Bobby Shmurda should be huge right now. We say this about every incarcerated rapper jailed before their rise is fulfilled: Shyne, Max B, Remy Ma, C-Murder and Mac, to note a few. This can even be applied to rappers jailed during their prime – how many classic albums did we miss out on from Lil Wayne and T.I. while they carried out brief jail sentences in the late 2000s? It’s a situation that feels especially bittersweet with Shmurda; incarcerated since 2014, he’s had to watch New York rap, a city he helped propel with one explosive song, explode from behind bars. 

Prior to 2014, New York was a completely different place in the world of rap. Trinidad James’s now-legendary bizarre rant where he said, "I remember when New York ran this shit, dog. When Dipset was fucking turned the fuck up...What the fuck happened, dog? I remember when New York rap was the shit. And us in the South, we was like what the fuck, and we just did our own thing. But now we run yall musically." That, coupled with the infamous Kendrick Lamar “Control” verse where he proclaimed himself to be the king of New York, carried a punch not because it was true, but because it signaled a city struggling to create superstars willing to put on in a manner that felt authentically New York. This isn’t to imply the city was bereft of talent. You had your boom-bap revivalists like Action Bronson and Pro Era existing alongside post-regional weirdos like A$AP Mob and Ratking. Jay-Z albums regularly came out with multimillion-dollar gimmicks and French Montana’s attempts to become a superstar were leaving fans disgruntled. Whether by choice or lack of consensus, the throne to New York was left vacated and the only person looking to represent was Troy Ave – which says it all. For a brief moment, blockbuster rap no longer seemed possible in the city that birthed it. Then, GS9 came along.

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“Hot Nigga” – thanks to its viral video, shot on the cheap – became one of the standout surprise hits of 2014, peaking at #6 on the Billboard Hot 100. Rewatch the video and you’ll be surprised by how much of the video feels so distinctly Brooklyn: the mob of kids hanging out on the street, mugging for the camera’s attention and looking ready to throw hands at the first sign of a threat. There’s Bobby, leaning into the camera and selling every line about slinging crack or catching bodies or wearing G-Star Raw. There’s that hat, thrown away and never seen again. There's also the Shmoney dance, recreated by every celebrity during the summer of 2014 and one of the major reasons Vine was good. “Hot Nigga” is indebted to Chicago drill, yes, but the Shmurda flow refines the nihilism and inherent rage and turns it into something dexterous, yet lowkey. To paraphrase a famous New Yorker, Bobby Shmurda and GS9 took a Chicago sound and turned it into a Brooklyn moment.

GS9 tried their best to take advantage of the moment while the timing was right. As Bobby inked a deal with Epic Records, who threw their weight behind the collective, the Shmoney Shmurda mixtape was quickly released. There were Rowdy Rebel’s “Computers,” which sold critics and fans on GS9’s staying power. There wereplentyof“Hot Nigga” remixes and an EP named Shmurda, She Wrote. There was supposed to be an album with Jahlil Beats promising to produce “a modern-day classic for New York.” Then came the conspiracy charges. And the wiretaps, the insane trials and the disproportionately harsh prison sentences.

“I've lost things bigger than my music career.” Shmurda told Complex in an interview from jail. "I’m a real nigga from the streets. I done lost friends, so them doing this to me isn’t that big a deal to me. My pops is doing 120 years, I have friends doing life, I have niggas in the grave."

Prison can derail the momentum of a rapper’s career, halting their artistic growth and preventing them from making serious money in the form of touring and recording. With Epic Records refusing to bail out Shmurda, it really looked like he’d face a fate similar to Shyne when he was given a ten-year prison sentence after an infamous club shooting incident in New York that involved label boss Sean Combs and Jennifer Lopez. While he was able to release his album Godfather Buried Alive while serving his sentence, his commercial prospects were diminished and Shyne quickly became a cautionary tale for rappers seeking to avoid the long reach of the law. 

But as New York has exploded with new rap talents post-GS9, the city has refused to let go of Shmurda. New memes frequently reference the “Hot Nigga” video or “Free Bobby Shmurda” in some way. The video of Shmurda performing for label executives was recreated in Donald Glover’s TV series Atlanta. There was Young MA’s “OOOUUU,” which felt like a spiritual successor to “Hot Nigga.” Desiigner scored a #1 with “Panda” in a manner that felt fueled by memes – sound familiar? (Shmurda, to his credit, threw his support behind Desiigner, telling Revolt that “he got every jail going crazy [with that song].") A Boogie With A Hoodie, in the midst of his own superstar-on-the-rise moment, shouted out Shmurda on “Say A.” And Cardi B's superstar rise with “Bodak Yellow” shared similarities with GS9’s 2014 takeover, but it was amazing to watch, especially because she credited Bobby Shmurda for helping fuel it by reposting her videos.

Then there’s that other New York rapper: 6ix9ine. His rise to mainstream prominence had several parallels to Shmurda and GS9. Between trolling for attention and using gang politics to graft an air of authenticity, 6ix9ine took several pages out of the GS9 playbook and employed them to great effect, logging 14 songs on the Billboard charts and going supernova in only a year’s time before RICO charges landed him in federal prison. He even went as far as directly collaborating with Shmurda, grabbing a phone freestyle for the track "STOOPID,” which ended up charting and giving Shmurda his first hit since 2014. It’s a brief cameo but enough to show Shmurda’s rapping instincts are as fresh as ever.

Whether it be applauding Young Ma’s flow, working with 6ix9ine, appearing on fellow GS9 associate Fetty Luciano's track "On The Wall" or showing love to young rappers like Gunna, Lil Baby and NBA Youngboy, Bobby Shmurda has pulled moves to keep himself in the conversation, despite the fact that he is not the center of the dialogue. When he gets out, tentatively in December 2020, he’ll be 25 years young and likely ready to spark a comeback trail. It’s not hard to imagine him with a similar run as 6ix9ine - “Hot Nigga” rose in a time before streaming services had any sizeable impact on the Billboard charts. In an age where rap has a chokehold on the Hot 100, the idea of Shmurda coming back hot with the support of his label and the right producers behind him is alluring.

"The day I come home and [if] I'm still signed to them, it's strictly business nothing more nothing less.” Shmurda reflected on his Epic Records deal. “I signed a contract, so I do have things I got to do for them. But besides that, it's strictly business. So if they do decide to drop me, I'll be independent and I'll stay independent. But besides that, I still have a contract with them."

Rappers are allowed a bounce back. Every track Gucci has released immediately after prison stints have landed in the top echelons of his canon, and in the past few years has released the highest-charting albums of his career. Remy Ma bounced back from her prison sentence with “All The Way Up.” Boosie followed his prison time with a new label deal and a fiery run of tapes, singles and albums. Meek Mill made the best album of his career after getting out of jail. Bobby Shmurda will get his chance to bounce back and we’ll be listening. And maybe that hat will finally fall back to Earth.