Popcaan is setting the gold standard
Popcaan hasn’t written a song in years.
Yet the Jamaican dancehall star born Andrae Sutherland feeds his fans frequent singles, and is fresh off the release of his latest album, Great Is He, when we meet. So how does he do it? He used to jot down lyrics, scribbling away in the bathroom while in high school, still shy. “I don’t write anymore – I just go in the studio and vibe,” he says, plainly. Instead, he likens his creative approach to a sacred experience; something rooted in serendipity rather than structure. “I’ll just get the melody, like it’s talking to me.”
Top and vest: ABAGA VELLI
Trousers: Per Götesson
Shoes: Clarks Originals
Call it divine intervention, where his songs appear to him as revelations. Popcaan mostly records in a purpose-built home studio, but often he’ll grab his phone to record a voice note if inspiration strikes on the move. Take Aboboyaa, the sunny, Burna Boy-featuring single from Great Is He. Around the time he created the track, Popcaan was in Ghana with his friend, local businessman Nana Yaw Doudo (also known as Sledge), on a series of road trips to spark creativity. “We went far to the west side of Ghana – we drove for like 11 hours.” On their way back to Accra, “I saw these youths on a bike with what looked like a pickup truck on it”. Sledge explained that the men were riding an aboboyaa – a sort of motorised tricycle often used in Ghana to transport goods (and people) quickly, weaving through traffic more nimbly than a van.
“So mi say, ‘An aboboyaa, yeah?’ And then mi take out mi iPhone and sing, ‘She wants to ride pon my aboboyaa,’” Popcaan smirks. That exact hook now grounds the hip-winding, dancehall-Afrobeats fusion track. He sent the vocal snippet to longtime producer and collaborator Anju Blaxx with a simple direction: “‘Make a riddim for the galdem.’ If you listen to the song, in the intro you hear my voice, right? That’s a piece of the voice note I made that day.” And that’s how you write a song without writing a song.
Popcaan explains this artistic process over a tequila and juice he’s poured into a plastic cup, at a table in the centre of his makeshift dressing room. He’s decompressing after the Crack Magazine cover shoot in north London, a chunky silver ring on his pinky catching the light as he swirls the cup. Around the room, members of his team and entourage sit tight, tapping away on their phones as they wait for him to wrap. It’s his friend and collaborator Toni-Ann Singh’s birthday – she’s here too, a literal beauty queen cracking jokes about having just turned 21 (actually 27), edges freshly laid. They’ll head to her celebratory dinner soon.
Top and vest: ABAGA VELLI
Trousers: Per Götesson
Shoes: Clarks Originals
And so Popcaan is upbeat, if distracted. The night before, he held court at the London launch party for Great Is He, leading to a later start today than planned. He moves around the set with a restless energy, some of the party fever from the night before hard to contain within what’s technically a work day. He’ll focus on nailing the right shot, then skip down the hallway for an outfit change, musing aloud about how much he’s gasping for a joint. This combination – a clear drive to succeed alongside his boyish, easygoing nature – has turned him into dancehall’s biggest contemporary star.
After years of mixtapes and loosies, Popcaan achieved critical breakthrough with his 2014 album Where We Come From, a candid work depicting the struggles and joy of life in Jamaica. Great Is He – his third OVO Sound release since he and Drake solidified their mutual respect into an official label deal – looks back at his rise from the violent streets of Portmore. But it looks ahead, too, hoping to inspire the next generation of kids who know what hardship looks like, and yearn for something different. While Great Is He is firmly a dancehall record, Popcaan gleefully pulls in shades of other genres (hints of trap animate Past Life; Next to Me, a duet with Singh, is smouldering, mid-tempo R&B). The project is characterised by his signature elastic rasp and melodic acrobatics, but his once scrappy energy has now transitioned into an assured confidence.
Popcaan touches on love and romance on Great Is He, weaving his time with Singh into the story. But he still relates to the “ghetto youths” that anchored his formative years, as he references on the dark, cinematic opener, Defeat the Struggle. “God forgive me wash weh all my sins/ Grimey life is all we know,” he sings, reconciling the pain of his past with a more optimistic present. The through-line is his perspective: rags to riches, without a hint of cynicism. “I have a story, and it’s nowhere near ending. I can just sing about my life and I’d make the biggest songs because people could relate to it,” he says, his voice gravelly and measured as he leans back in his chair. “I don’t lie in my music. No. I don’t make up songs. It’s real, it’s personal.”
Jacket: Vintage Gucci c/o Adémidé
Top: Michael Browne
Trousers: Vintage Armani c/o Adémidé
Music got Popcaan off the streets. As a young boy in the Saint Thomas parish, his early years outside of home were rough. His friend Scumpy, who gave him the Popcaan nickname, was murdered when they were just teenagers. Tensions ran so high at school that Popcaan was pulled out for his own safety. Music became a refuge. “My grandma used to make me listen to gospel at first, because she raised me. But then I went outside and was exposed to other music that I love: reggae and dancehall.”
It was only when Popcaan moved to the south-eastern community of Portmore that things began to fall into place. Here, in the mid-2000s, then-reigning king of dancehall Vybz Kartel brought Popcaan into his Portmore Empire crew. Together they made Clarks in 2010 – a stomping ode to the UK-made desert boots that became Popcaan’s breakout single. With the smooth, lilting melody of his hook, he sounded like no one else in the genre. Popcaan was on his way up.
