The untold truth of Pop Smoke

The rap world was devastated by the untimely passing of up-and-comer Pop Smoke, who was shot and killed at the age of 20 in an apparent home invasion robbery in mid-February 2020. According to TMZ, the incident occurred following a house party at a Hollywood Hills, Calif. home. At around 4:30 a.m., at least four masked men reportedly broke in, fired multiple shots, and fatally injured the rapper.

The "Welcome To The Party" rapper was highly regarded as one of the most promising rappers in the increasingly popular New York City drill scene. His single "Welcome to the Party" (featuring Nicki Minaj) became a veritable summer anthem after it gave the rapper his first Top 10 hit on the rap charts. The week of his death, the star's second album Meet the Woo, Vol. 2 debuted at No. 7 on the Billboard 200 charts, but Smoke's success was also marred with controversy — from canceled sets and arrests to rumored gang affiliation. This is the untold truth of Pop Smoke.

Did social media lead Pop Smoke's killers right to him?

Pop Smoke may have made a fatal error on social media. According to TMZ, the 20-year-old was possibly renting a house — the same house that was invaded — from The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills' Teddi Mellencamp, the daughter of John Mellencamp. The reality star owns a number of properties with her husband Edwin Arroyave in the greater Los Angeles, Calif. area.

Prior to his death, Pop Smoke was celebrating his stay in Beverly Hills on social media. He posted a location-tagged Instagram Story, and the star's last grid post, where he flexed his Louis Vuitton luggage while his friend Mike Dee held wads of cash, appeared to be outside on a suburban street. TMZ reported that the star accidentally gave away the address of the property when he showed off some gift bags online that were given to him following his No. 7 debut.

Pop Smoke's social media posts have led fans to suspect that Dee set the rapper up; however, he was quick to dispel rumors. In his sole Instagram post, Dee wrote, "I just lost my f***ing brother, my heart, my dawgz ... y'all don't know what's going on. Y'all come on here playing investigator and bashing me on the internet, I would never in my life set my brother up."

A heart condition cancelled Pop Smoke's basketball career

Pop Smoke never really intended to be a rapper. Before jumping into a career in the music industry, he was actually a sports star who played baseball, football, and basketball. According to reports from The Fader and XXL, Smoke grew up in the Canarsie neighborhood of Brooklyn, N.Y., aka the end of the line for the perpetually delayed L train. While in school, he excelled as a point shooting guard, which garnered him a full scholarship to Rocktop Academy, a plush, sports-minded prep school in the Philadelphia, Pa. suburbs. Per XXL, the prep school's main purpose is to "get their students attention for college basketball scholarships." Unfortunately, Smoke's basketball career was short-lived.

XXL revealed that Smoke was diagnosed with a heart-murmur at the age 15, and was permanently benched from competitive sports as a result. According to The Fader, he ultimately left his fancy prep school and returned home after getting into some trouble on the streets. "You can take the kid out the hood, but you can't take the hood out the kid," he said. "I went to go get some food [in Philly]... these guys were in front of the corner store, I walk in to the spot, they said some crazy sh– to me, and we just end up rumbling."

Street life defined Pop Smoke's teen years

Pop Smoke might have briefly had a full scholarship, but according to the The New York Times, the rapper lived a "high-risk, high reward" lifestyle throughout much of his teens. He claimed to have been kicked out of the eighth grade after bringing a gun to school, and told XXL that he started selling drugs when he returned home from prep school. By the time he was 16 years old, he was driving a BMW 5 Series — and it's safe to say, not many kids who just get their learner's permit have a $50,000+ car.

"You like nice things, you got to do things to get nice things," he told the New York Times. It's widely reported that the star also spent two years under house arrest for a since-dismissed weapons charge, and at the time of his New York Times interview, he had only recently gotten his ankle bracelet removed. Apparently, house arrest wasn't even all that tough for the rapper. He told XXL that he spent most of his time reading. "I like to read and f**k a lot of b****s, so I'm good," he said.

