John Mayer fans are a dedicated bunch who've been known to drive hundreds of miles just to see him perform. Their fervor helped launch him from the Atlanta club circuit onto the national stage, where he's become a Grammy-winning pop phenomenon.
And now it seems the 26-year-old suburban kid from Connecticut has a new following. They aren't college kids, soccer moms or NASCAR dads: they're the cream of the hip-hop crop.
Inexplicably and somewhat overwhelmingly, hip-hop stars like Pharrell Williams and Kanye West are espousing their love for John Mayer. For some, it's the purity of his guitar-driven, straw-hat folk. Others dig his white-boy-soul disposition. Whatever it is, Mayer has become the object of this urban beat generation's affection.
"I like John Mayer," Jay-Z recently confessed. "[He's] smooth. You can throw it on in the car, you know, get lost in your thoughts."
Rap stars aren't just shouting out Mayer with empty praise, hoping to earn credibility by showing off their broad taste in music. In that department, his populist musical style could be trumped by, say, hipper artists such as the White Stripes. No, hip-hoppers say they're genuinely drawn to the nuances of Mayer's artistry.
"His lyrics are really inspirational," West said. "He words stuff with a real, I guess it's witty, intelligent, very human [sensibility]. I would like to grab some of those qualities."
For Chad Hugo of the Neptunes, it's the sophistication of the former Berklee College of Music student's songwriting and playing that stands out. "One time I saw him perform live and he switched up his song at the end, like, [improvised] different chords — he remixed it," Hugo said. "He's just not your typical guitar player. He's trying to push the envelope for the way guitarists and vocalists are heard. ... I just respect his musicality."
Pharrell fashioned rap-rock side project N.E.R.D. to be a retro-styled throwback to the breezy, jazz-influenced classic rock of Steely Dan and ELO, and in Mayer he sees an allegiance to that same stylistic school. "He's dope and he's talented," Pharrell said. "You get this '70s pop-rock sensibility with the writing that he does.
"You know, the dude is a real musician," he continued. "It's like anything you ever loved in Joe Jackson or anything you ever loved in any '70s rock. You're gonna get it out of this dude. He's a real student, and it comes through in his music."
High praise, to be sure. Mayer is aware of the attention and is flattered by it. "I've learned recently that some folks in the hip-hop community respect what I'm doing, and it's such a thrill," he told MTV Japan in January. "[One hip-hop guy's compliment] is like five pop guys telling you that your music's doing it for them."
Why does Mayer think hip-hop stars have him on their radar? He's not completely sure. "I like being myself and kinda sticking to that. Maybe that's kind of the part to be respected. I think also I'm a 'beat' guy. I'm a rhythm guy."
Mayer is open to building a bridge between his style of music and hip-hop. For his most recent album, Heavier Things, he recruited Roots drummer ?uestlove to play on some songs. Their in-studio jam sessions were so invigorating, they vowed to collaborate on an album soon. An irreverent side project between the two and comedian Dave Chappelle was unveiled on Wednesday's episode of "Chappelle's Show" on Comedy Central.
Mayer also popped up at Sony Studios in New York last month to listen to Kanye West give a preview of his debut album, College Dropout (see "Common, John Mayer Drop In To Preview Kanye West's Dropout"). Though West didn't get to meet Mayer that night, he'd said he'd like to one day, articulating what many in hip-hop are clearly feeling right now: "I wish he was my friend."