On February 24, Russia breached the Ukrainian border, invading the country from four directions. Immediately, the western world mobilized in support of the Ukrainian people: #IStandWithUkraine trended globally, and brands everywhere shared messages of solidarity, sporting the Ukrainian flag. In a rare first, people seemed to be mostly united on a topic of international affairs: the Ukrainian people needed support, and anyone fleeing the casualties of war should absolutely have the right to be afforded shelter and protection. Unfortunately, the hidden caveat of international diplomacy is that it is predicated on a global framework of anti-Blackness, and the current conflict is no exception.
Originally published for Refinery29 on January 7th, 2022.
Over the last couple of years, streaming services have expanded their offerings of projects based in France. While Netflix’s international team has been licensing content and producing original programming in French for some time, the platform struck gold withEmily in Paris, a sanguine — or almost unbearably saccharine, depending on which side of the Atlantic ocean you ask — series which centers Lily Collins as Emily, a doe-eyed All-American girl eager to bring her Yankee sensibilities to the City of Love. A few months after EIP’s ubiquitous debut came Lupin in January 2021, a thriller series starring Omar Sy and inspired by the beloved character Arsène Lupin of books, comics, cartoon, and film — a master of disguise and thievery, nearly always portrayed as a white man. While both shows have been runaway hits, they have also been criticized for not having a balanced representation of France, specifically for lacking Black women in any major speaking roles. The reflexive irritation is understandable, as on-screen representation is a common reference point used to reflect the significance of any demographic in the narrative being told. But in French popular media, this glaring omission is actually pretty standard.In Emily in Paris, which debuted its second season last month with a new Black male lead (Lucien Laviscount as Alfie), Black women are barely seen in the background of the streets of Paris, save for an occasional view in the periphery, tucked away from view, up until a fashion show at Versailles. Even in the halls of the historic palace, the women remain as voiceless ornaments for the garish aesthetic of a queer Black male designer (portrayed by Jeremy O. Harris), using the sheer presence of their bodies and all of their twerking, voguing, and ballroom contortions in such a revered space to make his mark as an outsider in the French fashion establishment. Black femmes were used for nothing but spectacle.
“I love water. I love praying into the water before I get to a bath, or even just to take a shower,” says Juju Bae, a Hoodoo and Ifa practitioner who speaks about Black traditional religions on her podcast, A Little Juju. “Even if I’m not always putting all the good juju in the water, water in itself is holy. Water itself can hold your intention.”
In many Black spiritual practices that predate colonial interactions, there has long been a reverence for water and cleansing. These rituals and concepts have been preserved and transported to the Americas and beyond as a byproduct of the Trans-Atlantic Slave trade. They can be found in everything from African Traditional Religions and their descendants, such as Ifa and Black American Hoodoo, to the cultural syncretism embedded in Black expressions of Abrahamic religions.
“Water has no enemy,” says Juju Bae. “It cleanses us physically, it cleanses us spiritually.” She emphasizes that in many African Traditional Religions, water is venerated and viewed as a life source. In the West, she notes, that reverence for nature isn’t typically quite as significant. This has a distinct effect on Black people’s contemporary relationship to water and its multifaceted uses. And in recent months, an aversion to water, soap, or any kind of hygienic tool or practice has been brought to the forefront of our cultural discourse.
One day in 1992, Angélique Kidjo walked into a magazine editor’s office and found herself being introduced over the phone to one of her all-time favorite artists.
“Someone said, ‘Mrs. Kidjo, Mr. Brown wants to talk to you,’” she recalls. In stunned disbelief, she replied, “Yeah, and I’m Mother Teresa.” But it really was James Brown, the Godfather of Soul himself, asking to talk to her.
“I almost dropped the phone,” she continues. “He was speaking, and I couldn’t understand, so I started singing. He picked up the song and I would do the bassline, I would do the guitar, I would do the drums — just like, crazy stuff.”
