Many of us got acquainted with Pooh Shiesty when we saw him adjusting his mask in the “Main Slime” video he released last May, which has since garnered over 21 million views. It isn’t an N95—or the sort of face covering that has become our first line of defense against COVID-19. Instead, Pooh is wearing a ski mask—for reasons that become more obvious as the video continues. “When he pull up, we gon’ spray his whip, but we ain’t washing cars," he raps. "All these views on YouTube won’t stop me from laying up in your yard."
The song—which was produced by Tay Keith, and chronicles run-ins with the police and hunting down enemies—is brutal and sinister, yet wildly captivating. Just ask Gucci Mane, who signed the 21-year-old after hearing the hot-tempered track last year. With it—and with his debut mixtape, Shiesty Season, out this month—he welcomes us into a mischievous universe of his own creation. It's one that speaks the language of the streets, and adheres to its code.
“It’s like life was somehow preparing me, not even knowing,” he tells me of his pre-fame existence, phoning in from the backseat of a car. Being one of trap's most promising newcomers has required him to stand in the spotlight—a big change from his ski-masked hijinx in “Main Slime"—but it didn't exactly catch him off-guard. “I always knew something would come," he says. "I done seen everything and went through everything, so I know how to play it.”
So, what is “Shiesty Season,” exactly? Combing through the mixtape’s 17 tracks, you might be able to put together a loose interpretation of what the South Memphis rapper’s catchphrase means. On “Box of Churches,” featuring 21 Savage, he boasts about a theft so easy that he could rob his target twice if he wanted to. He picks up that thread again on “Back In Blood,” a collaboration with Lil Durk that leaves you with the feeling that if Pooh decides to take something of yours, there is no getting it back. His lifestyle is menacing, and he seems to wear the term “snake” like a badge of honor. “I just might fuck with the Gucci store ‘cause they support the snakes,” he raps on “Master P.”
The way Pooh raps, and the life that he raps about, can feel fatalistic at times. “It’s either die, go to jail, or get lucky—it’s three options,” he said in an interview earlier this month. But Pooh Shiesty’s rapid rise is more the result of hard work and personal agency than it is beginner’s luck.
Pooh’s journey might be new to us, but it is actually the culmination of lessons he learned while watching his father make his way through the Memphis rap scene. His dad founded Mob Ties Records, a local rap label, where he rapped under the moniker Mob Boss. “I was real young around that that time—around 8 through 10—but I was learning how the studio works,” he says. “I learned where the booth at, how the mic set up, how the sessions work. I was on the road with him when he had shows, because he was booked up around that time.”
By the time he was 11, he’d gotten kicked out of school after someone claimed he'd brought a gun to school—an allegation he denies. But by then, he’d already found a blueprint for his future—someone who was doing what his dad was doing locally, but on a mainstream scale: Lil Wayne.
“I knew [Wayne] was the GOAT when he was signing artists and making them as big as they are now,” he says. Wayne’s ability to cultivate new talent through his Young Money label—including some artists who have since become household names, like Drake and Nicki Minaj—left an impression on a young Pooh. Other popular Memphis rappers, like Yo Gotti and Young Dolph, have charted a similar path to Wayne, establishing the labels Cocaine Muzik Group and Paper Route Empire, respectively.
Fans expected that Pooh, as the new face of Memphis, would sign to CMG or Paper Route, but he did neither. Instead, he formed his own label, Choppa Gang Entertainment, which he sees as his version of what his dad did with Mob Ties Records. You can trace Pooh’s ascent on the crew’s YouTube page, which has just under 200,000 subscribers and seems to be the artist's platform of choice. After the Choppa Gang page started posting some early Pooh Shiesty features three years ago, Pooh got his first taste of virality with his verse on “Breaking News,” a collaborative Choppa Gang track that boasts a video so hair-raising, it bears a warning label at the start. “Any props in this video that show resemblance to any illegal materials are merely props and should not be taken seriously,” it says. “Don’t try this at home.”
The song’s success on local radio minted Pooh Shiesty as Memphis’s new overnight sensation—and as he kept hopping on features, people beyond the city started taking notice. The page quickly became a forum for Pooh Shiesty to secure millions of views with each drop—which was all a part of his game plan.
“YouTube matters and has been mattering for years,” he says, before explaining how he worked to leverage the platform to his advantage. “I was trying to go the whole independent route. I didn’t want to do no mixtape. I didn’t want to do nothing but features and videos, and I wanted a video for every song I dropped. I was hitting [fans] back to back with singles so they’d want more.”
Last March, while the rest of the world shut down, Pooh Shiesty’s career seemed to be doing the opposite. He released “At It Again,” a song filled with spite and vengeance, and “Main Slime" a few weeks apart. Then, he got a DM from Gucci Mane in the middle of the night.
To Pooh’s surprise, it seemed like the trap legend was eagerly awaiting his response, and the two FaceTimed that night for nearly six hours. He wanted to sign Pooh to 1017 Records. “Two weeks after I got signed, I already knew what was up,” Pooh says. The time had come for him to record his debut mixtape, but he wasn’t going to rush the process.
“I was still recording all the way until the due date for when I had to turn [Shiesty Season] in,” he says. “I wanted everything to be new and fresh. I didn’t want it to be something where people were too hip, or something got leaked. [The mixtape] was too anticipated, so I had to live up to it and feed [fans] enough songs so they could be satisfied.”
Pooh is reserved when we speak, save for flashing a big smile every once and awhile. But Shiesty Season captures what people love the most about him: He’s a narrator whose raps are both reckless and limitless. There is a cinematic quality to Shiesty Season, and not just because Pooh name-drops characters from Boyz N Da Hood and Scarface, along with villains like Chucky and Jason; his detailed lyrics mean we become a South Memphis antagonist right along with him.
Songs like “Take a Life” and “Big Chorus” ooze with so much provocation that they leave us feeling vigilant, like some unforeseen danger might be lurking around the corner. “That pussy knew his time was coming, they found his ass with a Bible / Ain’t no way he thought he was gon’ get away, this choppa grabbed him,” he raps on the latter. But the rage he channels as he details these scenes disappears from time to time—moments where he almost seems to be rapping about guns romantically. “Automatic AUG look pretty when them shells fly,” he raps on “Drop Some Shit.” Later, on "Twerksum," he likens the blowback from a weapon to a woman twerking.
Pooh Shiesty’s future is bright, but it is hard to ignore that rap that feels this authentic can come along with risks. We’ve watched the careers of rappers like Tay-K, YNW Melly, and Bobby Shmurda, now finally a free man after serving six years in prison, come to a screeching halt because of the blurred lines between street life and entertainment. Courtrooms have allowed prosecutors to introduce rap lyrics as evidence. Rap units dedicated to surveilling young, Black men have popped up in major cities like New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles. In a recent DJ Booth interview, Pooh claimed that since his popularity exploded, Memphis had "tripled up the police on me.” Heightened scrutiny from law enforcement could threaten the livelihood of a young rapper like Pooh, who was arrested on charges of armed robbery, aggravated assault, and theft last October. (The case is ongoing, and according to a news report from Fox-7 in Miami, police used photos from his Instagram "as part of their case.")
It’s a reality that the Memphis rapper is aware of, too. But when I ask him if he thinks he'll have to scale back on his lyrics to stay out of trouble, he answers: “There’s a way around it, and a way to put it in a code. Certain stuff you can’t say," he continues. "Sometimes I don’t care. I got freedom of speech and can say whatever. It’s how I’m feeling.”
Kristin Corry is a Senior Staff Writer at VICE.