According to the Los Angeles Times, officials believed Pop Smoke was a member of a Crips-affiliated gang.

Pop Smoke is a (World)Star

Pop Smoke had one run-in with viral fame long before he ever released "Welcome to the Party" — and it was a very great one. The rapper was actually the subject of a 2012 WorldStarHipHop video titled "Young Crip Gets Slapped by NY Bloods After Taking Out Beads." According to The Fader, the video depicts the then 13-year-old school kid getting slapped multiple times in the face by a group of young people from the neighboring town of East Flatbush in a clear effort to publicly humiliate him (possibly for wearing a beaded necklace. Kids are cruel).

"I'm glad it happened as a kid," he told the New York Times of the humiliating incident. "I realized it's time to boss up — life ain't sweet." Boss up, he did. Seven years after the video was filmed, Smoke uploaded his first YouTube video titled "POP SMOKE SMACKS OPP SHAPOW!!!!" The description reads: "Pop Smoke catches Blood that smacked him when he was a kid. Now tables turned and pop smoke shows the Blood member how you really shapow somebody." It's probably impossible to verify who the actual "shapow" recipient is here, but the video definitely shows Pop Smoke standing in line at a store, before reaching around the customer in front of him and violently smacking him in the face, sending the man to the ground. 

MPR was the first time Pop Smoke picked up a microphone

Pop Smoke's career was a total accident. It happened by chance, and if it weren't for some very good weed, we may have never met the Woo. It's just proof that no matter how hard you make plans, the universe might have other ideas.

According to a 2020 interview in XXL, Pop Smoke picked up a microphone for the first time when recording "MPR" in 2018. He was visiting a studio in Brooklyn with his friend and then-fledgling rapper Jay Gwuapo, but Gwuapo got too high and fell asleep. While Gwuapo was snoozing, Smoke decided to jump in the vocal booth and give it a whirl. He downloaded a random beat from YouTube, which according to The Fader, was created by 808Melo, an East London-based producer who later became one of the rapper's close collaborators.

"MPR" was a success right out of the gate. "I knew it hit because it got leaked, and when it leaked, everybody was jacking the song," Pop Smoke told The Fader. "And when it hit I was like, Yo, we got something here, and I kept going." He signed to Victor Victor Worldwide, a Universal subsidiary, shortly after.

A great rapper needs a great stage name

Every rapper needs to have a solid stage name, and the "Meet the Woo" singer had a great one — it's a product of both his family heritage and his life on the streets. It also vaguely got him in trouble.

According to The Fader, Pop Smoke was born Bashar Jackson into a "Panamanian household with a strong female presence." His name is a family nickname. His grandfather started calling him "Poppa," and it stuck in the way all great nicknames do. Smoke's invented surname was given to him on the streets, where he was called "Smoke Oh Guap." It was this surname that ended up being a point of contention when he pleaded not guilty to interstate transportation of a stolen vehicle in January 2020.

According to the New York Times, the prosecutor Gillian Kassnery argued that Smoke was a flight risk because he allegedly used "at least six aliases." In reference to his rap name, she added, "Not to mention, the alias he most commonly uses actually refers to leaving." Pop Smoke was subsequently barred from leaving the country without government permission.

The time Pop Smoke was banned by the NYPD

Pop Smoke's career was still rising when his non-performance at Rolling Loud Festival in New York City's Citi Field made him a tristate area household name. According to The Fader, the star was one of five acts — including 22GZ, Casanova, Sheff G, and Don Q — that the NYPD banned from playing the show. In a letter to the festival (via The Fader), NYPD Assistant Chief Martin Morales expressed fears that the rappers' performances would lead to "a higher risk of violence" and claimed "[the rappers] have been affiliated with recent acts of violence citywide." 

