he could do something similar. B.o.B. split with Atlantic and released a few independent albums, starting with 2017’s Ether. None of them have set the world on fire.

I guess this is where we talk about the world itself, and the shapes that different people believe it might take. Since 2016, B.o.B. has been famous for something other than his brief run as a hitmaking rapper. Instead, he’s the flat-earth guy. Somewhere along the line, B.o.B. got really into conspiracy theories. He developed big opinions about the moon landing, 9/11, and the shape of our planet. Some of those theories have a distinctly anti-Semitic tinge, so we can’t even regard him as a fun kook. B.o.B.’s public commitment to the flat-earth conspiracy theory led him to a brief, ridiculous feud with Neil DeGrasse Tyson, and yes, there is a song to go with that: “They divided up the seas into 33 degrees/ Feeding kids masonry, bruh, be careful what you read.” I am not willing to do the necessary research to figure out what the fuck B.o.B. is talking about there.

In 2017, B.o.B. tried to raise a million dollars, through crowdfunding, to launch his own satellite. He wanted to see for himself whether the earth was really round. On the GoFundMe page, he wrote that he was “looking for the curve.” This was the last time I heard anything about B.o.B. He’s released three albums since then; the most recent, called Better Than Drugs, came out last year. I haven’t listened to any of those records, and neither have you. We’ll see Bruno Mars in this column again, but we won’t see this guy — not even if we buy ourselves a space telescope.

GRADE: 3/10

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BONUS BEATS: Here’s the Korean-American singer/rapper Jay Park’s viral 2010 cover of “Nothin’ On You”:

BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the late Mac Miller rapping about “you look like a outfit from Target, with a bitch that smell like a armpit” over the “Nothin’ On You” beat on his 2010 track “Nothing On Me”:

(Mac Miller’s highest-charting single as lead artist, the posthumous 2020 track “Good News,” peaked at #17. As a guest, Mac reached #9 on Ariana Grande’s 2013 single “The Way.” It’s a 7.)

BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the politically righteous Brooklyn duo Dead Prez’s video for the 2010 track “The Beauty Within,” their version of “Nothin’ On You”:

BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the K-pop group Wonder Girls covering “Nothin’ On You” in a 2011 live session for Billboard:

(Wonder Girls’ only Hot 100 hit, 2009’s “Nobody,” peaked at #76 — pretty impressive, considering that K-pop was not even remotely a presence on the American charts back then.)

BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s “Weird Al” Yankovic’s 2011 “Nothin’ On You” parody “Another Tattoo”:

(You already know this bit, but I’m going to type it all out again anyway: “Weird Al” Yankovic’s highest-charting single, 2005’s “White & Nerdy,” peaked at #9. It’s a 7.)

The Number Ones: Twenty Chart-Topping Hits That Reveal The History Of Pop Music is out now via Hachette Books. Buy it here, so that I can afford to launch a satellite and do some investigative work for myself.

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