In the early morning hours of February 19th, 2020, I had come back from a long session working at the library right by my dorm. It was around 1:30 AM, and I had struck up a conversation with my roommate about what we’d been listening to recently. At the time, Roddy Ricch was an omnipresent part of my daily routine, and I felt like for once, the number one song on Spotify’s US charts was something I agreed with (“The Box” of course). But what I had been also consuming that week was the recent release of Meet the Woo 2, the second project from Brooklyn drill rapper Pop Smoke. I’d listened to his first project (Meet the Woo) and its two popular singles (“Welcome to the Party” and “Dior”) for a few weeks consistently. I don’t know why or how I went on for twenty minutes about his infectious voice, his simple but honest lyrics, and his fantastic beat selection, but I felt something about that night being so important to talk about him. I knew that within weeks, he was likely going to be my favorite artist of the year. After going on for a bit, I just took a shower, jumped in bed, and went to sleep.
Waking up six hours later, my roommate just blurts out the news as I’m just getting out of bed. In a disheveled state, I scramble for my phone and read the news for myself: Bashar Barakah Jackson was killed that morning on February 19th at the age of just 20.
Maybe seven months earlier, my brother had played me “Welcome to the Party,” and I initially dismissed the song and didn’t think much about it. He always likes to get on me for initially never liking certain styles and honestly probably out of bitterness, I just claimed I didn’t like the song and told him to change it to something else. But during winter break, after my brother would play Pop Smoke even more whenever we’d go somewhere, I couldn’t deny how much I enjoyed what I was hearing. Meet the Woo 2 had just released on February 7, and I was jamming all week to my classes, lip-syncing this iconic intro from “Dior”:
For the next month or so, I spent a lot of time rewatching interviews, reading interviews, combing through everything I could to learn about how someone just over a year older than me made such a positive impact with people in so short a time. I introduced my friends to all of my favorite b-sides and the funny memes about his songs. This, at least for folks my age, really feels like the biggest “What if?” question about an artist we have had.
A month after he passed, we all were put into lockdown and the pandemic overtook every facet of our lives. For those first three weeks of winter quarter finals and extended spring break, I had nothing except for Netflix and some Spotify. It was during those moments where I’d just drive around where I lived that my affinity for Pop Smoke and his music grew. There is nothing I look for more in music than authenticity. And while some of his lyrics are no doubt hilarious and exaggerating, it’s the moments where he is wrapping about his rise and his passion for music that he’s at his best. That’s why “Invincible” and “Got It On Me” were my favorite songs from 2020. On top of the authenticity, his voice was truly once in a generation. With little to no modification, the raspy, dark instrument that flowed effortlessly across 808MeloBeats production was the foundation for some of my favorite music ever.
Since the pandemic began, his music garnered him multiple top ten singles, a #1 album, and the foundation for the return of drill music at the top of hip hop since Chief Keef. But beyond the superficial accolades, Pop Smoke’s personality and ambition are what I admire him the most for. That development of new styles was on his debut album “Shoot For The Stars Aim For The Moon” was just a snapshot of what he sought to accomplish long-term. In the months of the pandemic, the countless hours where I’d shake my house with drill beats and having my concert giving me some small moments of joy during last spring. Did I feel like I was going to destroy the bass in the car? Yes. But did it make me happy? Also yes.
Yesterday was the one-year anniversary of Pop Smoke’s death. I don’t know how music culture will remember what he was able to accomplish in less than two years while he had the spotlight. But I know how I’ll remember him: a charismatic, joyful young man who wanted to have fun. And whenever I throw him on with folks I care about, it just reminds me how much his music was about being shared and enjoyed with as many people as possible. Once this pandemic subsides, I can’t wait to share that love for his music in a room full of other people that, like Bashar Barakah Jackson, just want to have fun.
Being Noah Tesfaye #171: Pop Smoke and the Pandemic Sound that Captivates Us All
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