Pop Smoke: 1999 – 2020

Pop Smoke: 1999 – 2020

In the early hours of February 19, Pop Smoke was tragically shot and killed during a home invasion in the Hollywood Hills. He was just 20 years old.

Later that morning, shaken by disbelief, I googled Pop Smoke’s name in search of more information. Seeing that his Wikipedia entry had already been edited to reflect the news of this tragedy, it hit me all over again. “Bashar Barakah Jackson, known professionally as Pop Smoke, was an American rapper and songwriter,” it read. Just yesterday, Pop Smoke was one of the most exciting young artists in hip-hop, pushing New York rap forward with his kinetic energy, gruff ethos and forays into UK drill. Now, he simply was.

A lot has been made of how inescapable Pop Smoke’s music was in the summer of 2019 — particularly in New York — where his biggest hits, “Welcome to the Party” and “Dior,” poured out of every car and bled through every set of earbuds. This anecdote has been repeated so endlessly that it’s taken on a matter-of-fact tone, as if it’s unremarkable. Now it seems absurd we ever took his ubiquity for granted. Cultural penetration of this magnitude is increasingly rare; even rarer are the artists, like Pop Smoke, who are capable of achieving it.

Pop Smoke was special. He carried himself with an ineffable gravitas that made his music feel weighty, even when, in less capable hands, it could’ve easily come off as ephemeral. “Energy, I’m givin’ nothin’ but energy,” he rapped on “Invincible,” the ferocious opener off Meet the Woo, Vol. 2, released less than two weeks before his death. It’s a simple line that distilled his musical sensibilities neatly. Seemingly indefatigable, his energy always seemed to spill over into his audience, making his swagger that much more palpable and his music all the more contagious.

Of course, some of Pop Smoke’s intangible charms could be traced back to his uniquely menacing voice, which sounded like it belonged to — and I mean this flatteringly — a documentary subject trying to mask their identity. It was a natural gift that set him apart from contemporaries like Sheff G and Fivio Foreign, and helped to elevate New York’s burgeoning drill scene beyond the heights it’d previously reached.

More than that, though, Pop Smoke never gave off the impression he was rapping for himself alone. There was a communal element to his music that felt omnipresent, even when he was rapping about his personal successes. In a New York Times profile published last September, he explained how he made his music “[for kids] who got to carry their guns to school because it ain’t safe, but they still got to make sure they get they diploma ’cause they mom could be happy.”

The same paranoia that would compel a young kid to carry a gun to school — something Pop Smoke was evidently expelled for doing in the eighth grade — was present in his music, even as he racked up mainstream collaborations with the likes of Nicki Minaj and Travis Scott. What’s sadder is that, on February 19, 2020, his paranoia was ultimately proven just. He’d escaped to the Hollywood Hills to plan out his next phase, and yet he couldn’t escape the horrors of his previous one.

Regardless of how common a story this is in rap, it never stops hurting to think about the sheer amount of unrealized potential. In the case of Pop Smoke, it wasn’t just his potential we lost, but his ability to surprise us. When early reviews noted his lack of lyrical ability, he pushed back by delivering a tour de force freestyle for L.A. radio station Power 106. In response to critiques about his music being one-note, he’d begun experimenting with melody, showcasing a dynamic adaptability we hadn’t anticipated. It seemed he had all the answers.

Tragically, we’ll never get to see what other surprises he had up his sleeve.

Image credit: Rovi

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