It’s just one of a sea of stories of Kidjo meeting and collaborating with all-time greats across generations. Over the course of her three-decade long career, Kidjo, 60, has dipped into the vast well of legendary artists and performers across the black diaspora — taking inspiration from South African artist and activist Miriam Makeba, Cuban salsa icon Celia Cruz, Aretha Franklin, and many more. She has collaborated with many of the African continent’s greatest legends, from the bluesy stylings of Boubacar Traoré to Manu Dibango’s Cameroonian jazz saxophone lyricism.
After a storied career of paying her respects through endless innovation within black sonic canons, she has the distinct honor of being exalted on the level of the artists she adores, with young artists throughout the international black community often referring to her as “Ma” or grande soeur. Now, she is paying that respect forward wherever possible — including rounding out her latest album, Mother Nature, with collaborative features from emerging young artistic voices in the African continent and its diaspora, ranging from Nigerian star Burna Boy to Atlanta hip-hop duo Earthgang .
Originally published for LEVEL on January 4, 2021.
More so than other years, 2020 has been encapsulated by grief. Confinement borne of an unforeseen pandemic has forced most of the world to wallow in the depth of its losses and empowered this anguish to strangle us in its isolating grip until it knows most of us by name. Poet Cheryl Boyce-Taylor, however, has been walking this path of grief for years — ever since her beloved son, A Tribe Called Quest’s Malik Izaak “Phife Dawg” Taylor, lost his long fight with diabetes in 2016.
Taylor speaks grief’s language. She has an intimate familiarity with how the waves of emotion can crescendo into maddening heights, giving way to the empty ache left behind. That closeness gives way to clarity in her newest book: Mama Phife Represents, a delicate latticework of remembrance out this week that explores the days following Phife’s passing in print, photo, and sketch. In doing so, it finds a way to reexamine and reshape how we honor our beloveds in both life and death.
The practice of elegy — rooted in the ancient Greek word elegos, meaning “mournful song” — is a time-honored classical tradition, commonly served in the form of the elegiac couplet. It’s the framework in which English Renaissance poet Ben Jonson laments the loss of his first son, the means by which American great Walt Whitman honors Abraham Lincoln in the oft-referenced “O Captain! My Captain!” But conventions are made to be broken, and the mother of the Funky Diabetic, whose group made its indelible impact in hip-hop with transcendent, unorthodox projects such as People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm, delivers nothing less than an offering that honors her familial legacy. The book moves between couplets and freeform prose, pivoting to anecdotes, lyrics, and dreams with an ease and musicality that transport you between the worlds of Malik the man and Phife Dawg the persona—the universes of Linden Boulevard, the superstardom of Tribe, and the cultural anchor that remained in their homeland of Trinidad and Tobago.
Since catapulting to the top of the French charts, multi-platinum Malian-born artist Aya Danioko has been given countless labels. In one breath, she is abbreviated as an Afro-pop artist, the next bundled into France’s robust and increasingly populous rap scene, teeming with talent from Paris to Marseille.
Her success has frequently been minimized as a novelty act, despite being the most listened-to contemporary French act in the world. Her international smash hit “Djadja”—from her sublime second album, 2018’s Nakamura—placed her on a feminist pedestal she was reluctant to embrace. Her detractors looked at her unflappable demeanor as a tall dark-skinned woman, churning out hit after hit in France’s cis-male dominated music industry, and pegged her as overly cocksure.
The clearest signal in the noise, however, lies in the labels she gives herself, indicating her creative essence long before she became a mainstay on Spotify. Her performing surname, Nakamura, comes from the character Hiro Nakamura of the superhero series Heroes; a warrior who, through sheer force of will, can bend space and time, transporting himself to different worlds. This has been Aya’s superpower since the days of her 2017 debut Journal Intime—playing with the universes of not just Afrobeats, but zouk, R&B, and pop to layer in her penetrating musings on life, love, and freedom.
