The last several years have not been kind to dancehall. Record sales have dwindled to negligible levels, while the crossover singles that used to infiltrate hip-hop radio every spring have stopped materializing. The genre’s remaining household names have been tainted by arrests, visa troubles and questionable production trends. But, as its shrinking reach has brought back into focus, dancehall is still an arena where anything can happen. Stars rise and fall quickly, their fates determined by a demanding public relatively uninfluenced by corporate decisions and plugged-in bloggers.
In early 2011, Popcaan was an underling in Vybz Kartel’s Portmore Empire, known primarily for his scenestealing feature on Kartel’s 2010 footwear anthem, “Clarks.” But thanks to a set of circumstances both fortuitous and calamitous, the 23 year old has, rather suddenly and unexpectedly, become dancehall’s new focal point. While his single “Ravin,” Jamaica’s undisputed summer anthem last year, continued its reign well into the fall, his mentor, Kartel, was arrested on the first of several murder charges, for which he remains behind bars. If the sudden silencing of the previously ubiquitous Kartel left a huge gap in the dancehall market, Popcaan did an admirable job filling it with singles like “Party Shot,” “Clean” and “Only Man She Want,” his first song to chart in the US. Now, it is medleys of his hits that crowds demand during peak club hours in Kingston. Radio and mixtape DJs splice his Yaaaoowwww adlib into songs he otherwise has nothing to do with.
“It’s a whole lot of pressure, a whole lot of pain, a whole lot of smiling, you know what I mean?” he says of the turn of events that hastened his rise. “With all of those things that happen, mi just haffi bring it out in a positive vibes.” Popcaan, whose unorthodox and oddly melodious delivery falls somewhere between a whine and a cackle, is a vastly different artist than his mentor. Where Kartel played up his image as the diabolical “worl’ boss,” warring simultaneously with rivals, mentors, ex-pupils and Jamaican cultural critics and altering his appearance by bleaching his skin, Popcaan has—for a dancehall artist at least—maintained a squeaky-clean image. His inventive slang (the title of his 2010 mixtape Hot Skull Fry Yiy Boil Brainz amalgamates some of his more colorful terms) appeals to dancehall’s male listeners, as much as his boyish features and coy personality have endeared him to its female ones. And he’s starting to make inroads towards re-establishing dancehall’s international brand. Busta Rhymes co-signed “Only Man She Want” with an official remix while Drake has tweeted out his lyrics. He’s also slated to make an appearance on Snoop Dogg’s upcoming Diplo-produced reggae album. “He’s naturally figured out how to do things that work both in the Jamaican market and internationally without having to oscillate between different types of songs,” notes Mixpak Records’ Dre Skull, the producer behind Popcaan’s “Get Gyal Easy” and “The System.” “Not many dancehall artists can do that.”
When asked about his future, Popcaan doesn’t offer much in the way of a longterm plan. Like dancehall at large, he seems less concerned with the design of things as he is with going with the inevitable flow. Anything can happen. “Music gives its own way,” he says. “You can’t predict music.”
Stream: Popcaan, "Party Shot"