When asked what most people don’t know about him, Pop Smoke told XXL Magazine, I’m a double G homie: a gangsta and a gentleman.” On The Angie Martinez Show he noted that his aggressive adlibs, growls, and barks are often misconstrued as him being an outwardly violent person, but no—“I’m a gentleman,” he said again.
Between the lines, this exposes one perceived truth: being gangsta means generating unnecessary violence. This misconception is the reason why Pop Smoke attended nine different schools as a kid, being told “this isn’t the right fit for you” when other kids grew nervous around him. This same reason would cause Pop Smoke—alongside Casanova, 22GZ, and Sheff G—to be barred from performing at NYC’s Rolling Loud, with the NYPD saying these men may invite more violence into the festival.
But in Pop Smoke’s case, it was the opposite. The truth of the matter is that you simply cannot have three full-fledged careers by the age of 20 years old by playing gangsta—looking for trouble, fronting for the media, or being outwardly aggressive for no reason; you’ve got to be the real deal. That was Pop Smoke.
Born in Canarsie, Brooklyn to a Jamaican mother and Panamanian father, Bashar Barakah Jackson was nicknamed Poppa by his grandmother. He told XXL Magazine that growing up, his sisters taught him to be a gentleman: “They put me on… so instead of saying, ‘What’s up! What’s good?’ I say, ‘What’s the matter? What’s going on? Are you okay?’”
Pop Smoke grew up quickly. At 13, he went viral for the first time: in a video posted on World Star, he gets slapped on a Brooklyn street. The reason for this is unclear, but when speaking of the incident, he told The New York Times, “I’m glad it happened as a kid. I realized it’s time to boss up—life ain’t sweet.”
Fueled by the incident, Pop Smoke became a hustler and soon birthed the Woo movement. Woo was described as a way of life—a hustle, which would soon propel him to success in his three careers: playing ball, selling drugs, and rapping.
At 15, Pop Smoke made it out of the hood to the Philadelphia suburbs when he landed his scholarship at Rocktop Academy, a prep school which aimed to get its athletes scouted for college basketball scholarships. But after learning of a heart murmur, Pop Smoke was deemed ineligible to play and soon returned home.
Next came selling drugs. He excelled at trapping, too; by 16 he had his own BMW. The high-risk high-reward lifestyle worked—until he was given a weapon charge, leaving him in an ankle bracelet and on house arrest for two years.
By 16, Pop Smoke had made it out of the hood. And despite both his plans to make it being barricaded, he never allowed failure to fragment the vision he had for his life.
When studying what those close to Pop Smoke reminisce about him, his resilience is nearly always mentioned. His rumored girlfriend wrote on her Instagram, “Nothing could bend or break him. He made sense out of everything and if he didn’t understand, he would ask questions, lots of em.” The CEO of his record label echoed this sentiment: “You believed in us so much it was contagious.”
So it only makes sense that at 18, after graduating high school, Pop Smoke’s vision would continue, untarnished, as it came time for his third career.
Enter weed: magic on Earth and what we have to thank for Pop Smoke. (Well, partly.) In early 2018, post-high school graduation, Pop Smoke was hanging with some friends who were into rapping. In an interview with Power 106, Pop Smoke remembers they were chilling in the studio, and after getting a little too high, Pop Smoke decided to jump in and make a song. After recording, he went outside and told everyone in the neighborhood to listen to the track. They all began doing the Woo dance, and that was the start of it all—just by accident, sort of. Shortly after, he made the song’s music video and garnered 10,000 views in one day.
As New York began picking up on the Canarsie growler, so did Steven Victor, founder of record label Victor Victor Worldwide. During their first meeting, Pop Smoke brought in music samples including the now widely known track “Something Special” which displayed his singing abilities. Victor signed him on the spot.
Together, they hatched a plan to release an EP comprised of drill music. This project would go on to solidify Pop Smoke as the leader of the explosive sub-genre taking over New York City.
Pop Smoke then became close collaborators with UK producer 808 Melo, and the two solidified their artistry with “Welcome to the Party”—the song that changed Pop Smoke’s life. It soon became the anthem of New York, with the first artist to remix it being none other than Nicki Minaj.
By the end of 2019, his song “Dior” had gone viral; he had worked alongside Quavo, Travis Scott, and Skepta; he’d met his childhood icon, 50 Cent. Pop Smoke then looked to slow things down while making his second mixtape, Meet the Woo 2.
On January 17th, 2020, after arriving in America from overseas, Pop Smoke was immediately arrested by the FBI under allegations of illegally transporting stolen property access state lines in connection to a Rolls Royce. Pop Smoke was released on $250,000 bail the same day.
After this, the artist had a meeting with 50 Cent and Steven Victor. 50 Cent told Pop Smoke the guns needed to stop—“because they’re waiting for you to fuck up. And your friends are not really your friends… They’re waiting for you to fuck up, too… If [you] continue down that path, there’s a high chance that you’ll end up in jail or dead.” Victor noted after the meeting that Pop Smoke “completely did a 360.”
What’s interesting here is that when watching Pop Smoke interviews, his transformation is visible. Though he was originally reserved, as seen here, he ultimately grew into his charisma—as shown in this interview from February 20.
On February 7th, Meet the Woo 2 was released and Pop Smoke flew out to Hollywood Hills to finish his debut album. On February 19th, while staying in his home, he was killed in a robbery and home invasion.
Shortly after, 50 Cent gave Steven Victor a call to discuss the future of Pop Smoke’s highly anticipated album. But in a Rap Life Interview, Victor recalls being unable to listen to Pop Smoke’s music in the weeks following his death. 50 Cent urged him, saying “You can’t be selfish… It will almost be like everything happened in vain if you don’t put the album out.”
And then 50 Cent offered to executive produce Pop Smoke’s album for free. He reached out to Virgil, whom Pop Smoke originally wanted to design his album cover and packaging. But when the artwork was met with outrage, by both fans and 50 Cent, Pop Smoke’s mom ended up choosing the artwork known to fans today.
On July 3rd, Pop Smoke’s debut album came in at number 1 on the Billboard 200 chart.
50 Cent’s takeover of Pop Smoke’s album is one of the heartbreaking parts of his story. 50 Cent released his debut single the same year Pop Smoke was born; since then, he’s put gangsta music back on the charts while revolutionizing mixtape culture and becoming a household name. In the same time frame, Pop Smoke lived his 20 years of life. When someone’s childhood icon ultimately carries their vision and legacy forward, it’s extremely devastating.
Even so, Pop Smoke will always be remembered. Fans and A-list artists alike gravitated toward his irresistible sound, making it easy to say this was just the beginning for the Canarsie native.
Steven Victor took to Instagram two days after Pop Smoke’s passing, writing, “I’ll never forget what you told me after that meeting two weeks ago, and we will make sure that foundation gets started.” This promise soon became actualized; Pop Smoke’s non-profit, Shoot For The Stars, launched shortly thereafter.
And that’s the reason why the smoke will never clear. Pop Smoke lives on through those committed to carrying out his dream—the hearts he’s touched, the impact he’s made, the inspiration he’s left, and the lasting presence of the Woo.
Rest in peace, Pop Smoke.
By Anna M Erickson
Illustration by Seb Westcott