Internal Elevation: Popcaan Interviewed

“I use music to free myself… it’s like healing.”

Lockdown saw Popcaan cut off from the world – so he tapped into his heritage, and burrowed deeper than ever. The results are going to take him to the next level.

Internal Elevation: Popcaan Interviewed

Popcaan has humble roots but enormous ambitions. Right from the off, this dancehall star knew he had something special – a different slant, a different motivation, a different way of looking at the world. Hailing from Saint Thomas in Jamaican, early cuts like ‘Clarks’ set the bar high, demolishing the competition in Kingston’s feverish music scene and launching his global campaign. Since then, he’s scarcely stopped – a volley of superb singles led to 2014’s excellent full length ‘Where We Come From’, with follow-up ‘Forever’ igniting the reggae world on its 2018.

Switching to OVO Sound, Popcaan grew close to Drake, and in turn ignited a new chapter in his life. Flipping his spartan yet colourful dancehall sound once more, 2020’s ‘Fixtape’ was precocious in its approach, with the Jamaican artist daring to be open in a way his peers had often shunned away from. Relentlessly creative and explicitly soulful, it saw Popcaan adding new dimensions to his sound, and achieving success he could scarcely have dreamed off as a teen in Saint Thomas.

Internal Elevation: Popcaan Interviewed

When Clash is patched through to Popcaan on Zoom, he radiates calm. He admits he often doesn’t like interviews – this is an extremely rare cover opportunity, one Clash has chased for a number of years – but when his face pops up on our screen he’s a vision of calmed, a controlled and centred artist who takes stock of every word.

Work on his new album is almost complete, and he finally feels ready to let fans back into his realm. The final mixdown is approaching, and Popcaan is already haggling over single choices, and video shoots. “I feel blessed,” he says with a faint but assertive smile. “That’s how I feel. Blessed and grateful.”

Lockdown may have halted his touring ambitions, but it certainly didn’t reduce Popcaan’s creative faculties. As he freely admits, he never shuts off – whether it’s 3pm or 3am, if an idea strikes he has to act. “I’m always recording, y’know. Even if I’m on a vacation I still record. It’s like work and fun at the same time,” he explains. “It’s very important to have the studio around because you never know when you’ll find something you want to record. Sometime when I’m jiving I’ll get some ideas and I’ll do it on my voice recorder, send it to someone through WhatsApp.”

Internal Elevation: Popcaan Interviewed

Pushing technology to its limit, Popcaan’s phone is a flurry of voice memos and draft messages. His laptop is actually the same – he’s constantly downloading beats, and throwing around suggestions for hooks. In a way, it’s like a game – during our conversation, he’s playful, and at his most open when discussing his methods. But equally, it’s deadly serious – nothing Popcaan does it left to chance, with his endless, perpetual drive to better himself burning brightly with every sentence.

“I use music to free myself,” he says. “It’s like healing, from whatever is draining me, or whatever is on my mind. If I’m feeling overwhelmed or anything.”

“I definitely get that from listening to music,” he adds. “Once music is real, and relatable to me and my lifestyle, it’s the same thing. It’s healing for me as well. If somebody is singing a song that is uplifting to me.”

Internal Elevation: Popcaan Interviewed

“I’m not the type of artist that really listens to music for inspiration,” he points out. “I listen to it because I like it. I get inspiration from my life, and people around my life. I won’t be listening to people’s songs for inspiration, that is some pirate shit. I’d rather listen to my music if I’m trying to get a vibe or an inspiration.”

“If I’m making a song, and it’s not the right energy I will leave it… I’ll leave it and go do something else. I don’t like to force music. I like it to be naturally made.”

“There was a time I can remember where I wasn’t really recording much… not because I couldn’t create but because I chose not to,” he says, Popcaan’s voice suddenly shifting tone towards something more pensive. “I lost somebody close to me, and it was a process where I just didn’t want to do anything. That’s the only time. Otherwise I’ll just be in the studio at random times… it’s 3am, it’s 4am, it’s just random times. Whenever the vibe kick.”

Internal Elevation: Popcaan Interviewed

Indeed, for Popcaanc creativity is often a solitary act. As he freely admits, there’s a switch inside him that lights up when he’s in the studio – it’s a place for focus, work, and commitment. “When I’m recording I don’t like too much people in the studio,” he points out. “When I’m recording I’m not as calm as now. I’m more like stern, y’know? I don’t want people in my studio doing these things. I don’t want people spoiling the vibe.”

The success of ‘Fixtape’ took Popcaan’s name around the globe multiple times. Propelled forwards by his endless creation – and the muscle OVO Sound has accrued – it’s success put the wind in his wings, but also created pressure for a follow-up. Not that Popcaan is worried – this is exactly the situation he thrives in. 

“I create very well with pressure,” he smiles, a broad grin of ceaseless confidence. “I think I create the best when I’m under pressure. That’s the time when I put everything into the music. You’ll get some more soulful songs in those times.”

Internal Elevation: Popcaan Interviewed

His upcoming album is certainly soulful. Built against the backdrop of the pandemic, the music pushes Popcaan into different places, while remaining true to the identity he had steadfastly built – an identity fans know, and love. We should prepare to be challenged, too – he might three features on there (identities under wraps, for now),  but the voice that shouts loudest is his own.

