New York City is a city that is romanticized like no other in America, and I would say the world as a whole. Some European cities like Paris and Madrid are talked about more organically, but I would say that the way artists speak of New York is on a different level. One of my favorite shows is How I Met Your Mother, and one of the episodes sticks out to me on this topic. In the episode, the main character Ted (who lives and works in New York City) is having a debate with his fiance Stella about staying in New York or moving to New Jersey where she lives. In a fierce back and forth Ted says a line about Frank Sinatra’s song “New York, New York”. When Ted mentions Frank Sinatra as a reason that New York is better than New Jersey, Stella retorts by saying that Sinatra is actually from Hoboken, New Jersey. Ted then fiercely retorts “ya but what city is he singing about? It isn’t Secaucus, Secaucus!” In short, New York City has a deeper significance than other cities.
This is something that we see across various artistic and entertainment mediums. Many cities have musical and theater, but none are quite like Broadway. In the sports world, New York teams tend to get more coverage, and winning in New York will immortalize you more than in other cities. In hip hop, New York holds a special place in the lore of the genre because some of the greatest rappers of all time are from the five boroughs. From the beginnings in the late ’70s with Grandmaster Flash to the 80s with Rakim into the golden era with Notorious BIG, New York City is rich in hip hop culture. Yet over the last two decades, the city hasn’t produced the quality that it has become known for. Rappers that come out of New York now don’t sound like New York, instead, they have been mimicking the sounds of trap rappers from the South. I attribute this new reality and dormancy to two tragedies that occurred 4 days from one another but 20 years apart: the murders of Big L and Pop Smoke.
The Peak and Fall of the ’90s
New York rappers in the 90s were everywhere and dominating the charts. Rappers and groups such as the Wu-Tang Clan, Notorious BIG, Jay-Z, Nas, DMX, and Mobb Deep were producing music that was visionary and is still widely listened to today. These rappers took the mold left to them from 80s greats like Rakim, Kool G Rap, and Big Daddy Kane and turned it into a subgenre of gangsta rap that was very New York. Hard-hitting basslines with brash lyrical bravado and storytelling that just felt like walking down a street in Brooklyn or Queens. In the very short timeframe of 1993–1997, many albums were released that were considered classic works by may rap aficionados. Releases such as Enter the Wu-Tang 36 Chambers, Liquid Swords, Ready To Die, Illmatic, and Reasonable Doubt still are looked at in high regard by avid rap fans even this day.
As the late ’90s drew closer, it was time for the next generation to take the mantle left by the legends of the decade. And while many of these legends were still active (Nas, Jay-Z, and DMX were still releasing albums) but the death of the Notorious BIG shook the entire New York hip hop scene. In this midst of this sadness, came a new face on the scene. His name was Lamont Coleman, better known by his stage name Big L.
Big L seemed like the 2.0 evolution of New York hip hop. So much so that Nas even said that he did not know how to compete with him and that L was going to take over the entire rap game. There was a style to Big L that New York had not seen before. He was a great storyteller, with a captivating flow to his rhymes that was incredibly engaging. And there were the lyrics. It can be said that Big L was a pioneer to something that I call the “punchline rapper”. A rapping style where the emphasis comes from metaphors and similies made at the end of a line that elicits a response from the listener. Think of the way a standup comedian delivers the punchline to a joke but in rap form.
Big L perhaps did this better than any other rapper at the time and any rapper since then. After the release of his debut album “Lifestylez ov da Poor & Dangerous,” it became apparent that Big L was the future of the New York hip hop scene. Big L’s style showcased an evolution in what the new New York sound was with tales of street life weaved into quotable lines that still sound innovative over 20 years later (here is a great roundup of some of Big L’s best verses). All signals were pointing to him being the next great New York rapper, to take the mantle from Nas and Jay-Z as the voice of the city. That was until February 15th, 1999.
Coleman was a victim of a drive-by shooting on the street that he referenced so many times in his songs, 139th Street in Harlem, New York. While his time in hip hop was short-lived, his influence cannot be understated. From Big L came a generation of punchline rappers such as Fabolous, Cassidy, Papoose, and Lloyd Banks. Listening to any of these rappers, particularly in their early work, there is an obvious element of Big L inspiration in the way that these artists delivered their verses.
