R.O.D. spent the first seven years of his life sleeping in cars and living in one-room motels. He shared beds with his mother and younger siblings. His family moved around a lot, from Hunter's Point to East Oakland to the Fillmore district. Asked what his parents did for a living, R.O.D. was cryptic. "Whatever it took," he said. "They was living life, we'll just keep it like that."
There's no question that the 29-year-old Oakland singer came up hard. But you'd never know it now. Buoyed by the success of his new single, "Can't Stand You," R.O.D. won't hit the streets unless he's suited and booted. Last Wednesday he and manager Morchez Frazier arrived to a fancy North Oakland recording studio in matching gear: track jackets, crew-neck T-shirts, impeccable sneakers. R.O.D. accessorized with princess-cut diamonds — thirty karats on his neck, fifteen on his wrist, and one in each ear. He has sleeve tattoos on both arms. One is a gush of flames. The other is a portrait of things he values: stacks of rolled up dollar bills, a Chevy emblem, two women in bikinis.
Getting this far was no easy feat, particularly in a town that isn't known for incubating male R&B stars. R.O.D. — whose real name is Roderick Anthony Cudjo Jr. — sang professionally for more than a decade before dropping his first radio hit. He came from a gospel tradition, serving in youth choirs at Berean Christian Fellowship in the Fillmore, and Cosmopolitan Baptist Church in Oakland. As an adult, R.O.D. used his church pipes to provide hooks for rappers, and croon about secular themes.
With that type of training, R.O.D. easily distinguished himself from the typical gun-for-hire. He sings in key, on command. When KMEL radio personality Sana G challenged him to do so during a recent on-air interview, R.O.D. took her to task. I can't staaaaand you, he trilled, intoning the line in a thick, syrupy vibrato. Girl you maaake it hard to stay.
It's perhaps the most mean-spirited R&B song to hit Bay Area audiences in a long time, and it catapulted R.O.D. to regional fame. He wrote the lyrics about a particularly tempestuous, ill-fated relationship. But these aren't the usual bad breakup blues. Rather, R.O.D. documents his whole mess of anger and misgivings. He's prickly. He blames the ex-girlfriend for everything. He talks about lying awake in bed and sitting in the car for half-hour stretches, fuming. "Can't Stand You" has the cadence of a scold.That's only exacerbated by the sample that R.O.D. used on the song's hook, a drawn-out Biiiiaaatch! from Oakland rapper Too $hort.
"Being from the Bay Area, that's like the stamp, you know what I'm saying?"
Self-branding is a dicey thing for guys who want to make it in the rarefied R&B world. It's all well and good to seduce your female audience with torch songs or break-up ballads. Yet, to succeed in an increasingly fickle Bay Area market, you have to pass muster with male listeners as well. And that can be a biatch.
A few local singers figured out how to do it. J. Valentine gave the genre a hip-hop edge with his 2006 song, "Go Dumb." Another artist, London, erred on the grown and sexy side — meaning tender lyrics, gauzy string sections, and R-rated content. On the surface, R.O.D. sounds a lot like his peers. Persona-wise, he's grittier, with a saltier sense of humor, and a keen ability to capture the ugly side of romance.
Incorporating a Too $hort sample wasn't the only bit of marketing genius that helped boost R.O.D.'s career. He also had the foresight to use Twitter as a platform. Last year R.O.D. leaked an entire twelve-song mix tape on his Twitter page (Twitter.com/TheRODProject), followed by "Can't Stand You," which he Tweeted in October. In November, an intern at KMEL asked R.O.D., for a clean version of the song. In December, it landed on DJ Mind Motion's Morning Master Mix. By February, it was spinning in regular rotation.
R.O.D.'s next spate of songs is already available on his MySpace page. (He'll drop another mix tape, called Here I Come, in August.) "Beautiful" is harmonically superior to "Can't Stand You," and sounds more like a traditional love ballad. "Sex," with rapper Sonny Forecast, is surprisingly chaste, or at least well coded. "You," is a come-on that sounds like a put-on. But the beat is infectious.
For all his testiness on recordings, R.O.D. is soft-spoken in person. His phone bleats four times in the course of a half hour. He keeps in touch with the ex-girlfriend who inspired "Can't Stand You." "She don't like it at all," he said.
And Too $hort? "He thinks it's hilarious."