The downbeat: RIP Pop Smoke — How one artist reintroduced drill music into the mainstream

A portrait of the late rapper Pop Smoke against a pink background.
(Yasmin Elqutami • The Student Life)

In April 2019, Pop Smoke released the song “Welcome to the Party.” On Feb. 19 this year, he was murdered. In that short time frame, Pop Smoke was featured on the song “GATTI” on JACKBOYS’ self-titled album and released two full-length albums featuring notably famous artists such as Nicki Minaj, Skepta, A Boogie wit da Hoodie, Gunna and Quavo, among others.

Pop Smoke’s musical career is impressive, to say the least. But what exactly made Pop Smoke so successful in such a short time frame? What, if anything, does his career say for the rap scene and for the drill scene as a whole?

For one thing, Pop Smoke reintroduced drill music into the mainstream, especially in New York. In this way, Pop Smoke put Brooklyn on the map. This is a big deal, because Pop Smoke was relatively new to the scene, and Brooklyn wasn’t previously known for its drill music. Music blog HipHopDX even referred to Pop Smoke as the “Godfather of New York drill.” I would have to agree.

Even more impressive is how instantaneous Pop Smoke’s popularity was. Drill music admittedly does not have an inherently mainstream sound. To define drill music, it is a form of trap music that originated in the South Side of Chicago. The instrumentals are dark and aggressive, often trap-influenced, and its rapping style is straightforward, hard and sometimes violent. 

To put some names to the genre, Chief Keef, Lil Bibby and Famous Dex are categorized as drill music artists. All three hail from Chicago, while Skepta is a notable drill artist from the U.K. What is interesting here, though, is the notable lack of drill artists from New York. New York is known for its historic rap scene, so it is worth mentioning the city was lacking a strong drill scene pre-Pop Smoke.

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Today, New York drill music can be heard playing in mainstream clubs and on Top 40 radio stations, all while topping the charts. Billboard released a “5 Must-Hear Debuts” for the week of Feb. 29, and Pop Smoke was one of the three artists depicted in the thumbnail, next to Billie Eilish, a more traditional pop star. 

Besides helping drill music make it into the mainstream, Pop Smoke’s lyrics, although perhaps not as metaphorical or lyrically complex as other rappers, make strides towards empowerment and equality — even if equality may not typically be associated with drill music. 

This is important because Pop Smoke’s impact will live beyond his physical body or even his celebrity status. Artists don’t need to pigeonhole themselves into boxes: Pop Smoke proved that contrasting personality traits such as aggression and compassion can coexist and even complement each other, creating songs with depth and meaning. 

In the song “Element” off Pop Smoke’s latest album “Meet The Woo 2,” Pop Smoke raps “I like dark skins, love her melanin,” and one verse later, “That’s why I like the bad gyal, like RiRi.” Although I can see an argument for objectification of women, Pop Smoke’s lyrics combat colorism in mainstream media, which is a topic and fight often neglected in the music scene.

Pop Smoke’s music frees everyone, not just artists, to feel whatever they feel and act however they act. Almost with Nietzsche-esque transcendence of good and evil, Pop Smoke played by his own rules, and he won through creating a lasting legacy in the eye of the music industry and general population.

Ella Boyd SC ’21 is one of TSL’s music columnists. Besides writing, she enjoys making music, poetry and art.

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