Another side effect of the loss of Big L was that there was an opening for rappers in other regions, like Atlanta, to become the dominant force in hip hop. With no one to carry the torch as the young and fresh sound of the city, the rap scene in New York faded for a few years until the commercial rise of 50 Cent. However, the sound of the city did not seem to be there with rappers like 50 and others after him. Those three years of absence that would have been filled by Big L were left vacant, allowing the South to rise as the preeminent force in modern hip hop styles.
Mimicking the South
Many rappers that have hailed from New York City that have gained notoriety since the year 2000 have sounded different than the pioneers that came before them. As rappers from Atlanta and Houston started to gain in popularity, rappers from New York tried to mimic the styles and sounds of their Southern contemporaries. Even 50 Cent had a lyric on the song “Like My Style” where he said, “I’m a New Yorker, but I sound Southern”.
This borrowing of elements from Southern hip hop artists started heavily with 50 Cent but eventually was adopted by many New York-based artists like Fabolous. More production skewed towards 808-heavy sounds being popularized by Manny Fresh and others. The idea was simple enough to understand by New York rappers: the Southern sound was selling so if you can’t beat them, join them. In the subsequent years that followed spanning two decades, that is exactly what rappers from New York were doing, trying to sound like Atlanta rappers.
Releases from the A$AP Mob collection of rappers, Desiigner, Nikki Minaj, Cardi B, and Joey Bada$$ have all sounded more Zone 6 than 5 boroughs, especially with the inclusion of more producers that pioneered the sound of rappers like Lil Wayne, Future, and Gucci Mane lending production to New York rappers that further diluted the sound coming from the city.
Eventually, fans realized that if they wanted to listen to the sounds of the south that it was best to go for the source. As a result, the scene in New York faded and lead to a rise in the prominence of other cities such as Chicago, Detroit, and Miami. Meanwhile, the city that started the whole genre of rap and hip hop laid dormant without much of a presence or a movement. And this was the case until merely a couple of years ago, where a distinct New York sound was born out of Brooklyn.
Where Brooklyn At?
Brooklyn has always been a hotbed for young rap talent ever since the beginning of the genre. Rappers like Big Daddy Kane, Jay-Z, and The Notorious BIG have all hailed from the iconic borough. Yet in the past decade none outside of Jay-Z, Mos Def, and Talib Kweli have moved the needle in terms of reimagining the sound of Brooklyn, and at a greater scale the sound of New York City.
While there have been some independent gems released out of Brooklyn over the last decade from the likes of Killah Priest and Skyzoo, the ability to create a movement has largely been absent. Long gone are the days of Bad Boy and even Flipmode. Instead, there were a few rappers out of the borough that made mainstream sounding songs but did not sound very Brooklyn or New York for that matter. Ironically enough, it took a sound from across the Atlantic Ocean in the UK for Brooklyn and New York to find its new sound after two decades of dormancy.
Drill music is a subgenre of trap music that originated in Chicago with rappers like Chief Keef and G Herbo. That style eventually found its way to London where it became a movement and transformed into the sound of the UK. It was these producers of UK Drill music like 808 Melo that branched out into Brooklyn to create a similar but new sound called Brooklyn Drill.
While Drill music in Chicago and the UK had many ominous and dark themes, the Brooklyn variety took it a different way with sounds laced with remnants of early 2000’s New York that just sounded unique to the five boroughs. The sound had been molded to represent life in New York City with themes of drugs and violence but also with songs that would not be out of place at a party. The movement started with rappers like 22Gz and Sheff G adopting the sound on songs like “Panic” and “No Suburban”, creating some buzz in New York. However, it was not fully adopted as the new sound of the city until the arrival of Bashar Jackson, better known as Pop Smoke.
Rise of the Woo
Pop Smoke entered the rap landscape with force immediately. He started by rapping over Sheff G’s “Panic” and his deep voice and poignant delivery evoked instant comparisons to 50 Cent. He would go on to release two mixtapes, “Meet The Woo” and “Meet The Woo Part 2”, both of which did extremely well on the Billboard charts. What set Pop Smoke on a trajectory for stardom was his smash single “Welcome to the Party”. The song’s video was filmed in his neighborhood of Canarsie, Brooklyn and just felt very New York between the way the video was shot, the delivery of Pop Smoke, and the sound of the production.
