The Brooklyn rapper was on the verge of an international breakthrough when he was killed in February. Here is the story of his whirlwind final months, told by those who knew him best.
Every so often, though far less frequently than it used to, New York hip-hop mints an ambassador, someone who’s faithful to the grit of the city’s musical legacy while possessing the charisma to transcend it.
So it was with Pop Smoke, the Canarsie growler who was the most impressive rap newcomer of 2019. For the last couple of years, Brooklyn has been fertile turf, growing a scene — drill — with a sound that’s rowdy, muscular, and sinister. In Pop Smoke, it found its most intuitive voice, someone who reveled in bad-guy bluster while using it merely as a first step toward something much more ambitious.
In short order, he strung together a wild run of breakout singles (“Welcome to the Party,” “Dior,” “Gatti,” “Christopher Walking”) that accelerated him toward hip-hop’s upper tier. The songs were menacing but surprisingly fleet, a crucial balance that satisfies both ground-level fans and those peering in from outside. The speed with which hip-hop superstars like Travis Scott and Nicki Minaj were gravitating toward him for collaborations portended great things, suggesting that the king of New York might someday become the king of everywhere else, too.
Pop Smoke’s success was sudden, and was far from guaranteed. Before late 2018, he’d never recorded music at all. His upbringing had been rough, pockmarked by frequent moving around, up-close experiences with violence and a handful of brushes with law enforcement. The police remained interested in him as he began to experience success in music, creating a set of obstacles that would persist even as he moved farther away from his old life.
Pop Smoke’s debut EP from last July, “Meet the Woo” (Victor Victor Worldwide/Republic), was one of the strongest New York rap releases in recent memory. His second EP, “Meet the Woo 2,” arrived in early February, and debuted at No. 7 on the Billboard album chart.
Less than two weeks later, on Feb. 19, he was shot and killed in a still-unsolved Los Angeles home invasion. He was 20 years old.
The months leading up to Pop Smoke’s death were packed with promise and adventure, persistence, and trial. Interviews with 18 of his friends, colleagues, and collaborators tell the story of this vital period — the intoxication of rapid career ascent, the persistent barriers the police put in his path, the exponentially growing crowds, the exponentially more expensive clothing, a multi-hour sit-down with 50 Cent, a high-wire video shoot in the streets of Paris and the recording sessions that would become the foundation for his first full-length album, “Shoot for the Stars Aim for the Moon,” which will be released on July 3. These are edited excerpts from those conversations.
Following a blistering summer in which “Welcome to the Party” became ubiquitous, Pop Smoke’s small club performances were rapidly expanding to larger venues. He filmed his first movie role, as the basketball-playing antagonist Monk, in the chef and author Eddie Huang’s directorial debut, “Boogie.”
EDDIE HUANG (director and screenwriter, “Boogie”) Pop shows up to the audition — Palm Angels head to toe — and he’s just a kid, but he has the voice of 50 Cent and Paul Mooney. You can tell he’s weathered, he’s an old soul. Within two takes, you could see the swag just come out of nowhere. He explodes on camera. I stopped the audition right there. He can turn emotions on a dime. He could be funny. He can be mean. A lot of actors just don’t have the depth of emotion and experiences, but because of what Pop’s gone through, he has a tremendous well to draw from.
He gave me a thousand percent. They were tough 16-hour days, overnights, and he shot five overnights in a row. Kids were coming on the bridge to watch us shoot the scenes. We would play Pop’s record. All our actors, the extras, the kids on the bridge watching us shoot scenes, everyone was doing the Woo dance. It was pretty special.
But at the same time, Pop Smoke was beginning to run up against resistance in his hometown: After pressure from the New York Police Department, he was one of the rappers dropped from the lineup of the inaugural New York edition of Rolling Loud, hip-hop’s signature festival.
TARIQ CHERIF (co-founder, Rolling Loud) He was undeniably the hottest in the city, period. He had the actual support of the real people in the city, real gangsters, real positive people, everything in between. We believe that if the law says you can be free, then you should be able to perform at our show.
STEVEN VICTOR (CEO and founder, Victor Victor Worldwide) He was disappointed. After they said that he couldn’t perform, me and Travis Scott were talking and Travis was going to sneak him in. Pop went to the Louis Vuitton store, I went and picked him up, and we were on our way to Queens.
SHIVAM PANDYA (general manager, Victor Victor Worldwide) I left “Joker” in the middle of the movie to go figure it out on site. We had snuck him into a couple of smaller events over the summer. But this one, it was so tense and it was so many people around. There was just no way it was going to happen quietly. We were trying to figure out what the workaround was, and, you know, it was never explicit. They would always say, well, it’s the people hanging out, we can’t have 20 people backstage. OK, well, what if he just shows up with a D.J.? What if he just comes out as a guest performer? It just was frustrating.
