How did pop smoke die?

The history of hip-hop features numerous murders; according to one study, 51.5% of hip hop musicians passed as a result of murder. From legends like Notorious BIG and Tupac Shakur to rising stars like Proof and Nipsey Hussle, rappers being shot in their prime has become far too common. One of the latest young rap stars to be murdered before he had a chance to see his star rise, Pop Smoke left behind a small body of work, recorded over the 14 months that he was in the recording industry. His music, often dark and gritty like the UK drill music that inspired him, captivated New York during the previous summer and seemed poised to gain massive national and international popularity before his death.

Who was Pop Smoke?

Born Bashar Barakah Jackson on July 20, 1999, in Canarsie, Brooklyn, Pop Smoke had a troubled childhood, being expelled from eighth grade for bringing a gun to school and losing a basketball scholarship to a Philadelphia prep school due to a heart murmur. He began his music career in earnest in 2018, releasing the song “MPR,” which gained some popular traction in the Brooklyn area. In early 2019, Smoke began communicating with UK producer Andre Loblack, more well known as 808Melo, to bring the UK drill sound to America. Drill music originated in Chicago but was imported to the United Kingdom where it gained some of the grime sounds that dominated the UK hip hops scene for years. This collaboration would lead Smoke to popular success. Smoke’s first big hit, “Welcome to the Party,” didn’t gain massive pop crossover appeal, but sent rumbles through the music industry, with Pitchfork Magazine stating that the song displayed Pop Smoke as possessing  “a swagger that couldn’t be imitated.” The song saw remixes by Nicki Minaj, ASAP Ferg, and Meek Mill among others, and received a gold certification from the RIAA. Based on the low rumblings of music journalists, combined with the remarkable popularity of Welcome to the Party, Pop Smoke’s future seemed bright. Though he had yet to manage a lead credit on a top 40 hit, pop stardom seemed inevitable, as his mixtapes had done decent business, with his second mixtape debuting at #7 on the BIllboard 200 album charts in early February of 2020. And, though national success was still pending for him, New York radio had taken to playing his music as much as, if not more than, some nationwide #1 hits. Interviews suggest that Smoke believed that good things were coming his way and that  Just a few days after the strong showing from his second mixtape, however, a brutal crime would silence his deep, booming voice.

The death of Pop Smoke

On the morning of February 19, 2020, the LAPD received a call from somewhere on the East Coast, reporting a break-in attempt at a home in Hollywood Hills. When police arrived at 5:00 AM, they found Pop Smoke with two gunshot wounds. He was rushed to Cedars-Sinai Medical Center. Pop Smoke would be declared dead upon arrival, with the coroner giving the cause of death as a gunshot wound to his torso. Within hours, the rap music world began grieving the young rap star’s untimely passing, with 50 Cent agreeing to executive produce his posthumous album. The album, Shoot for the Stars, Aim for the Moon, released on July 3rd, 2020. The album would debut at #1 on the Billboard 200 charts, marking a sad milestone; Pop Smoke is the first musician in hip hop history to have a posthumous debut album enter the Billboard 200 charts at #1.  Every individual song from the album would hit the Billboard hot 100 separately, with Dior, a song that had been on both of his mixtapes and his album, entering the top 40 and For the Night, a song that essentially serves as a memorial for Smoke, hitting #6 on the same chart. Another sad milestone: as a result of this, Pop Smoke holds another record, for most Top 100 entries at one time by a posthumous artist, at 19.

Why did this happen?

On that fateful February morning, four men entered the home where Pop Smoke was staying. Reports suggest that the men knew where Smoke was staying as a result of a social media post where he had revealed the home that he had been renting. Two of them were minors and, as a result, have not been revealed to the public. The two adults, Corey Walker and Keandre Rodgers have been charged with murder and may be facing the death penalty if convicted. A fifth man, Jaquan Murphy, has been charged with attempted murder. While the exact reasoning the men had for murdering Pop Smoke is still under investigation, the LAPD assumes that the murder was related to gang activity. Police state that a September 2019 murder, that of Kamryn Stone, was related to LA gang activity as well.

What will Pop Smoke’s Legacy Be?

In spite of the dark and occasionally violent content within his music and the brutal way in which he died, Pop Smoke had planned to make a positive impact on his community; at the time of his death, he was working to set up a charity for disadvantaged inner-city youth. His family has chosen to continue his charitable work, calling the foundation the “Reach for the Stars Foundation.” The goal of the foundation, according to Pop Smoke’s mother, is, “to inspire inner-city youth to do just what the name states, ‘shoot for the stars,’ and help urban youth everywhere turn their pain into champagne by making their dreams a reality.” By January, Smoke had raised $100,000 in funds for the charity. As far as his musical legacy, there will always be a question of “What if?” Smoke had shown great promise, with his lyrics, his delivery, and his unique voice bringing the UK drill scene to America with a vengeance. If he was able to accomplish this within his 14-month career, what could he have done if he had been given more time? Considering that Quavo has been quoted as saying that talking to Pop felt like “talking to somebody that had been in the game for three years already,” and that numerous musicians lined up to help with completing his one album, including Drake and Chris Brown, it’s likely that his star would have continued rising for some time. As a poignant coda to his career, his song, Dior, ever-present on his three full-length releases, was often sung during the Black Lives Matter protests in New York to protest the high-profile slaying of George Floyd by members of the Minneapolis Police Department. At least one video showed protestors singing the song while chanting George Floyd’s name outside of Trump International Hotel in Manhattan. There’s no word on whether he had much more unreleased music, or if we’ve seen the last new music the world will hear from Pop Smoke. However, Pop Smoke, in his last few weeks, was confident that the influence of UK drill music in America would have a strong impact on rap music: “This is what New York sounds like now. We bridged that gap between London and New York. We at least got a decade with this.”   SOURCES 1: https://www.independent.co.uk/news/obituaries/pop-smoke-death-shooting-rapper-hip-hop-drill-music-new-york-age-cause-a9358366.html 2: https://pitchfork.com/features/lists-and-guides/best-rap-songs-2019/ 3: https://www.theringer.com/2020/2/20/21145662/pop-smoke-obituary-death-welcome-to-the-party-gatti-dior 4: https://abcnews.go.com/US/charged-murder-rapper-pop-smoke-face-death-penalty/story?id=71766283 5: https://www.billboard.com/articles/columns/hip-hop/9326294/50-cent-pop-smoke-album-executive-producer 6: https://hypebeast.com/2020/6/pop-smokes-family-announces-shoot-for-the-stars-foundation-info 7: https://pitchfork.com/thepitch/pop-smoke-dior-protest-music/ 8: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/06/25/arts/music/pop-smoke.html

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