The Pop Smoke phenomenon: How the late rapper became a superstar in death
Brooklyn’s boy king was killed before he could release his debut album – but a year on from his death, his music is bigger than ever.
Gangster rapper Pop Smoke was supposed to lead US hip-hop into an exciting new era. His uniquely parched vocals suggested he ate cigarettes for breakfast every morning. The nonchalant swagger that imbued his music made even the way he repeated the word “OK” – which was swiftly made into a meme – sound as if it could be the hook to a hit record. Exhilarating Pop Smoke tracks like “Christopher Walking”, “Welcome to the Party” and “Invincible” each bottled the energy of free-falling between two skyscrapers, cape flapping behind, as the street-smart MC convincingly framed himself as a black superhero.
Last summer, the rapper’s breakout 2019 single “Dior” became fuel for the Black Lives Matter movement, as videos emerged of protestors dancing along to it as they marched in New York City, changing its refrain up with the name “George Floyd”. As a result, Pitchfork called the song a “radical” addition to the protest music canon, as Smoke’s low growls and otherworldly confidence suggested defiance and standing tall. On “Dior”, he pledged to “raise hell” until a friend is released from prison, a message that particularly resonated with those demanding justice in the wake of Floyd’s death.
Yet, in death, Pop Smoke’s voice has grown even louder. In the US, his singles continue to claim number one chart places and dominate the airwaves. Posthumous single “What You Know Bout Love” reached the top spot on the US rhythmic radio chart last month – the chart based on radio stations whose playlists include mostly hit-driven R&B/hip-hop/rhythmic pop – while his song “For The Night” (featuring DaBaby and Lil Baby) is now a staple among the top five played songs on urban radio stations. These two songs’ combined streams on Spotify are close to 1 billion. Pop Smoke’s posthumous album Shoot for the Stars, Aim for the Moon, stitched together from unreleased songs after his death, meanwhile, has topped the Billboard 200 twice. It debuted at number one last July and is currently at number three, clocking up an impressive 31 weeks on the chart.
“People don’t get tired of his songs,” said Paris Nicole, programme director at Philadelphian hip-hop station WPHI/103.9, stating the obvious when asked by Billboard why Pop Smoke’s music was so popular.
It isn’t exactly a new phenomenon for a dead rapper to find posthumous success, but Pop Smoke has generated a lot of support because of what he represented. The rapper (real name Bashar Barakah Jackson), who is of Panamanian and Jamaican descent, spent much of his childhood in Canarsie, a Brooklyn neighbourhood where violent crimes are 28 per cent higher than the national average. Yet rather than present his community as a tragic place, Pop Smoke enjoyed showing the perseverance of its residents – “I don’t care if you’re losing/ still fight back!” was his war cry – and he immortalised their defiant spirit in his catchy hood anthems. “You going to see a lot of flossing – a lot of young kids, they look rich,” he told The New York Times of his hometown. “They got cars, designer bags, designer belts, designer sneakers. They get a lot of money over there.”
For years and years, NYC rap meagrely followed in the footsteps of Atlanta, presenting its own tepid take on the south’s dominant melodic trap. Yet Pop Smoke centred hip-hop firmly back on the Brooklyn sidewalk, his music designed to be played out of a booming sound system. The original way he combined his New Yorker slang with UK drill beats from east London producer 808Melo was refreshingly forward-thinking, too. Drill is a tough and often hyper-violent rap subgenre that emerged out of Chicago in the early 2010s, but crossed the pond to London in the past few years; by working with artists here, Pop Smoke quickly found a UK audience too. He was loved by British rap stars such as Skepta, AJ Tracey, Headie One, M24 and Fredo – Smoke appears on the latter’s just-released album Money Can’t Buy Happiness – who recognised that he could be the bridge between the UK and US rap scenes.
The music on Shoot for the Stars, Aim for the Moon only heightens the heartbreak. It proves Pop Smoke could do so much more than just puff his chest out, and shows he was planning to switch up his style from the paranoia of drill to a deliriously catchy take on R&B. He spends a lot of the album crooning, but rough diamond melodies on “Something Special” and “Diana” recall a golden-era 50 Cent in their ability to tread the line between sex symbol and street soldier. The rapper knew this record was the moment he would rubberstamp his mainstream appeal.
