The Brooklyn rapper, whose life was tragically cut short, was spearheading the transatlantic exchange of drill music
Writing an obituary for a young, upcoming artist you were supposed to be writing an introductory profile on is, to be quite frank, heart-breaking. I was meant to interview Pop Smoke last week, but our rendezvous was cancelled last minute because the 20-year-old rapper had been up all night in the studio with London producer and regular collaborator 808 Melo, using his time in the city to make music rather than partying or doing press. We rescheduled the interview for April, when he was due to be back in town to perform at an already sold-out show at London’s O2 Kentish Town forum.
The rising face – and voice – of Brooklyn’s drill scene, Pop Smoke notably used UK producers and beats as a springboard for a distinctive New York sound, often resembling 50 Cent at his prime. Pop cited 50 as one of his favourite rappers growing up, and the influence on his rap style (referred to by one writer as “music to throw cinder blocks at people to”) is undeniable. The first time I heard him was when one of my friends put “Welcome to the Party” on at a gathering in my house last year; it’s no exaggeration to say none of us spoke throughout the whole song, watching the music video with our mouths open in awe as this US rapper, barely out of his teenage years, spat fire over beats we’d come to associate with UK drill. I wanted more than anything to attend the party he was welcoming us to, one I imagined would be the best party ever.
Pop Smoke quickly became one of my favourite new artists. He established himself on his own terms on Meet the Woo, a nine-track release with no features, but by the time he was releasing Meet the Woo Vol. 2 just over six months later, artists like Quavo, Gunna, and Lil Tjay were all clamouring to work with him. Pop Smoke was a brand new artist who had started rapping almost by accident (he only recorded his first track because a friend got so high he fell asleep in a recording studio, leaving Pop with little else to do), but there was a sense that he was someone the more established names of rap needed to impress, rather than the other way around.
Meet the Woo Vol. 2 was released just earlier this month, a timeframe that feels almost impossible in its immediateness, and quickly hit number seven on the Billboard Top 200. His flow across the record was all him, an unmistakable sandpaper rasp that provided a glimpse of New York rap’s next iteration and the transatlantic drill exchange he was spearheading. Remixes of his breakout single, Welcome to The Party, included guest verses from Nicki Minaj and Skepta - artists who are arguably the major artists of New York and London respectively and emblematic of the global sound he was championing.
Pop Smoke was a genuinely exciting new artist, a peek of the future of rap. His sudden and painful loss will be felt on both sides of the Atlantic. It’s difficult to summarise a career that was so tragically short, but in the few months he was around, the Brooklyn native managed to not only establish NY drill as a force to be reckoned with, but also renew an interest in New York hip hop in general.
Below are five of the songs that established him as a major player in the rap game in the short time he was with us. RIP Pop Smoke.