It became very clear that Pop Smoke was on his way to stardom, and that he was the new torchbearer that the city had been waiting for since Big L’s tragic death. He embodied a certain bravado and swagger that is an embodiment of the city, and he felt like a piece of New York as opposed to a national or worldwide rapper that happened to be from New York. This was the case with 50 Cent, for example.
The proliferation of Pop Smoke created an avenue for other Brooklyn Drill rappers to get the exposure to make the subgenre viable. Rappers like Rah Swish, Fivio Foreign, and Sleepy Hallow now found themselves more searched for since their style was affiliated with Pop Smoke’s style. As the momentum of the movement continued, anticipation grew more and more for his debut album. Then on February 19, 2020 tragedy struck. A mere 4 days after the 21st anniversary of Big L’s death, Pop Smoke was shot twice during a home invasion in Hollywood Hills, California. New York had lost another shining star.
The immediate reaction to his death was jarring. Everyone in the rap community expressed their sympathy for the loss of this rising star. Yet another rising star in New York taken from us far too soon. Too soon for us to see what his career would have become. While their deaths were separated by 21 years, the parallels of impact left by Pop Smoke and Big L’s murders cannot be understated. The entire tenor of New York hip hop has been impacted by the far too early demise of these two young innovative musical minds.
Missed Opportunites and Future Possibilities
Almost five months after his death, Pop Smoke’s album was released posthumously. The album (titled “Shoot For The Stars, Aim For The Moon”), feels like a glimpse into what could have been but not the full realization of the young rapper’s potential. There are moments on the album with songs such as “44 Bulldog” and “West Coast S***” where the sound that fans of the Brooklyn Drill style have come accustomed to will appreciate. However, there are far too many instances where the following of Pop Smoke’s artistic vision can be questioned. The lack of features from prominent Brooklyn Drill rappers is especially noteworthy. Having some big-name features from 50 Cent, Lil Baby, DaBaby and Quavo are to be expected, but adding those at the expense of those that are associated with the artist does come off a bit like a money grab.
The existence of this release underscores the reality that fans of hip hop from New York have been robbed of potential greatness twice. Big L seemed to be the future of lyrical rap. Poignant punchlines laced within a storytelling prowess that would give all the greats a run for their money. From that came a generation of battle rappers with punchline prowess. Big L was the architect of that, and his untimely tragic demise is a devastation to the progress of hip hop.
Pop Smoke was more than merely a rapper, he was a symbol of the idea that New York is back. That after two decades toiling in mediocrity and obscurity that the former hotbed of talent had finally rediscovered this sound. The rise of Pop Smoke helped to facilitate the rise of many of his contemporaries in Brooklyn as well. Rappers like Sheff G and Fivio Foreign have been getting more attention and some like 22Gz have been signed by bigger-name rappers (Kodak Black in 22Gz case). Yet when Pop Smoke died, much like when Big L died, there was a sense of the wind being knocked out of the sails. Except maybe this time the end story will be different.
Big L inspired many rappers in the early 2000s with his punchline style. And many of these rappers made quality albums. Fabolous’ “Ghetto Fabolous”, Lloyd Banks’ “The Hunger For More”, and Cassidy’s “I’m A Hustla” were all regarded as solid efforts. However, the lack of the bar of Big L to compare to stole some of the identity away from punchline rappers. In the case of Brooklyn Drill rappers, this may not be the case. Most of the prominent rappers in the subgenre knew Pop Smoke personally, worked with him on projects, and now will attempt to carry on the legacy he started.
Twenty years is a long time, even longer time in the very fast-moving world of American hip hop. For New York City to go that long without a proper voice as a representation of the city is a tragedy. Who knows what the landscape would have been if Big L and Pop Smoke had not been murdered senselessly. I like to think that hip hop in New York would have been a better creative place. Looking forward, I can only hope as a fan of New York hip hop that the legacy of Pop Smoke and Big L live on to avoid another two decades of darkness.
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