Their banter is a friendly exchange in which Popcaan answers Kartel’s introductory inquiry by homing in on the real issue of import—where Kartel acquired his fly-ass shoes. But the Pon di Gaza 2.0 single was also the first time Popcaan, who’d signed with Kartel’s Portmore music empire in 2008, had been thrust into the limelight so forcefully by his mentor. And his introduction was a hit. Where Kartel’s voice rumbled gruff and powerful, Popcaan’s favored higher registers and more rounded delivery (as does the verse from his fellow featured artist Gaza Slim). Both Popcaan and Gaza Slim also co-wrote the track with Kartel. The interplay was magnetic. The song captured—and maintained—listeners’ attention, becoming a radio hit internationally. In the singers’ native Jamaica, the success of the song sent the shoes’ popularity rocketing so high that, months later, Popcaan told The Guardian it was impossible to “go less than $10,000 Jamaican for Clarks” (or about $115 USD, a notable markup from the pre-“Clarks” price of roughly $68 USD). By late 2010, Popcaan had arrived on the scene, but he wasn’t done stepping into his role as one of dancehall’s all-stars.
The following year, the singer released “Only Man She Want” as an international single. Cocky but sweet, the song found Popcaan singing over So Unique Records’ “Lost Angel Riddim.” In standard riddim protocol, artists like Gaza Slim, Sheba, and Vybz Kartel all released their own rendition over the same production, but Popcaan’s stuck. “Only Man She Want” established the singer as a solo artist to watch, a rising star who didn’t need Kartel’s cosign to shine. In 2012, he signed with Mixpak Records. By the time Popcaan released his studio debut with the label, 2014’s Where We Come From, he’d begun to step out from Kartel’s shadow, releasing mixtapes and collaborating with artists like Pusha T and Snoop Dogg (who had briefly adopted the moniker “Snoop Lion” while pursuing a reggae career). Kartel’s later criminal sentencing—to life in prison for the murder of Clive “Lizard” Williams—dampened the Portmore artists’ spirits, but it didn’t stop them artistically.
It’s tempting to make the case for Kartel’s incarceration as the incidental catalyst that enabled Popcaan’s subsequent rise, but Where We Come From presented a fully fledged artist, a thoughtful and introspective singer whose creative inspiration found its roots in the pitfalls and triumphs that checkered his life. Executive-produced by the Mixpak Records founder Dre Skull, who Popcaan told me is “like family,” the record is multilayered and dynamic, its bangers as considered as its ballads. With lilts and lullabies, Where We Come From made the case for the complexity of both the artist and the country that birthed him.
The introductory track, “Hold On,” offered a weighty, considered message of hope: “Tell the ghetto youth dem / Hold on / One day we’ll be free at last,” he sang urgently. “Hold On” references “sufferation from Africa to India,” then zeroes in on a pain closer to home: “Society still treat we like criminals / But one day we’ll be free at last / Jamaica.” Popcaan’s insistence on the essential humanity of people like him—Jamaican people, black people, people shut out from traditional economies—resonates throughout Where We Come From. On “The System,” he laments the lack of opportunities granted to young people, again leaning into a tradition of referential lyricism by directly addressing his producer and creative collaborator: “Dre Skull, wha’ di system do fi ghetto youth? Nothing.” On “Ghetto (Tired of Crying),” his pain is physical: “Hungry days wi know / Ghetto, pon crackers and water wi grow,” he sings, referencing the inexpensive water biscuits that once formed the bulk of his diet.
But beyond threading Popcaan’s rags-to-riches narrative, the record also cemented his reputation as a hitmaker. Where We Come From’s first single, “Everything Nice,” debuted at No. 2 on the Billboard Top Reggae chart. “Love Yuh Bad,” which has thus far racked up more than 8 million YouTube views, became a fixation of the famed Jamaican interloper Drake. The Canadian rapper interpolated a line from “Love Yuh Bad” on his own “Too Good” in 2016. Despite Drake abandoning a leaked version of “Controlla” that initially featured Popcaan, the collaboration between the two catapulted Popcaan’s (and dancehall’s) stock among previously unfamiliar audiences. As numerous non-Jamaican artists (Drake, of course, but also Justin Bieber, Fifth Harmony, and Major Lazer) gain critical acclaim and commercial success for their “dancehall inspired” or “tropical house” music, Popcaan’s prominence has taken on a new urgency.
Even as Kartel continues to release music from behind bars, Popcaan and a crop of young Jamaican artists have been tasked with shaping the future of dancehall. “Me excited about any young artist or any new artists, you know, because me love seeing mi youth dem winning and me love seeing dem make it out of the struggle because I know what the struggles is like, you know?,” he told me. “So I love to see when they get out, and I just want them to always remember that music is what put them here, you know, so always put that first.” For Popcaan, prioritizing the music has always included finding new ways to reconnect with its histories and expand all that it can contain.