In a summer without an anthem, one of the hottest songs this solstice is “Welcome To The Party” by Canarsie, Brooklyn street rapper Pop Smoke. While this may come as a surprise to listeners who expect summertime records to be electric and feverish—a mirror of the lively, yet humid, season—such is not the case with “Welcome To The Party.”
With a tempo that moves at the pace of a leopard upon its prey and a melancholy bassline full of malice and disgust, the production by 808Melo, a UK drill beatsmith, is as frigid as winters in Alaska. The cherry on top of this menacing sundae is Pop Smoke's voice. His deep tone is threatening, a grizzled growl from the pits of hell. His weighty timbre is oddly charming, a charismatic villain sharing all of his sins.
“Nigga, Dread just caught a body (Nigga, Dread just caught a body) / And that's on the gang, nigga, I was just with him,” Pop Smoke raps, convincingly, on the song's opening verse. The Brooklynite is raw and unfiltered, a man of threats and dastardly deeds, but there is thrilling fun to this intimidating energy. “Welcome To The Party” is a party where guns arrive as plus-ones, people chase prescription drugs with Hennessy, and invites are sent only to those who can laugh in the face of danger.
In his “Welcome To The Party” Verified interview with Genius, Pop Smoke tangos around the incriminating lyrics with tongue-in-cheek humor. It's an enthralling watch, his charisma translates on the screen even though it's likely the annotation of these lyrics shouldn't be caught on camera. Fact or fiction, however, is known only by the creator, not the consumer. The listener doesn't know what is real, only what they believe. The video's first comment left by cutelala15 is telling of the listener's observation:
“Why every summer we dance to murder confessions”
A rap song should never be considered a murder confession, but there is some truth to Cutelala's statement.
Who could forget Bobby Shmurda and the 2014 summer of “Hot Nigga”? How many shoulders irresistibly shimmied to the infectious Jahlil Beats production? How many hats were thrown to the sky and defied gravity while Bobby boldly declared, “Mitch caught a body about a week ago, week ago?” “Hot Nigga” is a perfect record and a flawless summer anthem that is certified platinum, but the fun didn't last.
Shortly after Bobby became an internet and music industry sensation with a major record deal, he was arrested along with 14 others and charged with conspiracy to commit murder, reckless endangerment, and drug and gun possession charges. Currently, Bobby, who was 20 at the time of his arrest, is serving the fourth year of what's expected to be a five-year sentence after accepting a seven-year plea deal on one count of third-degree conspiracy and one count of weapons possession. Bobby Shmurda ruled the summer; by Christmas, he was gone.
Who could forget Tay-K and the 2017 summer release of “The Race”? It's not every day a rapper who is placed on house arrest (and facing capital murder charges) removes their ankle monitor and, while running from the police, writes and records a song about it. “Fuck a beat, I was tryna beat a case, but I ain't beat that case, bitch I did the race,” the teenage rapper says with childlike enthusiasm. On June 30, 2017, the day he released “The Race,” Tay-K was arrested in Elizabeth, New Jersey.
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Currently, the music video for “The Race,” shot while he was on the run, has accumulated 174 million views on YouTube. The single is certified platinum. The moment a door to a new life appeared, Tay-K, who was 17 at the time, was taken where he couldn't run. Two years later, he has been found guilty of murder and aggravated robbery and sentenced to 55 years in prison. The summer was his to rule, and the throne was his to take, but Tay-K got a cage instead of a castle.
Who could forget YNW Melly and the 2018 summer smash “Murder On My Mind”? As the lead single off his debut mixtape, I Am You, “Murder On My Mind” had almost instant success following it's March release on SoundCloud. Although Melly is lyrically wrestling with thoughts of murder, his sugary melody and the elegant, piano-driven instrumentation, produced by SMKEXCLSV, creates a musical contradiction. Crime has never sounded so saccharine and honeyed. This graphic ballad about a homicide became a trailblazing hit by June.
As the momentum around YNW Melly was reaching a fever pitch, on February 13, 2019, the 20-year-old rapper from Gifford, Florida was arrested and charged with two counts of first-degree murder. The two victims, Anthony "YNW Sakchaser" Williams and Christopher "YNW Juvy" Thomas Jr., were close friends and also a part of Melly's YNW rap crew. Three days later, following the news of his double murder arrest, “Murder On My Mind” hit No. 1 on Apple Music. Currently, the music video has racked up over 247 million views on YouTube, and the record is certified 3x platinum, all while the artist is behind bars without bail. Before he could rule his second summer, YNW Melly may have lived the murder he wrote.
In all three cases, the boys are barely men. Life dealt them difficult cards. Their accused transgressions brought them stardom. These hit songs were written and recorded at the cost of lives—lives that are behind bars; lives that now at rest and buried; lives affected forever by the alleged wrongdoings. No one blames the lion for hunting in his jungle. These are children who understood eat or be eaten. Their lyrics might be made up, but the crimes and consequences are very real.
Rap is art; it is poetry. Often it is real, but there are times when it isn't. Take, for example, Lil Tecca, one of the latest rap kids to go viral. In his most recent interview with Genius, the 16-year-old rapper is frank about his lyrics not imitating his life. He raps about cars, but can’t drive. He raps about having a bunch of women but is in a committed relationship. The guns aren't real; the trips to France aren't either; nothing is. Lil Tecca is just a kid having fun.
Fun is a birthright of all children. Sadly, not everyone gets to enjoy their youth. To grow up fast means to make mistakes; to lose freedom.
Hip-hop promotes authenticity; recording artists are expected to keep it real. Hip-hop created space for young men (and women) to document the madness of their city like a filmmaker—and to earn praise for their work. It became a space where former drug dealers can take their experiences and turn them into a major record deal. There is no other genre that allows stories of generational trauma, fragile mental health, and systematic racism to be worth more than silver and gold.
Unfortunately, authenticity can make you the target of vultures who aren't within or who don't understand the culture of rap. Vultures fail to separate fact from fiction, and rap lyrics from real crimes and real evidence. Prolific South Central rapper Drakeo the Ruler, along with Ralfy the Plug and Kellz of the Stinc Team rap group, is currently facing this reality while on trial for murder. In his latest crystallization of a courtroom filled with music video clips, rap lyrics, Instagram messages, and crooked police tactics, veteran Los Angeles-based journalist Jeff Weiss touches on the long history of prosecutors using rap lyrics against their authors in a court of law:
“At the turn of the century, Shyne and No Limit's Mac saw their lyrics scrutinized and stripped of context in order for prosecutors to tar them as demonic killers. As rap has become the most popular form of music, the fervor against it has only increased. According to Erik Nielson, the University of Richmond professor and co-author of Rap on Trial: Race, Lyrics, and Guilt in America, there have been hundreds of instances in the last decade where rappers — both famous and anonymous — have had their lyrics weaponized against them in the court of law.” —Jeff Weiss, “Stabbing, lies, and a twisted detective: Inside the murder trial of Drakeo the Ruler”
Rappers are storytellers. They have the first amendment right to tell whatever stories they feel are fit. Throughout the history of rap, there has been no distinction between imagination and incrimination. There doesn't need to be one. The trap beat doesn't demand absolute truth. Listeners choose to dance and sing to facts and fables never knowing which artists will make millions and who will go away for murder. And yet, still, they dance. Dancing is a birthright. Welcome to the party.
By Yoh, aka Pop Yoh, aka @Yoh31