“I just be myself,” he shrugs. “It doesn’t matter what is going on around me. People easily get bored until times change. So I just be myself, I keep a pace, I don’t try to do too much. I don’t try to outdo myself or anything. I just always try to fill the gap of being Popcaan… because there’s only one Popcaan! At the end of the day, that is what I bring to the table, and I have to be true to that.” 

“I won’t ever get carried away by nothing that is going on around me,” he adds. “I’m not influenced by it. I have my own thing going on, my own world going on, my own language… it’s different. The way I am, I’m always creating something new – a new slang, a new song. So just keep going! You just keep flowing like the stream.”

Internal Elevation: Popcaan Interviewed

Someone deeply connected to his heritage, Popcaan relished the space the pandemic created; after dates on every single continent, pressing ‘pause’ was perhaps overdue. “With the pandemic, it let me stay in one place and create. It let me think a lot. I spent a lot of time with myself,” he says. “Before, I wasn’t really doing that. I’d never really taken time for myself, to get a clear view on certain things that had been taking place while I was travelling, just performing, and just moving. It’s bad and it’s good, y’know? You have to choose a way to turn a bad pandemic into good. That is it, because if you have your life at the end of the pandemic you can do anything. That’s the most important part.”

Don’t think the broader implications of lockdown are going to encroach on his music, though – the upcoming album emerges from a personal place, not a political one. “It’s not my job to challenge pandemic on those things,” he shrugs. “That’s the government’s job. My job is to create a way that people can feel motivated and feel strong within themselves. I see that as my job. If the pandemic makes people sad, I have to make music that will uplift them, and make them feel like they can keep pushing. I’m just making happy music. I’m making music for the girls!”

Internal Elevation: Popcaan Interviewed

Someone who works in a multitude of fields, Popcaan is relishing the return of live music. His annual Unruly Fest – which see a near-endless list of icons fly to Jamaica – returns to another Caribbean instalment, while he also tells Clash about plans to bring the festival across the Atlantic.

“Unruly Fest is definitely on this year,” he nods. “And we’re thinking about bringing Unruly Fest to the UK as well. That is it. That’s the next move. That’s what we on!”

“We’re coming to London,” he says. “Definitely London. It’s been a while since I done a concert in London. It’s been a few years. It’s the time. London got a lot of love for me, and it’s the same thing with me. When I’m there, I don’t want to move.”

Internal Elevation: Popcaan Interviewed

Desperate to further those diasporic connections, Popcaan might even hit up royalty to guarantee some sunshine. He laughs, and with a sly tone adds: “I was asking the Queen to change the weather a bit the other day!”

Shouting out the moves UK drill is making – “it’s like I’m a part of it” – Popcaan re-affirms his commitment to raising up young artists. Someone who knew what it was like to go without as a young man, he wants to help those in the next generation realise their ambitions. “I guide them in any way I can,” he says. “I try to give them exposure in any way I can. I think it’s something I enjoy doing, as well. I enjoy building up other people. And seeing it happen right in front of me.”

“I will always approach it with the feeling from my heart,” he adds. “My heart is going to tell me to help these youths, and give them exposure. So I’ll do that. I mean, Popcaan will try to bless and promote as much artists as I can. The struggle is not nice! Sufferation is not nice. I was once there, so I know what it is like as a young artist who is trying to make it out without the resources.”

This desire is framed by his deep and abiding faith. Popcaan’s spirituality may not always be at the forefront of his music, but it’s forever there, guiding him in subtle but striking ways. “I mean, did you know that the faith could move mountains?” he questions at one point in our conversation. “I have a lot of faith, bro. And a lot of confidence. I think that’s why I always stand out… it’s because faith bring me here. I was doing it for faith before I had a hit, or before I had money. So I’ll still do it by faith when I have countless hits, and countless money.”

Internal Elevation: Popcaan Interviewed

There’s more than a little sense of fate to Popcaan’s journey. Those early singles lighting up the national charts, MixPak swooping to sign him; Drake hitting him up, and OVO Sound welcoming him into the family. If it seems effortless, then perhaps there was another hand guiding him.

“I mean, time brings that mixture together,” he observes. “The OVO family is amazing, man. There’s good energy, my brothers are there… we’ve created a family. OVO Rule. We tour, we make music, we hang out like friends… it’s something special. And it’s good that somebody from Jamaica can create something special where the world can acknowledge it. Popcaan and Drake creating music together is something very powerful. It’s also a blessing. The OVO situation is like family, straight.”

For all his fame, and for all his success, Popcaan remains a kid from Saint Thomas infatuated with music. The stereo plays throughout our conversation, a quiet but perpetual buzz that frames this inquisition with subtle bass tones. Boxing clever, he opts out of revealing any more specifics – after all, we’re about to engage with it on our own terms.

“I want the world to just enjoy the album,” he says humbly. “I’ve done a lot of work on this album, but it’s ready now. Ready as it’ll get! Now you’ve just got to trust the most high!”

Words: Robin Murray
Photography: Elliot James Kennedy
Fashion: Carlotta Constant

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