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BLACK MUSIC MONTH: THE KING OF NEW YORK, PART ONE

On any given day in New York, you can hear the music of Pop Smoke blasting from car speakers, apartment windows, bodegas and smart phones. His raspy voice haunts the five boroughs like a restless spirit refusing to let go of his beloved city.

He was crowned the King of New York—a title that has over the years been variously bestowed upon such East Coast giants as Nas, The Notorious B.I.G., Jay-Z and 50 Cent (among others)—before even issuing an official studio album.

With the release of his 2019 debut mixtape, Meet the Woo, and its follow-up, Meet the Woo 2, Pop Smoke won over the streets and then the mainstream. Ominous, hood-stamped sing-song anthems like “Welcome to the Party,” “Dior” and “Christopher Walking” led the way.

But on 2/19/20, less than a year into his Big Apple monarchy, the 20-year-old was fatally shot during a botched robbery at a rental home in the Hollywood Hills. Pop Smoke’s death shocked New York, the hip-hop world and beyond. His posthumous album debut, Shoot for the Stars Aim for the Moon, released just months after he was killed, would sell more than 2 million copies, a reflection of his reign as the King of New York.

“It’s no coincidence that he reminded so many of us of B.I.G., certainly in terms of vocal tone and texture and the same kind of aggressiveness and cultural swag,” says Selwyn Seyfu Hinds, who grew up in the same Canarsie, Brooklyn, neighborhood as Pop Smoke. “He’s definitely part of that King of New York lineage.”

Hinds is the lead writer and executive producer of the upcoming Hulu limited series and Sterling K. Brown vehicle Washington Black. But back in the mid- to late ’90s, he was Editor in Chief of the influential hip-hop magazine The Source. It was during his tenure there that the contest for King of New York was at its most competitive.

Following Nas’ 1994 debut, Illmatic—perhaps the most revered hip-hop album of the decade—the lyrical golden child from the Queensbridge projects was anointed king.

The same year, however, The Notorious B.I.G., also a towering lyricist, established his own royal bona fides with the straight-up street-hustler-to-baller ambition of his two-fisted introduction, Ready to Die. A native of Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood, Biggie 
wasn’t only respected around the way either; the multiplatinum numbers he was putting up rivaled those of West Coast juggernauts Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg and friend-turned-rival Tupac Shakur.


One of Biggie’s nicknames was “Frank White,” a reference to the rags-to-riches drug lord played by Christopher Walken in the 1990 movie The King of New York. (Pop Smoke’s “Christopher Walking,” by the way, boasts the boast “She know that papi outside/She know I’m the king of New York.”) The July 1995 cover of The Source made it official: Biggie looms large, flanking the Twin Towers next to the words “The Notorious B.I.G.: The King of New York Takes Over.”

Not everyone was on board with Big Poppa’s coronation, however. “I remember The Source staff kind of complaining that Nas’ It Was Written wasn’t Illmatic enough,” Hinds recalls of the rapper’s double-platinum sophomore effort, which had a more commercial, radio-friendly sheen than its predecessor. “And Steve Stoute, Nas’ manager at the time, was like, ‘Well, it’s you guys’ fault, because you proclaimed Biggie the King of New York, and now everybody is trying to be that.’”

Nas’ response to the Notorious B.I.G.’s majesty was a veiled shot on the swaggering track “The Message”: “There’s one life, one love/So there can only be one King.” Biggie countered on the bruising “Kick in the Door”: “Ain’t no other Kings in this rap thing, they siblings/Nothing but my children, one shot they disappearing.”

A then-rising rapper from Brooklyn’s Marcy Houses born Shawn Carter cleverly inserted himself into the debate on his 1997 statement “Where I’m From”: “I’m from where n——s pull your card/And argue all day about who’s the best MC, Biggie, Jay-Z or Nas.”

The battle for King of New York was truly on.

Coming in Part 2: Mobb Deep, Wu-Tang, Nicki, Cardi and more.

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