CHERIF It would have been freaking viral. But with him not performing, I told my D.J.s, run that Pop Smoke, play “Welcome to the Party.” Every D.J., before their artists went on, they played Pop Smoke.
November and December, 2019
Pop Smoke’s renown was spreading. He worked in the studio for the first time with Migos and performed at his first festivals: Travis Scott’s Astroworld in Houston, and the Los Angeles edition of Rolling Loud. He delivered a few memorable radio freestyles that gained traction on YouTube.
VICTOR He had all the attributes — very, very determined — but in the beginning, he couldn’t see past New York City. He had a show in Albany. Everyone knew all the words. I sent him a video [from the show] and he hit me back and he was like, “Yo, I love you, man. You really changed my life. I couldn’t even imagine this.”
QUAVO (rapper, member of Migos) He was new, but I felt like I was talking to somebody that had been in the game for three years already. When I see somebody like that, I feel like I need to share my information, you know? So I told Steven, “Hey, I’ma big bro him. I’m going to put him down on the dos and don’ts.”
DJ SOURMILK (L.A. Leakers, Los Angeles’s Power 106) One of the first things he did was take one of his chains off and give it to me. He was like, you part of the Woo now.
JUSTIN CREDIBLE (L.A. Leakers, Los Angeles’s Power 106) You could tell that he was [in the radio studio] on a mission. In his freestyle, the combination of the texture of his voice-over that 50 beat [“U Not Like Me”], you could tell that it was well thought out. He knew what this moment was going to do, even maybe more so than me and Milk did in the moment.
PANDYA At Astroworld, he was super excited to know that Travis had handpicked that lineup. They ended up meeting for the first time that afternoon. It was all these people that he was fans of but hadn’t met, just to see that love and energy for them to embrace him and welcome him as one of their own. He’s playing Ping-Pong with Quavo, he’s eating wings and Thug comes up to him. He met Marilyn Manson and had no idea who he was.
Pop Smoke’s music was heavily influenced by U.K. drill; his main producers were all British. After he finally secured a passport, his first overseas trip was to England, the home of the sound that carried him to fame. What he found there was a rabid built-in fan base, and kinship from the country’s stars, including Skepta, who invited him out on the road as an opener.
BENJAMIN LUST (A&R, Victor Victor Worldwide) You wouldn’t believe the hoops and bounds we had to do to get a passport. After we supplied everything, they asked for 10 more forms of identification to prove he is who he is. We had to give his transcript from high school, his contract with Universal Music Group.
DJ SEMTEX (host, London’s Capital XTRA) I’m like, yo, I want to do the first show in London. Booking agent’s worried because he’s new, he’s only got a couple of tracks. I don’t care. I need to bring him to the U.K. first, this guy is hard. I put the tickets on sale at a 600-capacity venue, sells out within 10 minutes; 1,000 capacity — sold out again, straight away. It was a zoo.
SWIRV (producer) We knew how big his songs were over here. Even U.K. drill artists would play the songs on their Snapchat. I just remember that everyone was on their feet for the whole show, even the people up in the stands with the seats. Everyone was recording the whole time.
SKEPTA (rapper) Some of the shows he did were a bit smaller, club shows. Then he comes to my shows and it was maybe 10,000 people. You know how the sound people do this thing sometimes where they turn it down for the opening act and turn it up for the main act? I was going crazy on the sound man because he didn’t turn the sound up. Pop come off and said, “Yo that was crazy” and I said, “Nah man, I’m pissed.” He’s like “Yo Skep, chill, bro, I’m cool. That was lit to me.” He was just appreciative to be able to do it.
SEMTEX When I did my interview with him, he name-checked all the significant U.K. acts. He knew everyone. He knew about new guys. He knew about M24 who is literally three months on the block. He was reciting D-Block Europe’s lyrics. He was the missing link between the U.K. and the U.S. And it’s all organic. The U.K. felt him. They felt like he was part of their artist community.
SKEPTA He knew what he’s doing is really London drill, a mix of grime and drill and the bounce of dancehall. It’s a real London fusion. He was just trying to be about it — really in the streets, not no big entourage. My man came through very, very cool. It’s hard to meet people like that, especially from America sometimes. It’s like you guys are the TV and the rest of the world is watching, so it’s hard to really feel someone properly. But when I met him in real life I was like, wow, this is a real new-age type of gangster rapper.
January and February, 2020
Pop Smoke started the year locked in a studio in the Bahamas, working to complete his second EP, “Meet the Woo 2,” and songs for his debut album.
VICTOR He would always be saying, you’ve got to take me on one of them jets, man. I need to know what that feels like. I said, I’ll rent you a studio and if you want to record, you go record. Or if you want to just chill, you could chill. I’ll get you a jet. It was actually Cristiano Ronaldo’s jet. I didn’t know whose jet it was, I just chartered it.