Last month, Brazilian national Larissa Lima was briefly detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), placed in removal proceedings, and released on her own recognizance pending a hearing to determine her eligibility to remain in the United States. On the surface, this may look like yet another story of a disenfranchised undocumented immigrant targeted by the government. Lima’s predicament, however, is a distinct scenario: She has risen in notoriety as a star of TLC’s booming 90 Day Fiancé franchise, touted by network president Howard Lee as “our version of a Marvel Comics Universe.”
Built around the K-1, or “fiancé visa,” 90 Day Fiancé debuted in 2014. It was quickly followed by several spin-offs including Happily Ever After?, prequel series Before the 90 Days, and specials for breakout participants. The fodder is never-ending, with no signs of deceleration.
On the evening of May 30, protesters and police swarmed the streets of Flatbush, a predominantly Black American and West Indian enclave in Brooklyn. It marked one of the most fraught nights of conflict since the uprisings started taking place within the five boroughs. Hundreds of arrests and violent incidents were documented by phone between residents and the police; tear gas spilled in the streets. Late into the evening, after cops successfully kettled protesters between two streets, the atmosphere shifted. Violence escalated, and the gospel that had been blasting in the background changed into the sounds that resonated with the youth. Brooklyn drill hits “Welcome to the Party” and “Dior” filled the air as cop cars burned in the background.
Months after his untimely death — a still unresolved home invasion and murder in a California residence — Pop Smoke (aka Bashar Jackson) lives again. The music of Brooklyn’s beloved drill phenom filling the streets as young people united under their feelings of distress and unrest with a world they’ve been forced to accept.
News of Pop’s death was a tragic loss that is still reverberating across New York City — especially the borough of Brooklyn. Streams of his music skyrocketed soon after his transition out of this world, and for weeks, one would be hard pressed to walk down Flatbush or Flatlands Avenue without hearing the song that broke him into the mainstream, “Welcome to the Party,” or his biggest single, “Dior.” On Flatlands Avenue and E 82nd Street, a mural was created in his honor, the first of three. It stood prominently in the background during the funeral procession, where it felt as if his entire hometown neighborhood of Canarsie spilled out into the streets to honor his life — a majestic display not seen in Kings County since the passing of legendary rapper Notorious B.I.G. As noted by culture critic Ivie Ani for The Fader, their musical trajectories echo one another: two young men of West Indian descent who became the pride of their respective Brooklyn enclaves, robbed of what had the promise of being magnificent careers.
A melancholy of Pop’s passing was that he never got to have the triumphant homecoming moment in the city that raised him, thanks to the ever-looming shadow of the NYPD. In October 2019, the “Boys in Blue” requested that he be removed from the lineup at Rolling Loudthe day before the event in question “due to public safety concerns,” claiming his shows were affiliated with unnamed “recent acts of violence citywide.” Upon his return from Paris Fashion Week, Pop was arrested at John F. Kennedy Airport and charged with interstate transportation of a stolen vehicle mere hours before a scheduled performance at the Barclays Center honoring deceased A$AP Mob founder and collaborator A$AP Yams. (Those charges have since been dismissed.) The Sunday before his passing, Flatbush’s Kings Theater hosted Brooklyn’s first drill concert, BK Drip, with Pop Smoke featured on the bill. Eventgoers were still regrettably greeted with the message “due to unforeseen circumstances, Pop Smoke will not perform at tonight’s show” as they entered the venue, the space saturated by a heavy police and security presence throughout the largely successful evening.
Pop Smoke’s discography has always been a form of protest — defiant, transgressive, and transformative no matter the space in which it’s consumed. Drill wasn’t necessarily made for the club, but with his frequent partner 808Melo, Pop crafted melodies that existed on multiple levels — simultaneously euphoric and ominous, depending on the mood.
