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Take the Money and Run 

"Billionaire" singer (and Katy Perry's ex) Travie McCoy lightens up

By It's safe to say that 2010 was good to Travie McCoy, the Miami singer and rapper behind "Billionaire," one of last year's most ubiquitous songs. His debut album, Lazarus, was somewhat of a hit too, with McCoy testing the waters as a solo performer while his bandmates in the alternative hip-hop group Gym Class Heroes explored various side projects.

The summery Lazarus was a dreamlike ending to a troubled year for McCoy. The joyful music was inspired, ironically, by "a dark period" in the singer's personal life. "For me, [making the album] was therapeutic," he says.

Besides dealing with a heavily publicized breakup from pop princess Katy Perry, McCoy buried several family members, finding himself in a state of near depression at the end of it all. But instead of crafting a collection of dark, introspective songs about the experiences, he got celebratory in his songwriting, collaborating with Bruno Mars, T-Pain, and Cee-Lo Green on Lazarus' upbeat tracks.

"Writing happy music helped me get past that," he says. "It's awesome when artists kind of scratch that surface, as opposed to dwelling on heartache or the negative. I think it also draws listeners more into it. With everything being sour in the world right now, it's kind of a break from all of that. I've always gravitated more toward music that gives me a chance to get away. That's what I wanted to do with this record."

"Billionaire," which reached No. 4 and was one of the year's most popular downloads, features a giant chorus penned by Bruno Mars. The song best reflects McCoy's sonic sea change. It's a tongue-in-cheek pipe dream about wealth and stardom, being on the cover of Forbes, and chilling with "Oprah and the Queen."

On first listen, the song's fantasized bravado is almost off-putting (and slightly awkward, considering McCoy's real-life fiscal status). But closer inspection uncovers McCoy's loose, charming flow, as he divulges more charitable (and interesting) intentions: "I'll probably pull an Angelina and Brad Pitt/Adopt a bunch of babies that ain't never had shit/Give away a few Mercedes like, 'Here lady, have this'/And last but not least, grant somebody their last wish."

Of course, he can't resist a passing dis to his ex ("You can call me Travie Claus, minus the ho-ho"), but besides that minor jab, McCoy largely avoids self-centered musing on the song and the album. One of the song's key lines — "I see my name in shining lights/A different city every night" — is as honest as it is prescient.

Now romping across the nation as head of the Sgt. Schlepper's Tour, McCoy leads a diverse group of pals, including Black Cards, a new dance-and-dub-influenced project featuring Fall Out Boy's Pete Wentz. He says the lineup is as inspired as the tour's name. "I was actually listening to the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper, and it just came to me," he says. "Schlep-Rock" was my rap name when I was younger, and it just clicked."

McCoy admits that the live show has some trouble stacking up to the album's dynamic sounds. But seeing that he's in a totally different headspace anyway, it doesn't matter much. It's all about living in the moment. "We try to make every show special," he says. "We find ways to fill out the sound, which makes the show that much more worth experiencing."

The tour falls at a curious time in McCoy's career, since he and the Gym Class Heroes recently hit the studio for prep work on a new album. He's excited about the group's upcoming songs, pointing out that there's lots of collaboration and experimentation going on. Plus, you can expect a lot more singing on the band's new album, McCoy says. You can thank Lazarus for that: It expanded his vocal confidence.

But for now McCoy is on the road, relishing a little piece of the fame and success he dreams about in "Billionaire." "When I'm at a show, I'm checking out the line of people, and it ranges from young kids to parents to hip-hop kids to indie-rock kids — the whole spectrum," he says. "And it's cool to see all those walks of life come together for one night of music."

More by Ryan Reed

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