CASHMONEYAP (producer) Rappers, some of them are not that humble. Pop was very humble. When it was time to work, nothing could bother him. He’d stay in the studio ’til 6 in the morning to finish the song. Pop has all types of records: R&B songs, drill music, trap songs. His voice was so different, and he could use it in so many ways.
50 CENT (rapper and entrepreneur, co-executive producer of “Shoot for the Stars Aim for the Moon”) He would take the records that he really liked, R&B records, rewrite the lyrics, and then use that as a template for how he’s actually singing it, but he would do it with Auto-Tune.
SWIRV I thought we might have time to relax, but legit, every day, straight to the studio. Everyone was locked in. Never got to the beach, not once. He didn’t always want to make drill. Sometimes he’d be in the mood for Afrobeats. He liked a lot of styles of music, so he wanted to experiment with making other sorts of sounds just because he wanted to hear it himself.
808MELO (producer) He knew, I need to do something else, I need to be versatile. I’m trying to be that superstar.
RICOBEATS (Pop Smoke’s manager) In the studio, he needs his gummy bears, that’s a must.
Shortly after the Bahamas trip, Pop Smoke heard from the fashion designer Virgil Abloh, who invited him to attend his shows at Paris Fashion Week. Hip-hop has been knocking at the door of high fashion for years, but Pop’s journey to the front row was strikingly quick.
VIRGIL ABLOH (artistic director of men’s wear, Louis Vuitton; founder, Off-White) I had this vision before he even got to Paris of how that trip was important. I was like, I’m shooting a music video for you because the people need to see you in Paris. You know, it’s like, you’re not just rapping about it, you’re in it now.
PANDYA He was super, super hype on that trip. When we landed in Paris, he made them go to the Eiffel Tower, that’s the first thing he wanted to see. We had lunch at the Hotel Costes and a bunch of the PSG [Paris Saint-Germain] players were there having lunch and they asked to take pictures with him. He didn’t know who they were, and I was explaining to him, this is like the Lakers of soccer.
VICTOR For the Off-White show, he was going to wear some straight Brooklyn [expletive]. I remember I was on FaceTime with him. He was like, “Yo, this what they want me to wear, I’m not wearing this.” I said, “Pop, everybody’s going to take a picture of you in that coat.”
After the Louis Vuitton show, Abloh directed a video for Pop Smoke’s “Shake the Room,” featuring Quavo.
ABLOH Most people would think that afterward, I’m going to have a dinner — very private, French kids smoking, celebrating a great show. Complete opposite. I’m shooting the Pop Smoke video with a renegade crew, like two blocks from my house. I feel like I’m working with 50 Cent after the first single. We get a Ferrari, and my friend goes, “Hey, I’m going to do some donuts, but don’t worry, I’m not going to hit you.” Quavo gets spooked, because he has to play in the [N.B.A.] Celebrity All-Star Game. He’s like, “[expletive] that.” And Pop had no fear. He just stayed there.
QUAVO My guy almost hit me with the 488 Spider.
ABLOH We still talk about that today. It’s Pop’s legacy that he left on us — no fear. Like, I didn’t make it this far to be like, no, I don’t need this shot.
When Pop Smoke returned from Paris on Jan. 17, he was arrested by the F.B.I. at Kennedy International Airport in New York for transporting stolen property across state lines, in connection with a Rolls-Royce Wraith that was reported stolen from Los Angeles. He’d already been arrested by the N.Y.P.D. on Dec. 3 for possession of stolen property; this marked an intensification of law enforcement pressure.
PANDYA Literally we get stopped at customs. You get the printout when you go through the machine and both of us came back with an X on it. They come out and ask for him by name and bring him into the back room. He got out in the afternoon. He was supposed to perform that night at Yams Day [a concert honoring the hip-hop executive ASAP Yams]. We tried to sneak into Yams Day, too. The plan was to walk in through the front door, and then we would somehow get backstage. We got through the metal detectors, but people started to see him, and then one of the security guards recognized him and they radioed to somebody else and then police came and they were like, “Look, get out of here. Otherwise we have to arrest you.” At least they didn’t arrest him.
LUST I’d be going to court with him pretty much once or twice a week. He was fully taking it in stride. Not in like a too-cool-for-school or a naïve way. He’s saying, this is what I expect, I’m blowing up — this is how they respond. He had a very street-smart attitude when it comes to the police.
PETER FRANKEL (Pop Smoke’s attorney) I think that law enforcement believed that they had a lawful basis to make the arrest, but it was clear that there was other information that they were after. They told him as much. I think Pop was at peace with the reality that he was always going to be interrogated and a source of their interest, because he knew that he would never give anyone any information about anybody.
VICTOR I told him the next six months while the case is going on, as long as you don’t do anything wrong — don’t smoke, don’t drink, don’t do drugs — you’re going to be fine. The chances of you going to jail is very low.