Songs like “PTSD,” “Scenario,” and “Better Have Your Gun” from his first project, Meet the Woo, all now hit different, transforming into a perfect encapsulation of the frenetic, rebellious energy now coursing through the veins of every New Yorker marching through its streets. Track after track, Pop litters acknowledgments to treasured friends who are still making their way through the prison industrial complex, using his distinctive gravelly inflection to depict the extent in which police interference has become accepted as part of their day-to-day life and interactions. On “Better Have Your Gun,” Pop references Tupac’s “All Eyez On Me”— the slain California rapper’s first track after being released from prison — and East Flatbush rapper Shyne’s “Commission.” “What the f*ck is you telling me?” he warns. “I got the pedigree/In the hood, I’m fighting felonies.”
When “Dior,” a track about aspirational accomplishment, is juxtaposed with a burning cop car or a melee in Soho or a cascade of faces parading down Eastern Parkway, the coalescence of energy feels nearly elemental. Pop Smoke’s music threaded together the chaos, fury, trauma, hope, and joy in New Yorkers in a way that no one else had done in quite some time. That accomplishment alone is feat enough to unify a sea of now-burgeoning activists who are screaming to be heard in a system that continues to take Black lives for granted. Pop predicted as much on the JACKBOYS and Travis Scott collaboration “Gatti”: “You cannot say Pop and forget the smoke.”
POP SMOKE’S DISCOGRAPHY HAS ALWAYS BEEN A FORM OF PROTEST — DEFIANT, TRANSGRESSIVE, AND TRANSFORMATIVE NO MATTER THE SPACE IN WHICH IT’S CONSUMED.
Pop Smoke’s posthumous debut album, originally slated for June 12, has now been pushed back to July 3; Smoke’s estate shifted in lockstep with the rhythm in Brooklyn. As Steven Victor, CEO of record label Victor Victor Worldwide, explained, though they’ve “seen Pop’s music become the soundtrack of the moment, unifying the masses,” they’ve still “decided to delay the release of his album out of respect for the movement.”
Posthumous adoration inevitably invites speculation of what could have been and what was lost. In the case of Pop, a young man who repped his Panamanian heritage as much as he did his Canarsie hometown, New Yorkers waited for the homecoming track with fellow Brooklynite and Panamanian Bobby Shmurda — his own saga a reflection of the fundamentally broken injustice system. Shmurda is due to be released from prison at the end of the year, but their collaboration is now a reverie that has dissolved into the ether. Pop Smoke, however, still left behind a breadth of work, with rumors of existing collabs from his spiritual forebear 50 Cent, to the “African Giant” Burna Boy himself. A clip of him flipping a sample of Tamia’s “Into You” made the rounds not long after his death to great acclaim, yet another testament to his deceptive versatility across soundscapes. The announcement of his upcoming album allows for endless possibilities in the formation of his legacy, particularly with recent events reframing the context in which his music will now be received. What themes will his project be centered around post-mortem? What boundary will he break next? How will he continue to shake the room from beyond the grave?
When the clock struck midnight on Thursday, fans were gifted the first single off his debut. The gripping “Make It Rain” repurposes lyrics from his appearance on Lil Tjay’s “Zoo York” into a commanding hook, and is coda-ed by an exceptional verse from Bobby Shmurda’s GS9 comrade-in-arms Rowdy Rebel, delivered via a prepaid correctional facility call. “Hello, this is a prepaid call from… Bobby Babayyy!!!” If there was ever a song that tangibly reflects the framework of pain and loss that reverberates around the fringes of New York’s rap scene, it’s this one: Pop Smoke delivering his signature timbre from beyond the grave and Rowdy Rebel getting “the call behind the wall,” triumphantly rising to the challenge, awaiting his moment of redemption as the streets scream “no justice, no peace.” It’s eerily timely, and as defiant as ever. You would expect nothing less.
