Bobby Shmurda’s New Lust for Life

Bobby Shmurda just can’t sit still.

Since being released from prison in February after nearly seven years, the high-energy, loose-hipped Brooklyn rapper born Ackquille Pollard, 27, has made dancing a priority, busting out his trademark shimmies and thrusts anywhere he turns up.

In clips that have lit up social media, Shmurda has jerked and rolled at clubs, exclusive parties and onstage last month at the Rolling Loud festival in Miami, his first concert appearance as a free man. At the studio in New York recently, he showed off a video of himself engaging in a dance battle with an Instagram influencer, but it was nearly impossible to see, because he was wiggling along in real time, shaking his cellphone.

Later, as the rapper’s new songs played over the industrial-grade speakers, he kept rollicking, like Elvis in an office chair, an itch he attributed to his Jamaican heritage.

What Shmurda, who pleaded guilty to conspiracy and weapons charges in 2016, hasn’t done in the nearly six months he’s been out is release any new music of his own. This slow, deliberate game plan stands in stark contrast to the prevalence of the “first day out” song in hip-hop, with artists and labels alike typically wanting to take advantage of a surge in interest around a finished prison sentence.

“I just knew I had to get my business together,” Shmurda said in late June about the delay. “You can’t be walking around outside and your kitchen stinks.”

But with a freshened-up record deal and a new, top-shelf management team — including the Roc Nation professionals who helped reinvent Meek Mill, post-prison, as an A-lister and activist — Shmurda is about ready to get going. He recently appeared with J Balvin and Daddy Yankee on a mostly Spanish-language drill remix, and he’s been working on a pile of his own singles and videos in an attempt to capture some late-summer momentum.

At the mostly empty offices of Roc Nation, Jay-Z’s all-purpose talent company, Shmurda was hyperactive yet solicitous, offering around his own water bottle one sweaty evening. In the coming weeks, the rapper will perform at Summer Jam in New York and the Made in America Festival in Philadelphia.

In preparation, Shmurda has recorded with artists like Swae Lee, DaBaby and Migos, but the common denominator is rhythm and movement. “We’re going to be dancing 24/7,” Shmurda said. “When I dance, it’s to show you that I came through the struggle, but I overcame it and we’re still overcoming it.”

The intricacies of the rapper’s life story — and his boundless charisma — made him something of a hip-hop folk hero in absentia. Regarded as part meme, part cautionary tale, part political prisoner, Shmurda saw his legend grow in line with those of once-incarcerated rappers like Gucci Mane, despite the fact that he had released just five songs (plus a smattering of guest appearances) before he got locked up.

Already, Roc Nation is fielding offers from distribution platforms for a documentary or a feature film about Shmurda’s saga.

“Hip-hop loves an underdog story and a hero’s journey,” said Sidney Madden, an NPR Music reporter and podcaster whose series about rap and the criminal justice system, “Louder Than a Riot” (co-hosted with Rodney Carmichael), dedicated three episodes to Shmurda’s case. “His rise and fall felt so rapid and a little bit Shakespearean. It really left people wanting more because of the way he got jammed up.”

“It felt like he was ripped away from the hip-hop world and the community that made him,” Madden added, noting Shmurda’s obvious showmanship, which was apparent even when she and Carmichael interviewed him in prison. “I truly hope whoever’s around him now can harness that energy.”

Shmurda’s current position has been hard-earned. Raised in the working-class immigrant community of East Flatbush, his father incarcerated for life on a murder charge from the year after he was born, Shmurda opted for gang life. In and out of juvenile detention as a teenager, he returned from an upstate facility in 2012, hoping to find an off-ramp.

“I was young, wild, bad,” Shmurda said. “When I came home that year, they was investigating us, so I started rapping, trying to get out.” He recalled detectives who would “pull up on the block, call us by name, take pictures.” That’s when he started taking music seriously.

It almost worked.

In the summer of 2014, Shmurda released a music video, “Hot Boy” in its edited form, that was equally grimy and catchy, threatening violence even as he rocked those hips and grinned big with his neighborhood friends. One clip, isolated and looped, showed the rapper throwing his fitted cap in the air and doing his trademark Shmoney Dance. It went viral on Vine, and then everywhere. Even Beyoncé mimicked the move.

“Hot Boy” — with lines like, “I’ve been selling crack since like the fifth grade” — would go on to score Shmurda a seven-figure record deal with Epic, along with agreements for some of his East Flatbush associates, and the song reached No. 6 on the Billboard Hot 100. But its success was too late and, according to the authorities, had not stemmed the violence that continued to surround the rapper.

That December, New York gang prosecutors conducted a sweep, arresting Shmurda at a Manhattan studio and eventually locking up more than a dozen others they said were part of GS9, an offshoot of the Crips. Though Shmurda was not accused of committing the most serious acts himself, prosecutors used racketeering statutes to argue that he was “the driving force” and “organizing figure within this conspiracy,” which they said was responsible for multiple shootings and at least one murder.

Nearly two years later, at 22, Shmurda pleaded guilty to two counts — six others filed against him were dropped — and he was sentenced to seven years in prison. While incarcerated, Shmurda was disciplined for violations including fighting and possessing contraband in the form of a shiv, which he later told a parole board was for self-defense, calling Rikers Island “just a crazy place.”

When Shmurda hears his early music now, he experiences “love, pain, everything — a bunch of mixed emotions knowing where it took me, where it got me,” he said. “You feel all the times that you thought about the brothers who aren’t here or who are locked up.”

But he wears little of that angst in public, swearing that his relationship with his parole officer is great — even if he can’t yet get a passport because of the terms of his release — and that his prison sentence saved him. The current restrictions on his life, Shmurda said, are “not holding me back from nothing — they’re keeping me out of jail.”

“I ain’t mad about going to jail, because my mind-state now versus my mind-state before — I probably would’ve been in jail for life before,” he added. “The stuff that’s going to get you in trouble or put you in that situation, you can see that from miles away.”

“When I was young, I used to run towards it,” he continued. “I was a full animal. So I feel like being locked up, it made me smarter. It made me stronger. And it made me badder, but in a good way. Instead of saying, boom, ‘I want to go in the streets and cause hell,’ I’m saying, ‘I want to go in the streets and give back.’ I feel like that’s gangster.”

Mike Brinkley, a senior vice president of artist management at Roc Nation, said that Shmurda has been a curious and active participant in plotting his comeback. “He’ll ask questions and not just ask but actually comprehend,” the manager said. “Meeting him for the first time, you can’t even fathom what he went through because he doesn’t wear it. He’s like, ‘I’m here to work, what do you need me to do?’”

Recently, Shmurda had to be caught up on the glut of streaming services and social networks that bloomed while he was gone. “My godkids got me TikToking!” he said.

But he is still finding his voice — which has deepened — and his place in the current rap landscape, with “Hot Boy” having given way to Brooklyn drill and New York stars like Cardi B and Pop Smoke, who was killed last year. Shmurda is even teaching himself how to produce beats, wanting a hand in all parts of his debut album.

The rapper described his day-to-day life, post-prison, as “music, girls, family, music, girls, more girls,” but he now only pops over to East Flatbush for brief visits. “Anybody in the streets is looking over their shoulder 24/7,” Shmurda said. “And they’re also taking a risk. That risk ain’t worth it.”

But at the studio in Manhattan, an old friend came with a piece of home in hand — jerk chicken from one of Shmurda’s former go-to spots. The rapper was instantly transported, and he insisted everybody try a bite.

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