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This Should Have Been a Profile of Pop Smoke

  • Words: Grant Brydon

  • Illustrations: Shirt King Phade

Pop Smoke was slated to headline this week’s FRONTPAGE cover story, but on the morning of our photoshoot, the Brooklyn rap phenom was shot and killed at the house he was renting in LA. In the wake of this tragedy, we wanted to honor our commitment to celebrating his life and the legacy he leaves behind.

Nobody started the decade on a hot streak like Pop Smoke. His track “Welcome to the Party” was undisputedly the song of last summer, and his work was actively mutating the sound of his hometown, New York — as Highsnobiety wrote in a January article: "Pop Smoke could just be the one to restore New York to its former glory." At the beginning of February, the charismatic 20-year-old Canarsie, Brooklyn native served up the sequel to his debut mixtape Meet the Woo. The record landed a Top 10 spot on the US Billboard charts and demonstrated the mainstream potential of Pop’s transatlantic blend of guttural NYC street rap with UK drill sonics. While he’d spent his teenage years being urged to apply his unique gravely voice to record, Pop Smoke, born Bashar Barakah Jackson, never planned to be a rapper. His rise is an unorthodox tale that wouldn’t have been predicted by anyone, let alone the man himself. 

Tragically, with his most exciting chapter just a page-turn away, Pop Smoke’s story was cut short. As we prepared for an interview and Frontpage cover shoot with Pop on Wednesday, February 19, the news spread that he’d been killed. In the early hours of the morning, the Hollywood Hills house that the rapper had been renting was invaded, and his life was violently taken. He was shot on the premises and died from his injuries just 45 minutes later at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center (the same place where fellow Brooklyn rapper, the Notorious B.I.G., had passed away 23 years prior). 

“Everybody that come from the hood is either going to rap, play ball, or sell drugs. That’s the main three,” Pop Smoke told the LA Leakers during an interview last November. “So I did all of the above, plus more, and I was good at everything.” Pop had a promising basketball career ahead of him during his teenage years. At 15, he moved to North Philadelphia with a full scholarship to attend Rocktop Academy, a prep school that would prepare him to play in college. Unfortunately, a heart murmur (discovered six months into the program) meant that he would no longer be able to play competitively, bringing his hoop dreams to an end and sending him right back onto the streets of Canarsie. By 16, he was already driving a Pepsi-Blue 2016 BMW with a cream interior and living a life far more luxurious than most — embodying “The Floss” that his neighbourhood is known for, as well as the “Woo” movement, which referred to his self-made, winning lifestyle.

In late 2018, Bashar — nicknamed "Poppa" by his Panamanian grandma, and known on the streets as "Smoke Oh Guap" — was in the studio with his rapper friend Jay Gwuapo. “Before I was rapping, I been around a lot of artists,” he told London’s SK Vibemaker. “Like heavy duty... I was one of those guys, making sure everything go right.” Gwuapo got so high that he fell asleep, so Bashar pulled up the instrumental to Sheff G, Sleepy Hallow, and Fresh G’s “Panic Part 3” on YouTube and recorded his first ever song — a verse and two hooks chronicling his pursuit of Tony Montana’s vices: money, power, and respect. 

Pop’s previous musical experience came from singing in the church choir when he was young and his dad playing traditional African drums, which he credits for giving him an ear for rhythm-heavy instrumentals. “I always said I knew I was gonna try it out,” he continued with SK. “It was just a matter of timing.” He took the track, titled simply “MPR,” to his block for a test run with the locals. When he witnessed their reaction, he realized immediately that he had something special. 

He continued his rap career with two more songs, “Flexin’” and “Welcome to the Party.” The latter would become inescapable during the summer of 2019, with the help of a triller video he posted on his Instagram that went viral. “I ain’t even know what I was doing,” he admitted in conversation with London’s DJ Dubl. “No strategy, no plan. It’s just natural. It just happened like that, and they just went crazy. And now I’m a rapper!” 

“Welcome to the Party” is no-nonsense New York rap that speaks to women, without feeling soft, with Pop embodying both archetypes of the gangster and the gentleman. In the lineage of one of Pop’s personal favourites, 50 Cent — who successfully converted his own brand of street rap into bonafide crossover hits — the lyrics are directed at a female listener, which is unusual for drill. The track is reminiscent of 50 opening his own breakthrough hit “In Da Club,” by chanting “Go shawty, it’s ya birthday.” Like the G-Unit General, Pop Smoke had the right combination of street reputation, charm, and humor that allowed him to be simultaneously loveable and dangerous. (50 Cent reciprocates Pop’s respect. When Hot 97’s Ebro Darden told him he’d been playing Pop Smoke on the radio, 50 responded with a half-threatening grin, “Oh you better!”) 