Pop Smoke’s untimely death, however, is representative of a tragic wider issue within the youthful hip-hop world. He’s not the only one to die young recently: rappers Nipsey Hussle, King Von, Lil Peep, Juice WRLD, Jimmy Wopo and XXXTentacion all either overdosed on prescription pills or were murdered in shootings over the last four years. Many of these rappers were part of a boom known as “SoundCloud Rap” and made hazy beats weighted on hopeless themes like depression and suicide. In stark comparison, Pop Smoke’s music is filled to the brim with black confidence and the joys of being successful. His songs reignited some of the underdog romance (“’Member my pockets flat? Now they chunky!” he says on “Element”) of gangster rap legends like 2Pac and Biggie.
But perhaps unlike 2Pac and Biggie, Pop Smoke’s death felt particularly shocking given how random it was. The artist had escaped a humble upbringing and was supposed to finally be enjoying the high life. The mansion where he was killed was owned by Teddi Mellencamp, the reality TV star from Real Housewives of Beverly Hills. It was intended as an opulent safe-space for Pop Smoke to dip his toes in the pool and relax in between studio sessions. And yet to be a rap fan is to accept that your favourite artist could well die before they reach their peak.
There’s now a grim inevitability to reading these stories which feels exhausting, as well as a worrying sense of acceptance – hip-hop remains the only music genre where dying at 20 isn’t a surprise. “The rap game isn’t like any other industry,” XXXTentacion producer Jimmy Duval told The Guardian. “There are a lot of guns and bullets flying around.”
Is the Cure for Racism and Violence More Racism and Violence?
I remember it vividly, even though it was several lifetimes ago; the new-to-me used car I bought the day before, with every dime I’d earned working 60 hours a week for months on end, slid across the slick pavement on the sharp back road curve.
I was 19 years old, and that car was my first real achievement – my first taste of independence. I’d done everything right, staying within the speed limit and keeping an eye on my surroundings. But when I felt the threadbare tire treads lose contact with the pavement, I panicked.
“Oh no!” I screamed in my head – this could not be happening. It mustn’t happen. I hadn’t expected the danger before me. I recognized it as potentially destructive, and something that could only bring harm. So, in a desperate attempt to right the wrong, I yanked the wheel hard, in the opposite direction of the oncoming vehicle whose lane I had just invaded. If I did nothing, I would have crashed into a car full of innocent people who didn’t deserve to suffer for my behavior, however unintentional it was.
The overcorrection worked. The innocent people were spared the cost of my actions and traveled on down the road. I, on the other hand, now felt my sigh of relief stop in my throat as I realized the consequence of my overzealous correction.
The telephone pole seemed to be moving toward me, instead of me to it. My beloved Subaru, with its sunroof and CD player, dipped low in a ditch and then roared up out of it as my panicked foot hit the gas instead of the brake.
The tow truck driver, police, and mechanic told me it was a miracle I was uninjured, based on the way my car had crumpled right on up to my knees.
It was a very difficult lesson for me to learn, but one that left a profound impact on me.
When in crisis, when acknowledging a threat or a wrong or an injustice, even a well-intentioned overcorrection can cause catastrophic harm. The whole body response to stop something horrifying from happening, or continuing to happen, can blind a person to everything but what is immediately before them, rather than a full view.
This is what is happening today, in response to the new level of awareness about instances of racial injustice.
The country’s collective gasp of horror at the murder of George Floyd was heard in every town, in every home, and in every family.
Some people thought- There it is again. It will never end unless we speak up now.
Some people thought – Oh no! This is terrible. It can never happen again. We must speak up now.
And for a moment, the synergy between the two reactions was felt. Americans of all walks of life spoke up to insist on justice and change. Some people spoke up to ask questions and learn about injustices unseen to them. Others spoke up to share their stories.
Then the media stepped in. The opportunists appeared. Righteous pain and indignations were diabolically manipulated for personal and political agendas. Buildings burned. Innocent lives were lost. Politicians and talking TV heads celebrated the violence done to some innocent people in the name of defending other innocent people.
The opportunity to work together in a peaceful fashion- to correct a wrong we all agreed on – was gone.
The correction turned into an overcorrection, both intentional and unintentional.
An organization stepped forward purporting to be representing black lives, but really only defending the lives that served it. No outcry was heard for black police officers ambushed and murdered in the line of duty. No national grief was shown for the hundreds of black lives lost to one another. No, those lives did not matter at all – not to those who pulled the steering wheel so hard to the other side, we all crashed into a pole together.
Well-intentioned people stepping forward to learn and discuss and connect in their own ways, how their minds and hearts call them to, are branded as white supremacists, racists, selfish, and so on – not because they condone racism or are not newly awakened to the lingering grips of antiquated cruelty – but because they disagree with transferring shame from one community to another. They disagree with villainizing all people of one color or community for the actions of a few. They recognize that morality cannot be legislated, but must come from within. That requires faith and kindness to be encouraged, rather than self-righteousness and violence.
