Popcaan Makes Everything Nice in Dancehall Again
Words by Saxon Baird
Anyone proclaiming the death of dancehall earlier this year was quickly silenced by the return of 26-year old Jamaican dancehall superstar, Popcaan.
Not that he really went anywhere other than into the studio for the past year to record his debut full-length, Where We Come From, for NYC-based Mixpak Records. Led by the hugely popular single “Everything Nice,” the new album has garnered excellent reviews and reasserted dancehall as a musical force despite some suggesting the genre was waning in popularity.
Popcaan’s success this year has squashed such doubts. But despite being an often self-proclaimed “unruly boss” as a tattoo across his chest suggest, the Jamaican artist has reinvigorated the genre by taking a different route: making dancehall nice again.
“Dancehall nuh dead,” Popcaan succinctly declared while speaking by phone from Shocking Vibes studio in Kingston. “Dancehall always be changing and doing new things and collaborating with other artists.”
Photo Credit: Ports Bishop
Originally hailing from a small rural village in Jamaica’s Saint Thomas parish, Popcaan moved as a teen to Portmore, a working class dormitory town just outside of Kingston. There, he eventually fell under the tutelage of worldwide dancehall star Vybz Kartel and the Portmore Empire — a crew of dancehall artists and producers headed up by Kartel. Popcaan quickly found notoriety on the island with a number of singles including a guest appearance on Kartel’s massive single “Clarks,” which famously begins with Vybz asking, “Wha gwaan, Popcaan?”
Another string of bigger hits would quickly come for the young artist including the global dancehall anthem, “Only Man She Wants” in 2011. But that same year Vybz Kartel was arrested for murder charges and the dancehall scene was shook up. Kartel was eventually convicted and sentenced to life in prison earlier this year, which leading many to ponder where dancehall would go next. Popcaan remains mostly silent about the Kartel situation, but in his most recent output it is evident that he is looking to steer clear of such controversy in his music and personal life.
And this approach might be something dancehall is in need of at this time, having been mired in legal battles, lagging sales, and violent beefs between dancehall artists on the island over the past ten years. Popcaan’s music is a change of pace with lyrics that largely avoid contention, and instead, have become increasingly introspective.
Tracks like “Everything Nice” or “V.S.O.P.,” a mid-tempo, liquor-ode released earlier this year, focus on the day-to-day struggles of life in Jamaica and in the things that help you make it through: rum and good music.
“This is an experience I want to share with the world. It’s based off of everybody’s life and not just my own,” Popcaan explains. “It’s not just a Jamaican thing but a worldwide experience.”
This reach for relatable themes isn’t necessarily new to Popcaan. His previous singles, “Ravin” and “Party Shot,” were breezy, summer anthems for imbibing whether in Jamaica or elsewhere. The tracks crossed over outside of the island easily, finding success throughout Europe and even on American airwaves. But Popcaan’s recent output has added a thoughtful lyrical layer to the artist’s repertoire.
One such example is “The System,” which finds the young artist showcasing his dexterity as he veers into social-political subject matter without sacrificing his knack for catchy, lyrical-driven hooks. Driven by an up-tempo beat courtesy of the Loudspeaker riddim from Brooklyn-based producer Dre Skull, Popcaan avoids party-ready lyrics for which the track seems destined. Instead, Popcaan in his signature high-end delivery asks in earnest repeatedly, “Wey di system do fi ghetto youth?” only to immediately answer his question with a resounding, “nothing.”
Photo Credit: Marvin Bartley
As Popcaan explains, the track declares that suffering under oppressive systems of power is a universal experience.
“Sufferation is really a worldwide thing and I don’t really see no change,” says Popcaan. “So ‘The System’ is about what many of us have to face everyday here in Jamaica, but also what many experience all over the world.”
This move towards more universally relatable themes is heard throughout the album and displayed in the album’s title Where We Come From. According to Popcaan, the use of “We” instead of “I” is intentional.
“It’s not really just my story but the story of the community where I’m from,” Popcaan says. “And that story involves a lot of other people.”
That plays out in many different ways on Where We Come From. “Love Yuh Bad” is an upbeat tale of falling in love with a visiting tourist and becoming a baby daddy. “Number One Freak” is everything that the title suggests. But the lead track “Hold On” strikes a more serious note, calling for one to find the strength to endure the troubles of one’s life.
This fluid transition between smart social critiques and sexy “slack” tunes showcases a versatility that until now has rarely been heard on Popcaan’s biggest hits. To Dre Skull, who over saw production on Where We Come From, this new territory in Popcaan’s lyrics doesn’t come so much as a surprise.
“Some of his very early singles like “Dream” and “Gangsta City” has some of the lyrical flavor that you are getting on this new album and what he is talking about now,” reflects Dre Skull. “As he got bigger as an artist, his hits were all party songs which is how a lot of people got introduced to him, and then thought that this was who Popcaan was but that isn’t necessarily the case.”
Dre Skull is quick to also point out that the subject matter was all Popcaan’s choice and involved no influence on his part or others.
“I have to give him all the credit in that regard,” says Dre Skull. ”I’d love to say that I had something to do with it but this is really the album that he wanted to make lyrically. This is where his mind was at and what he wanted.”
Dre Skull also sees this transition as a natural progression as Popcaan grows artistically.
“It’s important to note that he is maturing as an artist and with his full-length, there was that desire to put out a grander statement. So I think that’s where his head was at with this album.”
To Popcaan, it was simply a part of who he was and finding the right time to reveal that side of him. “It was time to show the world that there’s another side to Popcaan too,” declares the young artist. “There’s more to Popcaan than just one thing.”