Even as a protégé, Popcaan made sure to carve his own identity out of this mentorship. “When I was around Vybz Kartel, I was always Popcaan, because I knew who I was. And you have to know yourself in life,” he says, matter-of-factly. This mentality would serve him well when Drake caught wind of 2012 mixtape Yiy Change, eventually booking Popcaan for OVO Fest 2016 in Toronto and then signing him to OVO Sound two years later. Along the way, Popcaan founded his own crew, Unruly Camp, and his expressive, sweet-and-sour voice became a calling card on features and collabs with everyone from Jamie xx and Gorillaz to Stefflon Don and Jorja Smith.
Jacket and top: Andersson Bell
Trousers: Wood Wood
Shoes: Clarks Originals
Sunglasses: Jean Paul Gaultier
The attention turned him into a global star, yet he continues to proudly represent his home nation without losing touch with his roots. This artistic growth has developed into songs that tap into universal emotions one moment, then thrust you towards the dancefloor the next. Teach Me – “teach me to love you enough, girl” – is all sincerity and vulnerability, spread over classically clean dancehall production. The steel pans and hi-hats on Freshness make the track sound juicy, like pulp from a freshly squeezed citrus fruit. Memories, meanwhile, slows things down over acoustic guitars and a straight pop melody while confronting the anguish of grief and loss.
“Whatever I’m going through, that’s what you hear on my records. I’m not going to sing about happiness when I’m sad”
These tracks could have all been singles, dropped sporadically, as so often happens in dancehall. But Popcaan specifically wanted to craft an album as a statement of intent. “Because no one’s doing it,” he begins. “I try to appeal to my Jamaican artists, telling all of them to put out more albums. People just see Jamaican music as singles.” But Popcaan believes dancehall’s output can – and should – be more than that. That’s why he’s made this album, and plans to put out another one this year, using a new collection of completed tracks. “I have so much music.” He lowers his voice, leaning forward: “The label can be weird sometimes. I love the label but I don’t like them.” He glances at his manager, smiling mischievously. “But I’ll be independent soon.”
On set, Popcaan is in the zone. He sings to himself while the stylist places a pair of Burberry sunglasses on his nose, ready to throw a look over his shoulder down the lens. We Caa Done, his Drake-featuring hit from earlier this year, plays in the background. The music stops unexpectedly. He’s not fussed: “Keep going; we have work to do,” he bellows. With each click in the silence, Popcaan tilts his head this way and that, making minute adjustments to create the ideal image. He powers his energy up and down as needed. Even though busy, he looks happy.
Top and trousers: Saul Nash
There’s a marked intention behind this positive demeanour. “Whatever I’m going through, that’s what you hear on my records. I’m not going to sing about happiness when I’m sad.” A pause. “But I’m never sad. I can be disappointed, but I don’t do sadness.” He sounds deadly serious, before letting out a small laugh. “I’ll get stern, even mad. But I don’t get sad.” He’s said this to journalists before, and I press, wondering why he’s decided to live under this firm rule. “Because I grew up on sadness. I was sad all through the young stages of my life, even when I looked happy. I was trying to find love, and I found love in music,” he reflects, his voice tinged with poignancy. As he grew older and started reading about the laws of attraction, he developed a near-aversion to negativity. After a mostly difficult childhood, music saved him, in a sense, and he now feels as though it grounds him. “My music is therapy to people, and it’s therapy to me as well.”
Popcaan takes a sort of bird’s-eye view as he navigates life, seeking the broadest perspective on everything. That’s helped him become a legacy artist by his mid-30s; someone who can see all at once his position in Jamaica, the industry, the world – then relentlessly drive towards his goals. His ability to connect with so many, and turn his international fans on to dancehall, has come at a time when the genre was losing some of its global popularity.
“I have a story, and it’s nowhere near ending”
Sean Paul is still the benchmark of worldwide success since he thrust the genre into the global spotlight with 2002’s seminal Dutty Rock, along with pivotal crossover stars Beenie Man, Vybz Kartel, Elephant Man and Shaggy. But until Popcaan, the next generation of dancehall artists hadn’t become a major international proposition. All of his albums and mixtapes since his debut album Where We Come From have entered the Billboard Reggae Albums Top 10, most often landing in the top three. And though snubbed by the Grammys, Popcaan has tucked away two MOBO wins, and numerous nominations, since 2013, not to mention the hundreds of millions of streams and video views he has to his name.
Popcaan stepped into the power vacuum left gaping when Vybz Kartel was given a life sentence for murder in 2014. In the years since, he’s ascended to the top by being that rare thing in dancehall: a blockbuster hitmaker who turns the album into an immersive, narrative-led experience. Great Is He might sound like a boast, but after more than a decade in the game, Popcaan is ready to collect flowers; not just for himself, but for the beautifully imaginative island he calls home.
Jacket and top: Burberry
Trousers: ABAGA VELLI
Popcaan now feels a certain responsibility to his parish, country and the music that helped save him. He knows he’s now seen as an ambassador for them all, and openly admits that he takes care nurturing his international reach. “I have to care. Because if I’m one of the biggest artists in dancehall music, I have to send the right product out into the world,” he says. He slows down, picking his words carefully. “If Popcaan puts out a certain kind of music, it’s OK for anyone who follows Popcaan to do that too. So, I have to keep that standard.”
Popcaan seems to be comfortable in his success. He doesn’t take it for granted, though, and uses the memories of harder times to keep him humble and pushing forward. “I’ve already been through my sad days; it’s time to live happy now,” he smiles. There it is again – that insistence on positivity above all else. He hopes to inspire his fans to feel the same. “If you’re not happy today, and you see Popcaan, you should smile,” he says, pointing at his own grin, before he emphasises his next words with a knuckle tapped on to the table. “I bring that energy, I bring those vibes, I bring life to people. That’s what I’m about. And that’s what you should be about, too.”
Great Is He is out now via OVO Sound
This interview is taken from the March issue.
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