It’s shortly after midnight, and Popcaan and his crew are running late. They had planned to make the cross-island drive from Kingston to Ocho Rios for a show on Jamaica’s north coast with enough time to relax on the beach and eat some steamed fish. But somehow the time slipped away, as it often does on the island’s slow, steamy nights.
“Change of plans,” says Popcaan. “This end of the country I get a lot of love.” Which is why his four-car caravan is now hurtling through the darkness at breakneck speed, swerving back and forth to avoid slower vehicles.
Things have been moving fast for the 25-year-old ever since he was introduced on Vybz Kartel’s 2010 smash hit, “Clarks.” That song, which preceded a worldwide spike in sales for the shoe brand, opened with Kartel asking, “Wha gwan, Popcaan?” With his debut album, “Where We Come From,” due June 10 on Brooklyn’s Mixpak Records, Popcaan’s answer to that question, in Jamaican patois, only could be “nuff.” Kartel is now serving a life sentence for murder, leaving a void for his protege, currently dancehall’s hottest young artist.
“I’m representing my whole community,” says Popcaan, after arriving safely at the show in Ocho Rios. “People who have been through it with me, friends who passed on. It’s not my story alone. It reflects upon a whole heap of people. Even people in the world who don’t know Popcaan, me can bet there’s something on the album they can relate to.”
Indeed, the video for first single “Everything Nice” has 1.5 million YouTube views, and is getting strong play on Jamaican radio and BBC Radio 1. But it has been confined to reggae mixshows stateside, where a dancehall artist hasn’t had major success since Sean Paul’s early-2000s crossover. “Jamaican singles have to travel quite a distance,” says Mixpak founder Andrew “Dre Skull” Hershey, who executive-produced the album. “The radio story in the U.S. for a Jamaican single is: travels from Jamaica to the Caribbean community in New York and elsewhere on the East Coast, and then goes from there.”
But a long-rumored duet with Drake could move the needle for Popcaan. Last year, Niko, a member of the rapper’s OVO crew, directed Popcaan’s “Unruly Wave” video. And Mr. Morgan, who represents Drake go-to producers Boi-1da and Noah “40” Shebib, says “that collaboration will happen.”
Back in Ocho, Popcaan takes the stage after veteran acts Capleton and Lady Saw, but he’s the star of the show, commanding the crowd: “Everybody who have somebody they miss inna life … put up one hand right now.” Popcaan came up under Vybz, but he seems to have a different, more positive approach – one that could work better for stateside commercial success down the line.
“People could wake up and them don’t know how them a pay their light bill today,” says Popcaan post-show. “But at that moment, if the radio a play ‘Everything Nice,’ them a just say, ‘Me a go find a way to pay my light bill later.’ “