Two decades ago, Notorious B.I.G.’s final studio project, Life After Death, was released two weeks after his death, already fairly complete. It was a double album replete with mafioso themes and ominous double entendres set to the signature captivating storytelling that made Biggie Smalls an unparalleled talent. On closing track “You’re Nobody (Til Somebody Kills You)” he raps, “Sh*t’s official, only the Feds I fear.” Even on a song full of bravado and swagger, the specter of law enforcement looms large enough to make for an uncannily prophetic epilogue. In 2020, that oeuvre remains ever-present in artists like Pop Smoke, who vocalize tension with the police state on songs that portray trauma, bluster, survival, elation, and trying to find revelry amongst it all. That, more than anything, resonates in the youth that take to the streets day after day, fighting for freedom from the oppressive scrutiny that has for so long gripped their lives.
Originally published for Fader Magazine. Photos taken by Ibrahem Hasan.
On October 12, Rolling Loud — the self-identified “largest hip-hop festival in the world” — was scheduled to make a triumphant debut in rap mecca New York City. That Saturday morning, however, there was a change of plans: five acts had been removed from the lineup at the behest of the NYPD, who cited “public safety concerns” and local rappers’ alleged affiliations with “recent acts of violence citywide.”
The artists in question — 22Gz, Casanova, Sheff G, Don Q, and Pop Smoke — are at the forefront of New York’s bustling drill scene. With roots in Chicago, New York drill is an aggressive, youth-driven rap sound that frequently juxtaposes somber, refracted trap instrumentation with intense, live-wire lyricism, buoyed by the heaviness of the patented New York accent. Drill has been on the rise in the five boroughs for years, and dominated the city this summer.
No song better exemplifies the raw grit, energy, and reckless potential of a New York summer than Pop Smoke’s “Welcome to the Party,” a street track that quickly shot to several million views on YouTube. Veering between taut, pithy phraseology and panoramic storytelling, the ominous opening melody made any occasion five times more lively regardless of the venue; to date, I’ve heard it played at a house party, brunch, the club, an Afrobeats concert, and on my block in East Flatbush. Once the track was supplemented by official remixes from people like Nicki Minaj, French Montana, and Skepta, it was indisputable: The summer belonged to an upstart who came onto the scene only about a year ago.
Despite his rapid ubiquity, Pop Smoke only found out the day before the festival that he wasn’t going to be able to perform at Rolling Loud. (Rolling Loud declined to comment, although they have publicly stated that they paid the banned artists their full booking fees and offered them spots at other iterations of Rolling Loud across the country.) “That was a bummer,” Pop Smoke tells me when we first meet. It’s ten days after Rolling Loud debacle; he was supposed to perform this evening at Powerhouse Live, the pre-party for local hip-hop station Power 105.1’s annual Powerhouse concert — but his set was again cancelled the day before, seemingly because of the NYPD’s intervention into Rolling Loud. “The radio knows not to say my name no more,” he says.
This kind of censorship due to police interference isn’t a newfound phenomenon, even as it pertains to drill. In Chicago and London, the music has become another source of tension between law enforcement and the communities they are expected to serve, creating moral panics that are frequently debated in the public sphere. Chicago artists have consistently fought being linked to spikes in violence in the city’s South Side; in London, Metropolitan police commissioner Cressida Dick said in a radio interview that “We have gangs who make drill videos and in those videos, they taunt each other. They say what they’re going to do to each other and specifically what they are going to do to who.”
British authorities went so far as to charge two artists for performing their own songs; years before drill’s current mainstream moment in New York, Flatbush’s own Bobby Shmurda was arrested in 2014 and eventually accepted a plea deal. At one press conference, NYPD Assistant Chief James Essig described the music of Shmurda and his friends as “almost like a real-life document of what they were doing on the street.” Casanova went on Instagram the morning the Rolling Loud cancellations were announced to express his frustration, typing, “I JUST WANNA LIVE. My last felony conviction was 2007. I lost everything I ever loved and I’m STILL losing.”