Brooklyn Drill will undoubtedly live on, but its true potential in many ways feels stunted due to the murder of its most captivating champion. Another loss for Brooklyn. Another wound for New York City. Another scar for hip-hop and its future.

Brandon “Jinx” Jenkins

That mix allowed Pop to have fun with viral dances while releasing grimy, gravel-throated street records. It also allowed him to bring flowers and cookies to The Angie Martinez Show, urging her to do impersonations of his voice before discussing recent shows that had been shut down by the NYPD and the reality of navigating his new-found success: “I’ma give a message to my young niggas, you feel me. Niggas like us, coming from where we come from. We can’t afford to fuck up. We can’t afford to slip up, make no mistakes, you heard? Because they watching and they want us to. We got all odds against us.”

Fellow Brooklyn native Nadeska Alexis, of Apple Music, met Pop for the first time earlier this month when he came through her Beats 1 show for an interview: “What stood out to me about Pop Smoke was his natural (Brooklyn!) charisma and a level of confidence — but not arrogance — that I don't see very often in other artists who I'd consider to be his peers. He was the kind of person who could easily light up a room, and make everyone feel at ease in a very disarming way. I learned during our interview that he'd recently shifted into a state where he was beginning to look at interviews as a part of the career he'd chosen... a way to show more of himself to fans, instead of just dismissing them as an uncomfortable probing experience. With that barrier gone, I think we were just really starting to see more of the ‘It’ factor that could've catapulted him to further stardom.”

The success of “Welcome to the Party” would eventually bridge his passion for music and basketball when it became the walk-on track for the Brooklyn Nets, as well as being a fan-favorite of athletes around the NBA. In the wake of his death, fellow Brooklynite Taj Gibson of the New York Knicks told Bleacher Report that he’d regularly play Pop’s music in the locker room to hype up his teammates. “His voice was unique. He had a different sound. Just so much talent,” Gibson said. “He had a lot to offer, and he would have been a good inspiration for young guys to look up to and understand that if you stay on the grind and you persevere, you can be successful just like him.” 

“Welcome to the Party” kicked down the door for the Brooklyn drill scene, and Pop Smoke became its de facto icon. He wasn’t looking to hog the glory, however, praising his peers whenever possible. “Some people may not know, but Fivio Foreign, that’s my nigga for real,” he told DJ Kayslay. “My first show I ever did, Fivio Foreign was there. Facts.” While he was talking to Angie Martinez on his Meet the Woo 2 release date, he used his platform to highlight his borough: “It started with me, then you got Fivio Foreign, Sheff G, and there’s plenty more that you ain’t even meet yet. You ‘bout to meet Rah Swish, Bizzy Banks. They doing it. You ‘bout to see them young niggas. They doing it. Sheff G, Sleepy Hallow, yeah you gon’ see them niggas. Brooklyn.”

New York based journalist and DJ, Brandon “Jinx” Jenkins tells us that it was more than the music that made Pop Smoke the perfect leader for Brooklyn’s burgeoning movement. “It takes more than memorable lyrics or a hypnotic beat to make a star. A lot of it comes down to the person. And Pop Smoke had it. He moved with a presence that felt well-aged and durable, like good quality leather, leading people to believe he was much older than 20. And he spoke with a charisma that made you want to be him, funneled through a voice that was unmistakably Brooklyn and inimitably himself.” Jenkins continues: “I say all of this because movements need leaders. And as a musical genre, hip-hop needs stars. Brooklyn Drill will undoubtedly live on, but its true potential in many ways feels stunted due to the murder of its most captivating champion. Another loss for Brooklyn. Another wound for New York City. Another scar for hip-hop and its future.”

The instrumentals used for the three songs were all produced by 808 Melo, a producer from London who was known in the UK for tracks like Headie One x RV’s notorious drill anthem “Know Better.” After catching wind of the tracks, he reached out to Pop, who flew him out to New York. Here, the pair took their creative partnership further, recording Meet the Woo, which was produced entirely by Melo and released via Steven Victor’s Victor Victor Worldwide imprint. 

While Pop was specifically interested in the sound of Melo’s beats and how the mood related to his lifestyle — he told SK Vibemaker: “I don’t really make drill music” — he unwittingly entered into a cultural exchange between New York and London, giving the UK’s strand of Chicago’s drill sound a bigger platform overseas. 

