Early Wednesday morning, Bashar Barakah Jackson, better known as the Brooklyn rapper Pop Smoke, was shot and killed in Los Angeles following a home invasion. He was 20 years old.
At the time of his death, Jackson had been making music for less than 18 months; nevertheless, he’d become perhaps the most unmissable young rap star in New York City. His debut single, “Welcome to the Party,” was one of last year’s most ubiquitous, and his two mixtapes (last July’s Meet the Woo and its sequel, from just two weeks ago) helped shape Brooklyn’s drill scene, an emerging web of young artists who posit that New York can be just as interesting as an importer — and mutator — of other regional sounds.
Jackson grew up in Canarsie, a neighborhood in southeast Brooklyn, the son of a Jamaican mother and Panamanian father (he would later threaten, on records, to turn his enemies into duppies). Occasionally he played drums by hand at church, but mostly he played sports: At 15, Jackson was a talented enough basketball player to win a scholarship to a prep school in Philadelphia. But his stay in Philly was short-lived. A scrap outside of a restaurant soon sent Jackson back to Brooklyn where, though he was famously cagey about the details, he began to bring in some money of his own (last fall he told the New York Times that he bought a BMW 5 Series when he was only 16).
Toward the end of 2018, limited by the ankle monitor tying him to a since-dismissed weapons charge, Jackson was browsing instrumentals on YouTube and came across a beat called “Panic.” It had been uploaded by a producer named 808 Melo, who had previously worked with Sheff G, an artist on the leading edge of Brooklyn drill. “Panic” became “MPR,” and the uploader-downloader relationship evolved, too: Jackson flew Melo from his home in east London to Brooklyn, where the pair wrote and recorded much of what would become Meet the Woo. It was then that Jackson began honing his musical signature, a voice so gruff and gravelly as to be an instrument unto itself. One of his biggest hits features a chorus that dissolves, literally, into a growl:
At Pitchfork, the critic Alphonse Pierre, a Canarsie native, wrote that Woo sounds like the product of an artist raised on “a strict diet of Get Rich or Die Tryin’, Finally Rich, and Newports.” Both 50 Cent — the menace, the Trojan-horsed melodies, the instinct to taunt window-shoppers — and early Chief Keef — the deadened fury, the ad-libs as art — are key reference points for Pop Smoke, but he could also evoke the knowing atonality of Harlem great Max B at his smoothest.
Drill was born in Chicago at the beginning of the last decade, where it was shocking for its frankness: The rhymes detailed crime and its aftermath, material and psychological, in straightforward terms, and the melodies — when there were melodies — were big, grim, and Gothic, laid over pulsing, stuttering drums. It also centered dances and slang that were alien to non-Chicagoans. When Londoners adopted the sound, they reimagined it as a mutation of and a counterprogram to grime. While drill lives on in Chicago and has reverberated through other rap scenes in the U.S. (see its effect on Atlantan production and the way it merged with the increasingly punishing sounds coming from Baton Rouge), the scene in Brooklyn is the first American one to fully adapt the style to a new locale. Jackson’s music in particular has a unique way of reconfiguring the maximalist sounds of early- and mid-2000s New York radio rap into something slicker and meaner; I think often of the way he built a punchline around the New Jersey rapper Joe Budden’s “Pump It Up,” a mostly forgotten summer hit that dropped the year Jackson turned 3.
By the time Meet the Woo came out, “Welcome to the Party” had become a stupefyingly huge song. It would eventually peak at No. 9 on the Hot 100 and receive a Nicki Minaj remix, but here we’re using much more important metrics, like the number of parked cars blasting a single song on inexplicable loop at dusk. But if you watch the video, you’ll notice it begins with a disclaimer that never appeared before rap videos until very recently:
ALL PROPS USED IN THIS VIDEO
THAT SHOW RESEMBLANCE TO ANY
ILLEGAL MATERIALS ARE MERELY
PROPS AND SHOULD NOT BE TAKEN
SERIOUSLY. DONT TRY THIS AT HOME
While police have long targeted rappers, drill music seems to have gotten under cops’ skin in a unique way. Keef, the genre’s breakout star, has long been banned from performing in his native Chicago, and London police have targeted the genre in unprecedented fits of censorship. This same prejudice dogged Jackson. In October, he was scheduled to play the first New York edition of the popular rap festival Rolling Loud. On the morning the festival was to begin, it granted an NYPD request to pull Jackson, along with four other drill or drill-adjacent rappers (Sheff G, Don Q, 22Gz, and Casanova), from the bill, citing “public safety concerns” and claiming — without charges or evidence — that the five had “been affiliated with recent acts of violence citywide.” Prosecutors in New York would later argue that Jackson was affiliated with a Crip set; at the time of the Rolling Loud cancellation, he was not charged with any crimes.
Jackson kept moving. Meet the Woo 2 debuted at No. 7 on the Billboard 200 on Sunday; like its predecessor, it received glowing reviews from critics and seemed sure to spawn at least one more summer hit (“Shake the Room,” featuring Quavo, continues to build momentum while his Travis Scott collaboration “GATTI” also sits on the charts). The day before he died, Jackson retweeted Hot 97, New York’s flagship rap radio station, which had posted a video of fans as they beamed and danced to his music.
Some time after midnight on Wednesday, a group of people, at least one of whom was armed and wearing a black mask, broke into the Hollywood Hills home where Jackson and at least one friend were staying. According to the Los Angeles Times, somebody in the house alerted a friend back on the east coast, who eventually got in contact with the LAPD. By the time officers arrived, the intruders had fled and have yet to be identified; no arrests have been made. Jackson was found with gunshot wounds and transported to the hospital where he was pronounced dead.
It’s a tragic end to a life cut far too short. Bashar Jackson overcame remarkable odds to win fame and fortune with work that was creatively daring and true to his hometown rap predecessors. Though he was with us only a short time, it’s hard to imagine a summer without his voice blaring out of open windows; one imagines it will keep ringing for some time.