By Joshua Burrell, Managing Editor
Hearing Pop Smoke’s posthumous-debut album Shoot For the Stars, Aim for the Moon was bittersweet. Pop Smoke, born Bashar Barakah Jackson, was shot and killed in a home invasion robbery on February 19, 2020. While the Hip-hop community mourned a burgeoning talent, few acknowledged how Pop Smoke’s death was the second death of New York Gangsta Rap.
Before diving in, the Gangsta Rap we’re addressing in this article romanticizes gunslinging, intimidation, and abundant luxuries. The imagery is vivid, dark and glamorous and uses melody heavy production that gives a sense of angst and excitement.
Pop Smoke’s heavy voice contributed to his subtly intimidating and flex emphatic lyrics. His tone is self-assured and secure. The New York-drill sound gave a shadowy tone under his vocals and his relaxed persona breathed confidence to the lifestyle his music boasted. On Shoot For the Stars, Aim for the Moon, tracks like “44 BullDog”, “Gangstas”, “Snitching” and “Enjoy Yourself” portray an untouchable lifestyle.
Realism lies in the shadowy New York-drill. While Pop Smoke’s tone is untouchable the music feels anxious, because it evokes a sense that vulnerability is potentially fatal.
The last New York Gangsta Icon 50 Cent has his role in Pop Smoke’s recognition. If not for executive producing credits on Shoot For the Stars, Aim for the Moon, then it’s Pop Smoke interpolating 50 Cent’s “Many Men(Wish Death)” on “Got It On Me.” 50 Cent was the late rapper’s mentor, which strengthens the link between Pop Smoke and New York Gangsta Rap’s modern age.
Without Pop Smoke the New York Gangsta Rap icon is far and few. If not for his media exploits and snitchery, 6ix9ine could have been New York Gangsta Rap’s vanguard. From Notorious B.I.G. and WuTang Clan to Nas and Big L, New York Gangsta Rap has a heavy hitter history. Unfortunately, it’s been more than a decade since New York Gangsta Rap was commercially prevalent. At this point, it’s comeback has dull hope.
When Kanye West’s “Graduation” outsold 50 Cent’s “Curtis” in 2007, Gangsta Rap’s fall from grace followed. Personal, emotion acknowledging, and commercial rap took off. This isn’t to say Gangsta Rap is dead. Artists like Freddie Gibbs, Westside Gunn, Rick Ross, and Slim Thug carry the torch. Drill and Trap music are equally instrumental in pushing the voice of resistance and real street grit.
Ultimately, Trap and Drill Rap brandish 00’s Gangsta Rap’s influence: violent themes spoken by artists retelling their life experiences in America’s underprivileged and specifically Black communities.
Fresh faces in New York Hip-Hop — Deem Spencer, Mike, A$AP Rocky, Radamiz and Joey BadA$$ to name a few — hold the city down, but don’t hold up the “gangsta” image. Even Queen of Hip-Hop Nicki Minaj, an undeniably gifted lyricist, carved her own image that resists industry stereotypes.
Pop Smoke’s late death was likely a new beginning of a lost art. However, Hip-hop’s creative reservoir is a large pond with unlimited depth. Regardless of who matches whose skill, icon or style, audiences should welcome any trail new generations blaze. At day’s end, Shoot For The Stars, Aim for the Moon, is a reminder to give people their flowers while they can receive them.