Pop Smoke’s life story is one of resilience, and not even the NYPD will deter him from claiming his title as King of the Summer. When we meet at St. Bartholomew’s Church after a photoshoot, I’m warned that he’s dealing with some “rough personal news” he isn’t willing to disclose, and that he may not be in the best of spirits. But by the time he approaches me, he possesses a cocksure demeanor and charm that matches nicely with his signature diamond-encrusted nameplate chain. With his Power 105.1 performance nixed, we go to dinner at Philippe Chow’s, his longtime friends Trav and Ace tagging along. “What’s your name? You like Starburst gummies?” he asks, smiling and hugging me before putting me into a cab.
Born Bashar Jackson, the 20-year-old Pop Smoke was raised in Brooklyn’s Canarsie neighborhood, a southern corner of the borough with a predominantly West Indian presence. He grew up in a Panamanian household with a strong female presence and had an early love of sports, playing baseball, football and basketball. This natural aptitude for sports enabled Pop Smoke to go to prep school in Philadelphia at the age of 15 on a full scholarship — but trouble found him after about a year, and he returned back to his home turf.
“You can take the kid out the hood, but you can’t take the hood out the kid,” he says. “I went to go get some food [in Philly]… these guys were in front of the corner store, I walk in to the spot, they said some crazy shit to me, and we just end up rumbling.” Returning to New York, his hoop dreams ended. “I thought I was gonna go to Howard, go over there and join a fraternity,” he says. “It wasn’t always rapping. Who would have thought I would be a rapper?”
In just under a year, Smoke has had a career boom that many artists have never come close to accomplishing. He picked up a microphone for the first time while arranging the track “MPR” over a beat he discovered online by East London-based producer 808Melo, beginning a close collaborative relationship between the two. “I knew it hit because it got leaked, and when it leaked, everybody was jacking the song,” he says. “And when it hit I was like, Yo, we got something here, and I kept going.”
Since then, he has continued to set in motion a cadence of new music releases that have rippled throughout the New York street scene. Songs such as “Meet the Woo” and “Flexin’” all buzzed online, but it was “Welcome to the Party” that crested over and into the mainstream, bringing New York drill into the limelight.
Pop Smoke now finds himself at the cutting edge of a local rap movement largely composed of young men from outer-borough neighborhoods overwhelmingly populated by various parts of the Black diaspora: East Flatbush, Canarsie, Jamaica, Brownsville. This environment has deeply informed their soundscape and aesthetic, building from a base that goes back to 2milly and GS9 with the “Milly Rock” and the “Shmoney Dance.”; lyrics by New York’s drill rappers reference not just the sets and neighborhoods they proudly represent, but the parlance affixed to the households they grew up in.
On “Meet the Woo,” Pop Smoke raps, “I turn that boy to a duppy” — a patois word for a malevolent spirit or ghost, whipping the phrase around with his distinct gravelly timbre. Even the moniker Pop Smoke is partially borne of his familial heritage; his grandfather gave him the nickname Poppa, and it stuck. The assumed surname Smoke came from the streets, where he was called “Smoke Oh Guap.” In his eyes, he says, there isn’t a distinction between one family and another.
When I ask him how his immediate family feels about his sudden fame, he looks around the table at our corner booth in the modern, bustling Beijing-style restaurant in Midtown Manhattan, pointing at his two boys. As we pick from platters of satay, lobster, prawns, and bok choy, they’ve been comfortably interjecting into our conversation and bantering about everything from music to parties to debates about eating ass. “This is my immediate family,” Pop Smoke says.
Having reciprocal experiences rooted in being part of an emerging class of predominantly first-generation, third culture children, it’s understandable — if not expected — that the through line to New York’s drill runs strongest not from Chicago, despite having deep respect for their musical forebears, but the UK. Like their peers in London, New York drill rappers are generating a musical output that owes to their cultural lineage, while also holding a magnifying glass up to the streets where they grew up. But for Pop Smoke, associations with drill, while itself a diverse soundbase, overly simplify what he considers his art to be. “I make gangsta music,” he clarifies. “Bitch I’m a thot, get me lit. That’s not drill. Y’all know what it is, but that’s not drill. When you think of drill it’s like, Pull up we airing it out.”