The opportunists scurry about stoking fires and spreading them, convincing well-intentioned people to burn down anyone who refuses to pick up a torch and burn their own homes and hearts down as a show of solidarity. Anyone who does not apologize for their role in oppression, even if they have done nothing wrong or never harbored ill will for a fellow human being, even if they have led charitable causes in their communities, served their country, quietly dropped off hot meals for neighbors in need – no good deeds are considered good enough to prove the purity of their hearts unless they quote lines from a Marxist-based organization, and agree to elevate one community over all others in the name of equality.
It is the greatest overcorrection possible.
Rather than acknowledging that there is and always will be good and evil in this world, and working together to elevate the good to evil is mitigated, evil is ushered in under the guise of good.
Rather than capitalize on the momentum of good will that arose from the George Floyd incident, that momentum has been harnessed to divide us – and it is working.
Social media has become a battleground for self-righteous keyboard warriors insisting anyone who does not apologize for or acknowledge their privilege as part of the reason others suffer, is considered scum. There is no room for conversation about this- either you bend a knee, or you are racist garbage.
At first, those who questioned the overcorrection were meek – no one wanted to be accused of being something they despise. Slowly, though, the pushback is increasing. When the overcorrection reached people’s kids, parents had enough.
The Marxist ideologies of the BLM organization, which hijacked the very real issue of police brutality, have spread into government, and into schools.
A Minnesota fourth grade class viewed a video about racist cops, teaching that all cops are evil.
College athletes who refuse to kneel for our anthem are kicked off the team.
One expensive NYC prep school, the Dalton School, released a manifesto from its teachers packed with demands including:
- Abolishing high-level academic courses by 2023 if the performance of black students is not on par with non-blacks.
- Requiring courses that focus on “black liberation” and “challenges to white supremacy.” [Marxism]
- Requiring “anti-racism” statements from all staffers.
Beyond the manifesto, students are made to watch a video in which “white kids are shamed for the sin of their skin color and told they are complicit in perpetuating racism.” A fourth grade play included the role for a “racist cop.”
Outraged parents insist that rather than work against racism, the school is actually teaching students to be racist. It is teaching students to be victims, and to inject hatred or shame into young hearts. One parent released this statement : “My ancestors experienced white supremacy by being slaughtered,” a Jewish parent told The Post. “The idea that being white automatically means you are privileged or a white supremacist is ridiculous. My child comes from people who had to fight for everything they got.”
Imagine if that school had not overcorrected, but accurately corrected? Imagine if students were encouraged to celebrate each other instead of judging one another? Imagine if racism was not taught as a cure for racism!
Parents have said they will be withdrawing their children from the school that boasts people like far-Left TV host Anderson Cooper as alumni.
The list of examples in which racism is being deployed as a tool to combat racism is staggering.
People will not continue to smash their cars into telephone poles when they can instead yank the wheel a little less, and proceed smoothly down the road.
Racism is only one weapon being used against anyone who disagrees with the Left. The Capitol breach is another, and the Left is running away with it. Where it will end, no one knows yet. But you can bet that Americans are done with being told to smash our cars, while others drive smoothly by.
Starting a job? Dream big and don’t be afraid to fail, says Wella CEO
As a little girl who spoke no English when she moved to the United States from Taiwan, Annie Young-Scrivner learned early on about challenging times.
Now, she admits she should have read the small print about missed payments.
When the buy now, pay later (BNPL) provider tried to withdraw a payment from Garrett’s bank account a few months later, she didn’t have enough funds to cover it. Soon after, the 42-year-old was charged $40 in penalties and her credit score dropped 10 points to 650, a reading generally classified as ‘fair’.
“It’s important for consumers to always read the fine print and we don’t always do it,” said Garrett, a community organizer from Charlotte.
So-called buy now, pay later services – offered by providers such as Affirm Holdings Inc, Klarna, Afterpay Ltd and PayPal Holding Inc’s “Pay In 4” – have blossomed across retail websites during the coronavirus pandemic as people have turned more to shopping online.
Yet the ease with which many shoppers can make purchases is worrying some regulators around the world, who fear consumers may be spending more than they can afford.
Nearly 40% of U.S. consumers who used “buy now, pay later” have missed more than one payment, and 72% of those saw their credit score decline, according to a study by Credit Karma, which offers customers credit score checking for free.
The study, conducted for Reuters, surveyed 1,038 adult consumers in the United States to gauge interest in “buy now, pay later” and found 42% of respondents had used the service before.
