The dancehall artist’s first act at OVO is not to push forward but to look back. The mixtape is a bit like a recent Popcaan retrospective that sounds simply like a companion piece to his last album.
Popcaan and Drake have been courting each other for quite some time. There was the OVO Niko directed video, the “No Tellin” interlude, the “Know Yourself” outro, the lost “Controlla” verse. Popcaan appeared in Drake’s short film, Please Forgive Me. Popcaan has shielded Drake from criticism of his vampiric use of dancehall music. Drake got an unruly tattoo. Popcaan remixed Drake’s “Hype” for OVO Sound Radio. In late 2018, Drake finally “officially” signed Popcaan to OVO Sound. His first release on the label, a mixtape called Vanquish, only brings diminishing returns.
The decision to classify Vanquish a “mixtape,” much like the one made for 2015’s If You’re Reading This, It’s Too Late, feels like an attempt to control the narrative. Dubbing it a treat for fans takes some of the pressure off of Popcaan’s OVO debut. The distinction between an album and mixtape is even more dubious in dancehall, a subgenre without much industry or infrastructure dominated by deejays and sound clashes, its very name a nod to its function in live settings. Popcaan’s first act at OVO is not to push forward but to look back. The mixtape is a bit like a recent Popcaan retrospective that sounds simply like a companion piece to his last album.
His 2014 album, Where We Come From, was a landmark moment for dancehall, cohesive and autobiographical, as much a pop record as a reggae one. It wasn’t just narratively driven, it felt like an ode to life along the Jamaican coastline. Unlike the uniformity of Where We Come From, his last album, 2018’s Forever, was decidedly less organized. Vibrant and manifold, its 17 tracks didn’t really hold together. It seemed to exist in diametric opposition to his debut. Not only was it more spiritual, but it was also more luxurious.
Vanquish is on the same wave, seeking health, wealth, and love in the new year. Popcaan once sang that he’d “empty di MAK 90 inna your face and gone” and that the police would find his foes dead in the street like a dog on a song called “El Chapo,” but he has turned a corner toward preserving his quality of life. His songs are categorical here: they are either about living extravagantly and skirt-chasing, seeking salvation from a violent world or trying to defend his empire. “Did what is due to Caesar/Dem wan’ see mi life hard, everyday man life is gettin’ easier,” he toasts on “Father God Ah Lead.” Most of the songs, lifted by his weightless and shining vocals, are joyful, but Poppy can’t help peering over his shoulder.
If Popcaan picked up anything from his new boss, it’s a king’s paranoia. Since inheriting the throne from Vybz Kartel, Poppy has been to dancehall what Drake has been to rap; Drake has mostly groused about the many usurpers lurking in the shadows since his coronation, and Popcaan seems to be feeling the same heavy head. Dancehall is hyper-competitive by nature, and Popcaan is no stranger to silencing pretenders to the crown, but Vanquish is the first time he really seems on edge. “Opportunist and di hypocrite par/Badmind and envious, dem always at war/Mi nuh trust dem, mi nuh mek nuh loose par/Pussy dem ah pray fi see mi behind bar,” he sings on “Jah is For Me.” “Can’t wait pon police fi dweet/By time di jeep dem reach/People done spread out pon street,” his sings on “Can’t Wait,” citing poor response times from cops as the reason he’s heavily armed. He makes himself sound like he’s a gunslinger in the Old West, but these anxious moments scattered about feel tonally inconsistent with the rest.
Since Popcaan and his new label made this project low-stakes, it’s only fair to listen on those terms, and it’s hard to hear this as anything other than an intro to Popcaan for OVO fans who haven’t been paying close attention to the impact he’s made across the Drake discography. There’s nothing new or revelatory, but Popcaan is still one of dancehall’s most stunning performers and it’s painless to appreciate this as easy listening. The glistening sheen of “Promise” is a pleasant compliment to his translucent voice. The loverman come-ons of “Gimmi Love” are made passable by the contrasts of his Auto-Tuned grumbles over a xylophonic bounce. The only real ballad is “One Ting Alone,” a dedication to his one true love: weed. He sings the phrase “I can’t do without you” with a profound sense of commitment. So many of the songs find a genre-straddling star in stasis. After all, dancehall has given American pop music in recent years, it’s nice to see Popcaan finally make a serious play for its audience. But a half-measure like Vanquish isn’t going to move the needle.