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The Power of Pop Smoke

Remembering the Brooklyn rapper, who should’ve been his city’s torchbearer

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Fourteen months—that is the exact length of Pop Smoke’s career, which began in Canarsie, Brooklyn, at the tail end of 2018, when he uploaded his first song to the internet, and ended in tragedy Wednesday morning, when intruders broke into the home he was renting in Hollywood Hills and shot him dead. He was 20 years old.

The only thing more shocking than Pop Smoke’s terrible death is his dramatic and remarkable rise from obscurity, the swift ease with which he conquered New York rap and gave the city the kind of readymade and potentially defining star it hadn’t seen in years. He exuded supreme confidence—and with a voice like that, how could he not? When Pop Smoke opened his mouth, out came an unfathomably deep and resonant rasp, a villainous baritone that somehow bridged the gap between 50 Cent and Vito Corleone. It sounded like his trachea was made of vibranium infused with cigarette ash.

This one-of-a-kind voice gave Pop Smoke’s music broad appeal, and he seemed eager to grow as a major-label rapper. Despite his relative inexperience, he had already established his musical identity as a champion of Brooklyn drill, the increasingly popular New York street rap subgenre that maps outer borough shit-talking onto the ominous production palette of U.K. drill. In the world of Pop Smoke, party scenes and easy gangster bravado collided with dark, fluid synths, Howitzer-blast kick drums, and portamento 808s revving wildly like souped-up Kawasakis. The biggest knock on Pop was that his songs all sounded the same, but by the same token, they all promised immediate, visceral thrills, the listening equivalent of staring defiantly into a wind tunnel. Industry heavyweights came calling, eager to immerse themselves in his signature style. Quavo guest-starred on “Shake the Room,” the colossal centerpiece of Pop Smoke’s recent mixtape Meet the Woo 2, and earlier this week, on his Instagram story, he revealed that he and the Migos rapper had made enough songs together to constitute a joint mixtape. “GATTI,” the closer on the Travis Scott–led JACKBOYS EP, was little more than a Pop Smoke song with a Travis verse tacked on to the end.

In the 14 months of Pop Smoke’s career, there was one summer, and he owned it. Throughout 2019 in New York, and surely elsewhere, his breakout hit “Welcome to the Party” spilled out of passing cars and played on loop at parties. In the city, it was more omnipresent than hits like “Old Town Road,” which racked up billions of streams and spent that entire summer at no. 1 on Billboard.

“Welcome to the Party” will be remembered as one of the best rap songs of the ’10s. It is perfect. Pop Smoke was a phrasing genius who packaged words in a restrained, unpredictable, and impactful way. To simply type the most memorable sequence from “Welcome to the Party”—“Bitch, I’m a thot, get me lit / Gun on my hip / One in the head / Ten in the clip”—does not do justice to his sly intonation and sense of timing. He was not an inventive lyricist, but he didn’t have to be. His music emphasized mood, attitude, and sound. It communicated joy and defiance.

Pop Smoke’s label, Republic Records, commissioned official remixes from Nicki Minaj and Skepta, but by the time those came out in August, he had already produced another gem: “Dior,” the second standout from his debut mixtape Meet the Woo. Punctuated by growls and bewildered “huh?” ad-libs, “Dior” gave Pop another instant smash, an irresistible invitation to turn any office, bedroom, or sidewalk into a dance floor.

Born Bashar Barakah Jackson, Pop Smoke was the son of a Panamanian father and a Jamaican mother. As a teenager in Canarsie, he started dealing drugs, bought himself a BMW 5 Series, and spent two years on house arrest after catching a weapons charge. As the story goes, he got his start rapping one day when he accompanied rapper Jay Gwuapo to the studio. When Gwuapo got too high and passed out, Pop Smoke hopped into the booth and recorded his first track, “MPR (PANIC PART 3 REMIX).” What’s remarkable about “MPR” and its follow-up, “Flexing,” is how comfortable he sounds rapping in his marvelous voice and gliding across the bleak, lurching beats of East London producer 808 Melo, who would go on to become his most important collaborator. His style was innate, fully formed, effortless—this was central to his appeal.

As any New Yorker will tell you, New York is the birthplace of rap music, and for decades it was its capital. Run-DMC, Rakim, Public Enemy, Wu-Tang, Busta Rhymes, Mobb Deep, Nas, Biggie, Jay-Z, Big L, Big Pun, Fat Joe, Cam’ron, 50 Cent—the city’s history from the mid-’80s to the mid-aughts reads as a collective hagiography, a parade of icons. But unlike Toronto, Atlanta, and South Florida, which have all exerted great influence on rap’s aesthetics and artist pecking order in the past decade, New York has produced few discernable movements or rappers to rally around, other than A$AP Rocky and Nicki Minaj. This identity crisis has been particularly pronounced in Brooklyn. Joey Bada$$ and Young M.A. are linchpins, but they are revivalists; Pop Smoke was the borough’s first rapper since the young gunplay maestro Bobby Shmurda to appear as a transformational figure who possessed the potential to move Brooklyn rap forward. There are parallels between Bobby and Pop Smoke. As soon as Bobby blew up, at age 20, law enforcement hit him with a seven-year prison sentence; though Pop gave up his criminal enterprise when his music career took off, the NYPD watched him like a hawk.

Despite his immense popularity in his own city, Pop Smoke never really got a chance to perform there. He made an impromptu appearance last summer at MoMA PS1’s concert series, and performed on MTV’s Fresh Out, but in October, NYPD pressured Rolling Loud to take him and four other New York rappers off the festival, claiming that they were “public safety concerns” who had been “affiliated with recent acts of violence citywide.” As he returned to New York from Paris Fashion Week last month, he was arrested on charges of transporting a stolen Rolls-Royce across state lines hours before his scheduled performance at Yams Day, an annual event that honors the late A$AP Mob founder. Just this past weekend, the Brooklyn drill showcase BK Drip took place at Flatbush’s Kings Theatre. It was an important moment for Pop Smoke’s movement and his contemporaries, like Fivio Foreign and Sheff G. It proceeded without incident under heavy police surveillance, albeit without Pop; his performance had been canceled at the last minute “due to unforeseen circumstances.” He had a show scheduled next week at Manhattan’s Sony Hall. It is difficult to remember another time when an artist so essential to his city’s of-the-moment musical identity had so much difficulty simply getting on stage in his hometown.

While Pop Smoke never got the New York moment he deserved, he spent the last few months touring around the U.S. and U.K., connecting with other constituencies. Shows from his U.K. mini-tour in December looked extraordinarily lit. One quote that has been circulating on social media since his death is an excerpt from an interview he granted during his U.K. run, with the publication The Face. When asked about his intended audience, he replied, “I make music for that kid in the hood that’s gotta share a bedroom with like four kids—the young kids growing up in poverty. I make music for that kid who got beef, thinking about how, when they go to school, these people might try [to] kill me but I still gotta get my diploma for my mom. I make music for kids like that who know they just gotta keep going, that there’s a better way. That’s who I really make it for … The people who really need some inspiration.”

The night after Pop Smoke died, young people of Canarsie and surrounding Brooklyn neighborhoods flooded the streets as if the Knicks had won the NBA Finals. It was the closest thing Brooklyn ever had to a Pop Smoke concert. People blasted his music from speakers, chanting the words. NYPD patrol cars fired up their sirens and inched gingerly through the crowds. What other artist who began his career 14 months ago could have inspired this kind of massive, nocturnal block party, this symphony of yerrrs, this outpouring of revelry, grief, and celebration?

Danny Schwartz is a New York–based writer whose work has appeared in GQ, Pitchfork, and Rolling Stone.