On a recent cool Friday afternoon, 25-year-old Mexican-American, openly gay rapper Rob B sits in one of the many cafés peppering Santa Monica Boulevard in West Hollywood. He's tan and toned, a 6-foot-1 part-time model who has done everything from runway to hand modeling, and today he's fitted in all-black jeans and high-top Supras, a brightly colored, Native American-meets-Bill Cosby sweater and a backwards snapback.
He pours from a bottle of sparkling water, sipping while discussing his mixtape, Meat (as in “fresh meat”), recently released gratis via Bandcamp. On the self-designed cover of the work he stands naked, his mouth agape and eyes narrowed, the top of his pubic hair exposed, his genitals covered by the horned skull he holds suggestively in his hands.
Born Robert Antonio Zumaya, he's not a bad rapper, and his music has a Drake-like emotional transparency, though his lyrics seem to be drawn more from the actual details of his life. “There are a lot of people out there with a fabricated past. [But] I don't have anything to hide,” Rob says. On Meat, he raps about everything: modeling, failed relationships, the death of his mother, partying, drug use and getting money, all over beats from recently popular songs. Remixes include Frank Ocean's “Thinkin Bout You” and Rihanna's “Cake.”
With lines like “If God hates fags, I'm the devil in Prada,” he does a solid, oft-compelling job of balancing personal lyrics with braggadocio and comedy.
Right now we're steps from where Rob lives with his boyfriend and just down the street from where Rob tends bar on the weekend — although they're difficult steps because he recently tore his MCL. He begins to tell his story, how he came out at an early age, growing up in San Diego with his mother (who inspired him to pursue music), his father (a painter turned narcotics distributor) and his older sister, who got him into hip-hop. And though homophobia runs rampant in his chosen genre, it doesn't seem to have affected his affinity for the music or deterred him from creating his own.
The self-anointed “homo Hova” grew up listening to rappers like Nas, Biggie, Jay-Z and Lil' Kim and has something of a dense, '90s-style flow. It takes a couple of listens before you catch each pun, simile and metaphor he packs into his verses.
Rob has been slowly gaining a fan base, with his Twitter followers totaling more than 1,300 — though he says he often loses followers who were slow to realize he's gay. “Most of the people who listen to me are in the U.K., Hungary, South America or Canada,” he explains. “It's a different society in those places. Being gay isn't that big of an issue, at least in the media.”
Meat also features appearances by other out rappers from both coasts, including San Diego's Solomon, Los Angeles' FLYKINGi and New York's Bry'Nt and Prince Sani Luciano.
Rob, like some of his collaborators, uses the words “fag” and “faggot” rather gratuitously throughout his music. “Us in the gay community use the word 'fag' all the time,” he explains. “It's kind of like in the [larger] hip-hop community, where people toss around a version of the n-word all the time. … It's a soft spot for some people, but I'll wear a hat that says 'fag' on it. That word has no power behind it for me anymore.”
With the increasing number of openly gay rappers, such as New Yorkers Le1f and Mykki Blaco, not to mention the love declaration of Frank Ocean and Syd tha Kyd's coming out, Rob is excited. But he doesn't want his music or that of his contemporaries “exploited,” he says, and turned into a “novelty.”
“I want to be a role model for younger gay guys growing up, [to show them that] you don't have to sacrifice your masculinity completely. Growing up, I didn't really have any role models. The only people who were out were maybe Elton John and the people on Will and Grace. … [T]here needs to be another branch of role models for our community.”
Is Rob's music for everyone? No. Frat boys aren't going to be playing it during welcome week. He's not going to open for Young Jeezy anytime soon. But, after all, he's not making music for everybody. “I write for my community,” he says. Which, in the end, has often been what hip-hop is about — writing for the people you know and love.