LUST We were making no more mistakes. He didn’t need that external motivation of me saying like, no, let me take the champagne glass out of your hand. He very much had self-control. He saw the bigger picture in his career and how it wasn’t worth it.
PANDYA In Miami during Super Bowl weekend, I felt there was people there watching. He had certain restrictions on his case, where you can’t associate with certain people or drink or drugs. I feel like it was definitely agents in those clubs, people who looked extremely out of place. One night we were at Booby Trap and we had some people from a streaming company and some label execs from Universal, not your typical crowd at 4 a.m. And there was detectives who looked even more out of place to me than those guys did, you know?
The day after his airport arrest, Pop Smoke had a meeting with someone who would permanently alter his perspective on his career: 50 Cent. In a sense, he’d been leading up to this moment for months. 50 represented, to him, the possibility of a career without compromise.
50 CENT The experience was a little weird. Because when I first started talking to him in the office, I was watching and he would look down at his telephone. He was typing at the same time. And there was a point where I’m like, is he listening? I got up so I can kind of see what he was doing, and when I got to the other side of the table, he wasn’t not paying attention to me, he was just writing what I said down. Dead serious.
VICTOR 50’s talking to him about, you know, “Do you want to be in ‘Power’? Do you want to do movies?’” Later on, 50 would tell me, he was like studying him. Because he’s like, yo, I want to know, is he mocking me? Or does he really like me? Is that his real voice, is this really how he acts? Or is he playing a character?
So through that 50 realizes, oh, this kid is really like me. He’s really about that action. He was asking Pop leading questions. Pop is answering them. And he’s like, “Bro, you do not want to be doing that. All the guns, you got to stop that right now. I get it. It’s something that’s necessary because of the life you lead and the people that’s around you, but you, you, you can’t be doing that. Because they’re waiting for you to [expletive] up. And your friends are not really your friends. They’re waiting for you to [expletive] up, too.” He was like, “You could either continue down that path and there’s a high chance that you’ll end up in jail or dead, or you can do this.” Pop is like, “What’s this?” He’s like, “What I got going on! I sold 30 million records. I’m rich. I’m doing movies. I can get anybody on the phone. I could do anything. And this could be you.” I think after that, he realized that he could be himself and be a megastar.
ANGIE MARTINEZ (host, New York’s Power 105.1) 50 felt like he saw something in him that reminded him of himself — he told me that.
VICTOR He’d be with me and it’d be all good and he’d go back to the hood, because he loved the hood. It wasn’t until I took him to go see 50 that he completely did a 360.
In February, Pop Smoke released “Meet the Woo 2.” The drill scene in which he’d found his first footing was still active, with a few other rappers signed to major label deals, but he was already expanding his sonic approach beyond that sound into more radio-familiar styles.
PANDYA When you have something that’s hot, your phone is ringing off the hook and any phone call you make is just getting picked up first ring. Any crazy idea that Steven had it was like, all right, cool, we can do it.
MARTINEZ I really hadn’t been doing any interviews yet [after recovering from a car crash]. When they asked me about Pop, it just felt right. When he came, he showed up with these incredible cookies and flowers, which is so sweet. We did this great interview, and then my favorite part was that he stayed in the studio with me, he was playing me new music. He played me a girl song. It reminded me of this old Lost Boyz song, “Renee.” He didn’t know it. I gave him homework.
PANDYA We had a listening party in Brooklyn, and that was like a tense night, dealing with the police and making sure that went off without a hitch. When that was successful, that was like a sigh of relief.
QUAVO His album release party, I think the police tried to shut it down. I still pulled up — I showed up even when everybody was out of the building. I was the last person to walk in, just to let him know I was there.
50 CENT The first two tapes versus this album? You’re going to see that we really just lost something big. He said to me he wanted to take his mother to an award show. I would like to be able to do that.
RICOBEATS He told me he’s going to start telling kids, don’t go the gang route. He was trying to be a better person. In the last two months, he was completely changing. In the environment, he was in and the things that he went through, it was hard for him to show that big heart that he had. He always had to be on defense. That really wasn’t what he wanted to be every day.
SKEPTA He’s really missed. That one hit London hard. It’s the first time we’ve embraced someone and they’ve embraced us the same — not for no clout, it was real.
50 CENT What you see when you talk to me is what happens when you get rich. What happened to Pop is what happens when you die trying.
VICTOR It’s been stressful but also kind of a relief to be working on finishing the album — it’s like he’s still here. Because once the record is out, that means he’s really gone.
Jon Caramanica is a pop music critic for The Times and the host of the Popcast. He also writes the men's Critical Shopper column for Styles. He previously worked for Vibe magazine and has written for the Village Voice, Spin, XXL, and more. @joncaramanica
Date Posted: Thursday, June 25th, 2020 , Total Page Views: 336
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