Gone Too Soon: Pop Smoke’s Reign Was Just Beginning

The Brooklyn rapper was killed on February 19, 2020. He was only 20 years old.

Pop Smoke, the Canarsie-born rapper behind “Dior,” was tragically killed in Los Angeles in February 2020. He was a bright performer who was bringing a classic New York flavor back to hip-hop, while infusing his work with the sounds of UK Drill. Though his career was short, his impact on American youth and hip-hop is indelible.

The rapper, born Bashar Barakah Jackson, had begun gaining serious momentum during spring of 2019, with the release of “Welcome to the Party.” The high-octane track was celebrated in part because of it’s incorporation of drill, a music style with roots in Chicago, and an expansive scene in the United Kingdom as well. His ability to bridge regional gaps made his name come up in conversations that also mentioned U.K. grime artist Skepta and rapper Sheff G.

But Pop Smoke was adamant about making it known that his style was more expansive than fans and initially, media, would give him credit for. At the time of his death, he had recently released his sophomore project, Meet the Woo Vol. 2, to generally positive reviews. “Pop Smoke’s raw growling was jarring and hard against these bouncy beats but surprisingly,” wrote Bernadette Giacomazzo for HipHopDX.

Critics were excited about his capabilities as an artist and looked forward to the resurgence of danceable music that just felt good. “I love his energy, his vibe, his song,” Hot 97’s Funk Flex said to the New York Times in 2019.

The 20-year-old was carving out his own lane with clear influences—his style was interpreted as a homage to his gritty, New York forefathers, DMX and 50 Cent, the latter of whom was a fan—while expressing his striking sense of originality, methodology, and humor. Vol. 2 peaked at No. 7 on the Billboard Top 200 Albums, while “Dior” hit the #1 spot on the Hot 100 just days after he was killed.

“It’s New York, and not even just New York, it’s Brooklyn,” fellow Brooklyn rapper DonMonique said over the phone. She had recently received a cosign from Pop Smoke for a viral freestyle. “This is a really big L for us. He didn’t start the whole ‘Brooklyn drill sh–,’ but the first time I heard of Brooklyn drill was because of Pop Smoke,” she added.

Law enforcement officials concluded that Pop Smoke was shot during a home invasion in a California home he was renting. On February 19, 2020 he succumbed from his injuries at a nearby hospital—four people have since been charged with his death. His passing was a cruel reminder of how hip-hop eats its young, often when they are at their brightest.

In the days after his passing, young people blared the late rapper’s music in the streets of Brooklyn, channeling his distinct energy and honoring his legacy.

Complex‘s Eric Shelton documented Pop Smoke’s funeral procession, writing, “People danced on top of cars, yelled ‘Woo!’ any chance they could get, and sang along to the lyrics of Brooklyn anthems like “Welcome to the Party,” “Dior,” and “Shake the Room.”” There was a spirit of camaraderie present, one that attendees believe was only made possible by the rapper.

In early July 2020, Pop Smoke’s 50 Cent-executive produced first studio album, Shoot for the Stars, Aim for the Moon, was released, debuting at #1 on the Billboard Hot 100. Featuring vocals from Quavo, Future, Lil Baby and more, the project was an indication of where the rapper’s artistry was headed and just how bright his future was.

Pop Smoke was charismatic and Canarsie to the core. He had found fans in kids across the country, and in industry staples like Nicki Minaj, because he was comfortable in his role as an innovator. He was as confident as they come and knew that the work he was doing would have a lasting impact. “This drill shit is the sound of New York,” he said in his final interview. “This is what New York sounds like now.”

Photo credit: Getty Images

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