His passion and knowledge of music and culture was second to none. His sound has started a movement.

Charlie Sloth

The first trip Pop would ever make outside of the US (when he got his first passport after dropping “Welcome to the Party”) was to London, where he discovered he was just as beloved as in his hometown. The song had spawned UK remixes from Headie One, K-Trap, Russ, and Skepta, the latter of which was released officially — the pair had been introduced via a sneaker store owner in Crown Heights — and led to Pop joining Skepta’s Ignorance Is Bliss Tour as the support act for the UK leg. Back home, the New York anthem continued to build steam, with remixes from Nicki Minaj, French Montana, and Dave East — an 18 minute “Version Excursion” mega mix from Tim Westwood showcases the scope of influence that the track has across both sides of the Atlantic. 

Apple Music’s Charlie Sloth hosted a Fire In The Booth with Pop, which gained so much online acclaim that the studio version made it onto his second mixtape. “One of the most charismatic human beings I’ve ever met,” reflects Sloth. “From the first moment he was introduced, I knew we would be friends. His personality and positive energy was infectious and this came through via his music. Over the last year, I couldn’t play in any club around the world without some Pop Smoke being in my set. His music excited me and he had the world at his feet. His passion and knowledge of music and culture was second to none. His sound has started a movement.” 

During the promo run around Meet the Woo 2, Pop felt as if he was finally coming to terms with his role as a recording artist. “Back then, you wasn’t a rapper,” Swaggy Sie noted in a February interview on Sirius XM, referring to a conversation she’d had with him in July. “What happened bro? You a rapper now?” Pop nods his head, a grin drawing across his face. “I think so!” He laughs, dapping her up. Having the opportunity to travel was a privilege afforded to Pop Smoke thanks to his success in rap. It was so eye-opening to him that he naturally wanted to bring others along for the ride. “I ain’t have a passport since I started rapping,” he continued. “I paid for, like, seven passports already, just for my niggas... I just tell niggas stay down, you’re gonna pull up with me.” 

Last month, he was at Paris Fashion Week, sitting front row for Off-White™ and Louis Vuitton’s runway shows, as well as shooting a visual with Virgil Abloh for his Quavo collaboration “Shake the Room,” which is set to be the inaugural project for the newly announced Off-White™ International Rap Music Video Production Studio. Pop had also begun his foray into acting, playing a basketball player in Eddie Huang’s forthcoming movie, Boogie.

Since the first mixtape, Pop had started spending more of his time in Los Angeles, where he was enjoying the slower pace of life. “I like recording in LA because New York is a little busy,” he told the LA Leakers. “[In LA], everything is a little laid-back.” He also began to build relationships in the wider rap community, and, since going feature-free for Meet the Woo, had started expanding his sound through collaborations. “As I’m in this game, I start to meet some genuine niggas,” he told Kayslay. “So, you know, I got Quavo on there, that’s my dog. I got my nigga A Boogie on there. New York shit. I got my boy Lil Tjay on there, that’s my nigga.” 

Pop reported that he and Quavo had a particularly productive creative chemistry, having already recorded nine songs together, and over the past few months, had collaborated with Travis Scott, H.E.R., Gunna, NAV, Calboy, and PnB Rock. He approached collaborations as a student, understanding their value as a relative newcomer. The results of these tracks give a taste of the bigger ambition for Pop’s music and where he was preparing to go. H.E.R’s “Slide (Remix)” and “Like Me” with PnB Rock, in particular, demonstrates versatility, as he applies his gruff tone to melodic bedroom jams, a reminder of that gangster and gentleman duality that had him primed to be Brooklyn drill’s first bonafide pop star.

In his short time, Pop Smoke made an impressive mark. It’s inspirational to see how much he was able to achieve, and how many people he was able to touch during his tragically abridged career. Since his death, Pop has been celebrated through new music by Jay Gwuapo and Lil Tjay, while Travis Scott has previewed an unreleased collaboration on Instagram. Pop Smoke’s legacy will continue with the music he recorded so prolifically during his short tenure, but also through the torch passed to the rest of the Brooklyn drill scene, that he made a point of highlighting wherever possible — particularly peers like Fivio Foreign, Sheff G, Sleepy Hallow, Rah Swish, and Bizzy Banks. 

The story of a young artist capturing the hearts of listeners all over the globe by making a positive life change, before having their life taken so soon, is one that we’re becoming all too familiar with. But it’s one that never feels any less painful.

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