When Jimmy Wopo emerged in 2015 — already seemingly fully-formed as an artist, though still a teenager — he immediately established himself as a new kind of Pittsburgh rapper.
Wopo, born Travon Smart in the historically black Hill District of Pittsburgh, was tragically murdered at the staggering age of 21 on Monday (June 18th). While overshadowed by another murder, that of controversial Florida rapper XXXtentacion — killed the same day but entirely unrelated — the outpouring of grief and tributes for Wopo speaks to the specific role he filled as Pittsburgh’s most talented regionalist.
When one thinks of modern Pittsburgh rap, two names come to mind: Wiz Khalifa and Mac Miller. Both are more commonly associated than Wopo with the Steel City, but Khalifa (born in North Dakota) transcended any local identity when he used his city’s colors to describe all the things he owned. He became a star. And Miller, he’s been destined to play sundown festival slots since Best Day Ever in 2011.
But both of Pittsburgh’s most famous rappers were fans of Wopo, who attracted these stars by tapping into a specific vein, namely, one that conveyed stories about Pittsburgh, the streets, and learning to be alive in a country where those in charge often seem ambivalent towards whether you are or not. It’s been reported that Wopo was set to sign with Khalifa’s Taylor Gang imprint before his death, and Miller sent condolences via Twitter — featuring a bubbly photo of Wopo grinning from ear to ear, gold caps front and center, accompanied by a broken heart emoji in lieu of a message. The photo is as strong an encapsulation of Wopo’s musical style as one can conjure.
Wopo first found fame indirectly. His track “Elm Street,” was the immediate standout on his debut mixtape, Woponese. The track was a minor hit, the sort of song that circulates on rap websites and garners serious attention among those who are constantly tuned into the noise coming from upstart emcees. It wasn’t until Kendrick Lamar’s “HUMBLE.” hit the airwaves eight months later that a more mainstream listenership caught onto what, exactly, Wopo was all about.
That’s because the “HUMBLE” beat — helmed by star producer Mike Will Made-It — at least pays serious homage to Wopo’s hit from a year earlier, and viewed in harsher light, is practically an unabashed remix of producer Stevie B’s “Elm Street” beat. The structures are uncannily similar: those pounding piano notes, the heavy handclaps and pitched synths. The only difference lies in delivery: Kendrick lurks and stalks, eventually catapulting himself onto his enemies with ferocity and aggression. Wopo, on the other hand, smiles, invites his enemies to seethe with jealousy, all while conveying the often dire circumstances he finds himself in. “Before I come out the crib I gotta peep through the blinds,” he raps. On “Elm Street 2” off of Wopo’s 2017 release, Jordan Kobe, Wopo even alludes to Kendrick, rapping, “Just to be exact I was born in ‘97/ So n—a it’s not crack, it’s heroin,” winking at Kendrick’s childhood during the crack epidemic.
At only eight tracks, Woponese is a concise artistic statement, more of a thesis from Wopo than an introduction. On “Ayo” he cartoonishly advises against random booty calls after getting a girlfriend, before desperately warning himself, “Trust is the truth/ Love gets you killed/ They wanna see me dead or in jail/ You ain’t got nothing for my books or my bail.” It’s this dichotomy between a life of joy and the constant pull from a world he left behind that made Wopo such a unique voice. He always had one eye on the streets, stuck between an ascendant rap career and staying loyal to the Hill District that bred him. Finding that balance, especially as a 21 year old, is damn near impossible.
In a great interview with Complex, Wopo discussed his constant push to keep moving forward, following a previous shooting that he had survived. “It changed my life the second time I got shot, but it never really changed my music,” he explained. “It just gives me more push, because just two years ago I was somewhere getting shot up. Now I’m doing this. It keeps me going in a positive route. ‘Cause really nothing happen positive when I was doing negative shit.” Wopo was given a second chance, and had it stolen from his grasp, the victim of a drive-by shooting on his home turf. Woponese and Jordan Kobe are redemptive pieces of art, joyous celebrations of life moving forward, and homages to this music’s source: in Wopo’s case, Pittsburgh’s Hill District — the same place he was killed.
Following Woponese, Wopo released Trapnese with fellow rapper Hardo, a nine track album that features 21 Savage — a rapper whose dead-eyed nihilism serves as a nice complement to Wopo’s ecstatic, bubbly proclamations of love and war. With Hardo, Wopo embraced the street anthems Hardo had a penchant for creating, a celebration of excess less inclined in honing in on the specificities that make Wopo’s solo work so essential.
Jordan Kobe was Wopo’s coming out party, an 18-track mixtape that features Maxo Kream and Riff Raff. With its length, Wopo’s voice isn’t as consistently available as it is on his shorter works, but he stands toe-to-toe with the Texan born Maxo and raps circles around Riff Raff on “Move Wit the Money.”
Wopo’s last mixtape, Back Against the Wall, was released in October of 2017. The entire thing was written while Wopo was serving jail time for violating parole, after he went to New York City to meet with record label executives. Back Against the Wall sounds rushed, like the voice of a young man eager to reassert his momentum after having it abruptly halted. As such, it’s Wopo’s most scattershot release. But damn, it shouldn’t have been his last.
Twenty-one years was all he got, and he became Pittsburgh’s street poet laureate in just three. He was almost killed once and survived. What’s most heartbreaking about Wopo’s death is that he was so clearly trying to avoid the trappings that initially got him in trouble. And yet, he was killed, looking over the neighborhood that built him. For a brief amount of time — a far, far too brief amount of time — he was Pittsburgh’s native son. It’s a story Jimmy Wopo would love to tell in a rap song.