“The percentage of consumers missing payments is remarkable and not as low as you would expect,” said Gannesh Bharadhwaj, general manager for credit cards at Credit Karma.
“When you make something so convenient, people may not be really thinking, ‘Do I have the budget? Can I afford this payment?’ You get more of that impulse-shopping behavior that leads to realizing they may not be able to make the payment.”
A lower credit score signals to lenders that a consumer may be higher risk and makes it harder for the consumer to borrow, whether to secure a mortgage or a new credit card. It can even make it more difficult for a consumer to set up utility accounts or find housing, as landlords will generally conduct credit score checks before renting out apartments.
Management consultants Oliver Wyman estimate BNPL firms facilitated between $20 billion-25 billion in transactions in the United States last year, although analyst estimates on the size of the BNPL industry vary because it is relatively new and some of the companies are private. Individually, they described explosive growth last year as their services became more prevalent.
Australia-based Afterpay said it saw active U.S. customers more than double to 6.5 million in the fiscal year ended June 30, 2020, and its sales more than tripled in the July-September quarter from a year earlier.
Over half of Afterpay’s customers in the United States are millennials, aged 25 to 40 years-old, it said.
BNPL models vary, with some companies earning most profits by collecting fees from merchants at the point of sale, and others charging interest and late fees to consumers. They say their services help merchants to boost sales and consumers to buy things they need, and cause less financial damage than credit cards because of restrictions they impose.
Nonetheless, regulators in Britain and Australia are reviewing or tightening rules around the industry. BNPL service providers, classified as fintech companies, should be subject to stricter rules more like banks, some regulators say.
It is unclear how buy now, pay later fits into U.S. regulations because the companies that offer these services do not have bank charters, some do not charge interest and laws vary by state. However, some experts expect the sector to come under more scrutiny during the Biden administration.
“One of the questions with the new administration is, what stance will the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau take going forward? – which we expect to be more aggressive,” said Mark Palmer, financials analyst at BTIG Research.
San Francisco-based Affirm saw its revenue rise 93%, to $509.5 million, in the fiscal year that ended in June. It allows shoppers to split up purchases in terms ranging from six weeks to four years, with interest rates of 0 to 30%.
Affirm shows customers how much a loan will cost in dollar terms and does not charge late fees or compound interest. Although missed payments can affect credit scores, Affirm says it has been working with borrowers who fell on hard times during the pandemic.
“We approve borrowers only for what they can comfortably afford to repay,” said Silvija Martincevic, Affirm’s chief commercial officer. “The reason our technology is significant is that we use machine learning to make underwriting decisions.”
At Australia’s Afterpay, customers are barred from using its services after they miss a payment.
The company says 95% of its transactions globally are paid back on time and late fees contribute less than 14% of the company’s total income.
PayPal ‘Pay in 4’ service, launched widely across the United States in November, allows customers to split purchases ranging from $30 to $600 in four interest-free payments. Late fees may apply for missed payments, depending on the user’s state of residency, according to its website.
The PayPal ‘Pay in 4’ product in the United States does not report trades or late fees to the credit bureaus, said Greg Lisiewski, PayPal’s global vice president of Global Pay Later.
“We are working with the industry and the consumer credit bureaus to develop the appropriate framework,” he said.
Sweden-based Klarna saw fast growth over the past year, especially purchases in the $100-$200 range, said its U.S. head, David Sykes.
Most of Klarna’s loans are small, of short duration and interest-free, which is safer for customers than credit cards, he said. Customers can delay one payment without a penalty. Late fees vary by state in line with regulation, up to a maximum of $21 and the company is rolling out a 25% cap.
“No one is getting buried in debt with Klarna,” Sykes said. “We aren’t making multi-year loans on a car or a house.”
Smaller loans with shorter durations do have benefits, but they are not risk-free, experts said. Customers may be taking on more debt than they can handle, even if it comes in bite-sized portions.
Tamika Rivera, a 35-year old insurance agent from Springfield, Massachusetts, uses multiple buy now, pay later services, and has missed payments. In one case, she did not have enough money to cover a $43 sweater purchase, which resulted in a $35 overdraft fee from her bank.
“These services are convenient but there are some negative things that can happen,” Rivera said.
Alan McIntyre, head of Accenture’s global banking practice, says the credit impact of the buy now, pay later trend remains to be seen.
“The optimistic take is that millennials don’t want to get into debt and they want to build a budget better – this is deferred debit and you are not tempted to roll it over,” he said.
“The pessimistic view is that around 40% of people using it are doing so because they couldn’t get access to traditional credit – either because they’ve maxed out their credit limit or because of a poor or non-existent credit history – and some of these loans might not season well.”