Pop Smoke only found out he wasn't allowed to perform at Rolling Loud the day before the gig, and it seemed like his performance at Powerhouse Live, a pre-party for Power 105.1's annual concert, was canceled for the same reason. "That was a bummer," he told The Fader, later adding, "The radio knows not to say my name no more."

Some of the other artists who were booted from Rolling Loud fought back on Instagram. Casanova claimed he hasn't had a felony conviction since 2007. Don Q claimed in a now-deleted post (via The Fader) that he's "never been in any gang activities" and "never had issues at any of [his] previous shows." Rolling Loud maintained that all artists were paid and offered slots at other related festivals around the country as an alternative.

Grand Theft oh no

The Rolling Loud Festival wasn't the only time Pop Smoke dealt with the NYPD. In January 2020, the star was arrested at John F. Kennedy International Airport before a scheduled concert in New York City. According to the New York Times, the star was charged with "interstate transportation of a stolen vehicle." The weirdest part was that the black 2019 Rolls Royce in question was the same one he borrowed for his music video — how was anyone expecting to get away with that?

Per the New York Times, the owner of the $375,000 car lent the Rolls-Royce to the "Dior" rapper for a single day of filming. When it came time to return it, the rapper was reportedly MIA, so the owner GPS-tracked the car and found out it was "traveling through Arizona," miles away from where it started in Los Angeles. A few days later, Pop Smoke "posted [a] photo on Instagram with the Rolls-Royce in New York." It's hard to say that really helped his case.

The Rolls-Royce was ultimately recovered by police in Brooklyn outside of Pop Smoke's mother's home with a new license plate and tinted windows. Investigators believed the rapper was responsible for arranging it to be taken cross-country on a flatbed truck, but Pop Smoke pleaded not guilty, was released on a $250,000 bond, and banned from leaving the country without prior permission. He was also ordered to stay away from gang members and the car's owner.

Pop Smoke threw 'the party' together in 30 minutes

It doesn't take a lot of time for true brilliance to shine. "Welcome to the Party" became a summer anthem when Nicki Minaj jumped in on the remix, but it only took about the length of an episode of Friends to write most of it. In an interview with The Fader, Smoke claimed he laid down most of the song's foundation in about 30 minutes. How did he do it so fast? The rapper let the vibes take the wheel — or drive the boat.

"Everything I make just be like, vibes. Yesterday I made a song called 'Drive the Boat.' I just made it cuz I seen a girl go like that," he told The Fader, mimicking the move popularized by Megan Thee Stallion which consists of taking shots, typically of D'Usse, straight from the bottle. "talking about 'Drive the boat.' About to drive the boat with the liquor. So I'm like, hey, I just made a song called 'Drive the Boat.' I gotta have some inspiration. That's when the best music comes up for me."

The people around Pop Smoke weren't just inspiration for his lyrics. Sonically, Meet the Woo was a transcontinental marriage. According to the The New York Times, 808Melo brought a London influence to the record, which gave it more "bounce" than the typically slower songs drill songs in the U.S.

Pop Smoke never saw rap as the end game

Pop Smoke never expected massive rap success. In an interview with The Fader, he revealed that he initially had dreams to go to Howard University — a federally chartered historically black university or HBCU — and join a fraternity. "It wasn't always rapping. Who would have thought I would be a rapper?" he said.

The "War" rapper built his empire off the backs of his friends and hard work. He purposely kept his efforts as DIY as possible, with a tenacious sense of confidence. "That was my goal — do it by yourself, beat the odds," he told The Fader. "Cuz when you do it by yourself, it hit different. I always knew, I'mma be a millionaire. I always knew I was gonna have bread." (Technically, estimates put Pop Smoke's net worth somewhere in the range of $310,000 to $480,000 at the time of his death, but hey, half a loaf of bread is better than no bread, right?) 

Despite his success, rap was never going to be Pop Smoke's end game. The rapper told XXL that it's "just another step in his life," adding, "There's no telling what I might do after this. I'll probably open up a store or some sh**."