The “air it out” aesthetic, as he refers to it, can nonetheless be heard in songs of his like “Flexin’,” where he pushes air out of his chest in a rapid, aggressive cadence that can feel like the lyrical analog of a rapid-fire weapon. But he easily weaves from that approach to talking about fashion, women, and money in a manner that comfortably creates a linkage between him and New York’s most infamous antagonist of the early aughts, 50 Cent – his song “PTSD” sounds, at points, almost eerily akin to the cadence of the South Jamaica, Queens, bred rapper.
The life cycle for each new Pop Smoke song starts with him stepping in the booth and defining the vibe; he laid the foundation for “Welcome to the Party” in around 30 minutes. It’s a skill that has emerged from his natural banter; at dinner, before discussing a recent sexual encounter with a woman at a local party, he leans back into his seat and, with a tenderness in his voice, simply says, “Yo, different, bro. Different.”
“Everything I make just be like, vibes,” he explains. “Yesterday I made a song called ‘Drive the Boat.’ I just made it cuz I seen a girl go like that” – mimicking the motion made popular by Houston-based rapper Megan the Stallion – “talking about ‘Drive the boat.’ About to drive the boat with the liquor. So I’m like, hey, I just made a song called ‘Drive the Boat.’ I gotta have some inspiration. That’s when the best music comes up for me.” Regarding the track “Dior,” he simply states, “When I made that I had just got on Dior.” I teasingly reply that he was decked out in Gucci earlier today, to which he quickly replies, “Double G, niggas know there’s only one of me,” lyrics from his brief album cut “Hawk Em.”
As Pop Smoke gets bigger, and with the NYPD already deeming him a danger, he may find himself juxtaposed against the rise and spectacular fall of Tekashi69, the most recent superstar come out of Brooklyn. But there’s a world of difference between them: Tekashi offered a curated narrative, accelerating quickly into cultural relevance by performing the allure of a lifestyle that he only ever participated in by proxy, while Pop Smoke is parsing apart a lived experience highly relevant to a homegrown fan base that’s invested in protecting him from the authorities’ obstructive power.
Pop Smoke’s life — from his songs down to his every interaction — is an exercise in discerning what can be safely shared under constantly surveilling eyes, even as he engages in the many indulgences of a young cis adult male with minimal impulse control (despite it being 2019, him and his friends haven’t received the memo on the abundant use of “no homo” and “pause” in casual speech). Take the title of his album, Meet the Woo: Over the past year, he has replied slyly when asked what “The Woo” stands for. One day it’s about being flossy, the other it’s purely a dance move, akin to 22Gz’ Blixky Twirl (a quick glance at the Youtube comments section from lifelong New Yorkers will make it plain that there’s more to the dance than just a sequence of steps). Over the course of our conversation, when I begin to mention how most born-and-bred New Yorkers (especially from the outer boroughs) know that such references are to real things, he looks on with a slight twinkle in his eye and simply replies, “That’s a real thing?”
Pop Smoke says that he’s relatively unconcerned about his threshold for exposure, but still talks cryptically about the lifestyle that he and his friends grew into. “We ain’t have nothing else to do,” he says. “What’s already understood don’t gotta be explained. We been there done that already.” He points out that he’s getting money now: “Beef — talking to people that don’t really have anything going for themselves — doesn’t really help you get any money. It’s just potential bail that you have to pay. Know what I’m saying? We’ve been there already, we not trying to go back to that.”
