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Remembering Pop Smoke: How the late rapper is still redefining hip-hop

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angster rapper Pop Smoke was supposed to lead US hip-hop into an exciting new era. His uniquely parched vocals suggested he ate cigarettes for breakfast every morning. The nonchalant swagger that imbued his music made even the way he repeated the word “OK” – which was swiftly made into a meme – sound as if it could be the hook to a hit record. Exhilarating Pop Smoke tracks like “Christopher Walking”, “Welcome to the Party” and “Invincible” each bottled the energy of free-falling between two skyscrapers, cape flapping behind, as the street-smart MC convincingly framed himself as a black superhero.    

Last summer, the rapper’s breakout 2019 single “Dior” became fuel for the Black Lives Matter movement, as videos emerged of protestors dancing along to it as they marched in New York City, changing its refrain up with the name “George Floyd”. As a result, Pitchfork called the song a “radical” addition to the protest music canon, as Smoke’s low growls and otherworldly confidence suggested defiance and standing tall. On “Dior”, he pledged to “raise hell” until a friend is released from prison, a message that particularly resonated with those demanding justice in the wake of Floyd’s death.

Tragically, the rising rapper never got to see “Dior” light up a social revolution – he was shot to death in a home invasion at a rented mansion in the Hollywood Hills a year ago, on 19 February 2020. Four people have been charged with murder. Pop Smoke was just 20 when he was gunned down and barely got a chance to enjoy his new-found fame. He died before his debut album could even be released.

Yet, in death, Pop Smoke’s voice has grown even louder. In the US, his singles continue to claim number one chart places and dominate the airwaves. Posthumous single “What You Know Bout Love” reached the top spot on the US rhythmic radio chart last month – the chart based on radio stations whose playlists include mostly hit-driven R&B/hip-hop/rhythmic pop – while his song “For The Night” (featuring DaBaby and Lil Baby) is now a staple among the top five played songs on urban radio stations. These two songs’ combined streams on Spotify are close to 1 billion. Pop Smoke’s posthumous album Shoot for the Stars, Aim for the Moon, stitched together from unreleased songs after his death, meanwhile, has topped the Billboard 200 twice. It debuted at number one last July and is currently at number three, clocking up an impressive 31 weeks on the chart. 

“People don’t get tired of his songs,” said Paris Nicole, programme director at Philadelphian hip-hop station WPHI/103.9, stating the obvious when asked by Billboard why Pop Smoke’s music was so popular. 

The rapper attends the Louis Vuitton menswear show at Paris Fashion Week in January 2020, just a month before his death

(Getty)

It isn’t exactly a new phenomenon for a dead rapper to find posthumous success, but Pop Smoke has generated a lot of support because of what he represented. The rapper (real name Bashar Barakah Jackson), who is of Panamanian and Jamaican descent, spent much of his childhood in Canarsie, a Brooklyn neighbourhood where violent crimes are 28 per cent higher than the national average. Yet rather than present his community as a tragic place, Pop Smoke enjoyed showing the perseverance of its residents – “I don’t care if you’re losing/ still fight back!” was his war cry – and he immortalised their defiant spirit in his catchy hood anthems. “You going to see a lot of flossing – a lot of young kids, they look rich,” he told The New York Times of his hometown. “They got cars, designer bags, designer belts, designer sneakers. They get a lot of money over there.”

For years and years, NYC rap meagrely followed in the footsteps of Atlanta, presenting its own tepid take on the south’s dominant melodic trap. Yet Pop Smoke centred hip-hop firmly back on the Brooklyn sidewalk, his music designed to be played out of a booming sound system. The original way he combined his New Yorker slang with UK drill beats from east London producer 808Melo was refreshingly forward-thinking, too. Drill is a tough and often hyper-violent rap subgenre that emerged out of Chicago in the early 2010s, but crossed the pond to London in the past few years; by working with artists here, Pop Smoke quickly found a UK audience too. He was loved by British rap stars such as Skepta, AJ Tracey, Headie One, M24 and Fredo – Smoke appears on the latter’s just-released album Money Can’t Buy Happiness – who recognised that he could be the bridge between the UK and US rap scenes.

The music on Shoot for the Stars, Aim for the Moon only heightens the heartbreak. It proves Pop Smoke could do so much more than just puff his chest out, and shows he was planning to switch up his style from the paranoia of drill to a deliriously catchy take on R&B. He spends a lot of the album crooning, but rough diamond melodies on “Something Special” and “Diana” recall a golden-era 50 Cent in their ability to tread the line between sex symbol and street soldier. The rapper knew this record was the moment he would rubberstamp his mainstream appeal.

At Rolling Loud SoCal in December 2019

(Earl Gibson III/Shutterstock)

Pop Smoke’s untimely death, however, is representative of a tragic wider issue within the youthful hip-hop world. He’s not the only one to die young recently: rappers Nipsey Hussle, King Von, Lil Peep, Juice WRLD, Jimmy Wopo and XXXTentacion all either overdosed on prescription pills or were murdered in shootings over the last four years. Many of these rappers were part of a boom known as “SoundCloud Rap” and made hazy beats weighted on hopeless themes like depression and suicide. In stark comparison, Pop Smoke’s music is filled to the brim with black confidence and the joys of being successful. His songs reignited some of the underdog romance (“’Member my pockets flat? Now they chunky!” he says on “Element”) of gangster rap legends like 2Pac and Biggie. 

But perhaps unlike 2Pac and Biggie, Pop Smoke’s death felt particularly shocking given how random it was. The artist had escaped a humble upbringing and was supposed to finally be enjoying the high life. The mansion where he was killed was owned by Teddi Mellencamp, the reality TV star from Real Housewives of Beverly Hills. It was intended as an opulent safe-space for Pop Smoke to dip his toes in the pool and relax in between studio sessions. And yet to be a rap fan is to accept that your favourite artist could well die before they reach their peak. 

There’s now a grim inevitability to reading these stories which feels exhausting, as well as a worrying sense of acceptance – hip-hop remains the only music genre where dying at 20 isn’t a surprise. “The rap game isn’t like any other industry,” XXXTentacion producer Jimmy Duval told The Guardian. “There are a lot of guns and bullets flying around.”

Rap veterans Fabolous and Jim Jones both sparked controversy by claiming that being a rapper is one of the most dangerous jobs in America, but Pop Smoke’s story adds credence to their claim. As his voice continues to reverberate around the world and his music continues to dominate – a run that will surely be extended by his label repackaging scraps he didn’t plan on releasing – it’s a reminder of just how vulnerable rappers remain. In America, to be a famous rapper is to be a moving target, and it’s a cold reality that shows no signs of fading. 

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