Still, that hasn’t eliminated their interactions with the authorities. He points out the vast swath of luxury cars that he and his crew have acquired, recalling some extreme measures that he and his crew took to make it to a performance with French Montana in the Bronx: “That nigga did some shit, bro,” Smoke says. “We got there on time though,” Trav responds. “We got there before French!” Pop readily confirms, putting on his best French Montana impersonation. “He said, Pop! What y’all up to, bruh?’ I said, Nigga, if you wanna know what we just did just to get here? He said, Hey man, y’all niggas crazy, man. Y’all niggas just crazy. Park that shit up, get in the car.” Pop chuckles, adding, “I love French.”
The respect seems mutual. French, who says he’s always watching for new talent coming out of his hometown, has been one of the major cosigns as Pop Smoke has risen. “He was buzzing out of Brooklyn and it sparked my radar, same way it did with the whole GS9 movement,” French tells me. “I just remember how I felt when Jadakiss heard my song and jumped on it. I always want to be able to do that for other up and coming rappers like he did for me.” He adds: “When you make it out of New York, you can make it out of anywhere. When you make it out before anyone really knows you, that says a lot about you.”
Earlier, over our crustacean-filled dinner, French graced the table with his virtual presence, FaceTiming with Pop to briefly discuss a potential track with “Welcome to the Party” producer and frequent Pop collaborator 808MeloBeats. After promising to send him a pack of beats, Pop asks French about a far more pressing concern. “You told Drake about me? What he said? He said he jacking it?” he asks. “Hell yeah!” French replies from Los Angeles, where he was attending Drakes 33rd birthday party. (French gifted Drake a $175,000 diamond-encrusted bracelet). “That’s love,” Smoke says back. “You already kicked it off. If you and Drake get on some shit…”
A feature from someone like Drake would put Pop Smoke on a different path moving forward. He exploded on the scene without much more than the range of his vocal inflections and the army of friends behind him in every video. “That was my goal — do it by yourself, beat the odds,” he says. “Cuz when you do it by yourself, it hit different. I always knew, Imma be a millionaire. I always knew I was gonna have bread. I always was good with knowing how to talk, knowing how to hustle.”
Pop Smoke takes out his phone and shows me a video clip of his performance in Albany on Instagram. “The love that I’m getting…where we come from, I never really felt love like that.” The remainder of his Instagram, though, is surprisingly sparse for a Gen Z artist, primarily serving as a promotional vehicle for his work. Having previously said that the internet is “federale shit,” he clarifies, “I’m not into what comes with it. The internet is fire.”
Part of this reticence may be influenced by his first brush with online notoriety, which came in the form of an infamous video that went viral on WorldStarHipHop in 2012. Titled “Young Crip Gets Slapped by NY Bloods After Taking Out Beads,” the video shows a baby-faced, 13-year-old Pop Smoke being taken advantage of by people in East Flatbush who used the power of public humiliation against him. Almost seven years later, the first upload on his official YouTube channel remains eight seconds long, and is simply titled “POP SMOKE SMACKS OPP SHAPOW!!!!” In part of the description, it states, “Now tables turned and Pop Smoke shows the Blood member how you really shapow somebody.”
As the evening comes to a close, we’re approached by our server with a modest request; the man’s son, who also works at the restaurant, wants to take a photo with Pop Smoke. Rattling off “PTSD,” “Scenario,” and “Dior,” as his favorite songs, he earnestly proclaims that his day doesn’t start until he has a chance to ride his bicycle while listening to Meet the Woo.
That Saturday night, Meek Mill stepped out onto the Powerhouse stage at New Jersey’s Prudential Center; during his set, he brings out Young M.A, one recent New York rapper to enjoy freedom from the NYPD. But the energy completely changes when Meek manages to sneak Pop Smoke to perform both “Dior” and “Welcome to the Party.” With the entire stadium in lockstep, Pop Smoke and his crew perform his summer smash for the greater New York area’s last major festival for the rest of the year. The message is clear: the NYPD can do what they want, but New York City isn’t leaving Pop Smoke’s side.