It sounded like rupture. It sounded like chaos and disorder. It sounded like the earth opening up and swallowing you. This was the power of Pop Smoke’s music when it first hit mass consciousness outside the greater New York area, something that happened maybe a year ago. Pop Smoke wasn’t the first Brooklyn drill artist; he was working within the confines of a sound that had existed for a few years before he came into it. But Pop Smoke may have been the first Brooklyn drill artist who didn’t sound local — the first whose voice exploded out of the speakers with an urgent immediacy that was impossible to ignore. Pop Smoke didn’t rap about anything new, but he inhabited a specific regional sound with so much confidence that he made it sound like something bigger, something outside itself.
Pop Smoke was murdered in February, just as his voice and his style were starting to take off. Rap’s tastemaker types were just glomming into what he was doing, and they were clumsily trying to absorb it into their own sounds. Just a few weeks before Pop Smoke’s murder, Travis Scott had collaborated with Pop on the compilation track “GATTI,” and Drake had tapped the Pop collaborator AXL Beats for his one-off drill experiment “War.” There was an energy around Pop Smoke. He had huge, scalable charisma and chest-bursting vitality and a huge, commanding, guttural voice-of-God delivery. Those things, combined with his innate sense of how to ride the chaotic drum programming and vicious bass-blobs of UK drill, made Pop Smoke a contender.
Pop Smoke came off as a star not because he fit into preexisting rap-star categories but because the bedlam of his music refuted those precedents. He sounded like nobody else, and that’s why he mattered. That’s one of the many reasons why his murder is such a stinging loss. Pop Smoke was so young when he died, just 20, and he was only just starting his career. Meet The Woo 2, his second mixtape, had come out less than two weeks earlier. He never got a chance to capitalize on that energy that surrounded him. Now, in his absence, other people are doing that for him.
Last week, Pop Smoke’s handlers released Shoot For The Stars, Aim For The Moon — the first Pop Smoke album, released months after his passing. Listening to it is a bittersweet experience. Pop Smoke, cut down at the moment when he was exploding, has become one of those artists whose music gains resonance after his death. It’s great to hear his voice again, and it’s great to hear him on a big platform — getting the chance to become the star in death that he didn’t have time to grow into in life. But Shoot For The Stars is also a depressing vision of what might’ve happened if Pop Smoke really had been absorbed into the rap mainstream.
Maybe the Pop Smoke that we hear on Shoot For The Stars is exactly the version of the rapper that we would’ve heard if he’d lived to take advantage of his own buzz. Shoot For The Stars is an album loaded down with guest appearances from rap A-listers: DaBaby, Lil Baby, Roddy Ricch, a whole lot of Quavo. 50 Cent, maybe the definitive example of the New York street-rap cult hero who becomes a mainstream pop star, serves as executive producer, and his influence is all over the album. Pop Smoke liberally quotes from 50 Cent’s catalog — “Candy Shop” on one song, “Many Men” on another — and attempts 50’s old trick of alternating threatening snarls with sweet half-sung love songs.
In a recent New York Times feature, 50 tells a story about meeting with Pop Smoke and realizing that the kid was taking down everything 50 said on his phone. Maybe Pop Smoke really wanted to be just like 50. Maybe his first album would’ve been his Get Rich Or Die Tryin’. 50 and Pop’s other collaborators also talk about how Pop was messing around with early-’00s R&B songs that he loved, trying to figure out how to make his music into something that would work on a larger scale. Maybe that just wasn’t playing to his strengths. Maybe he just hadn’t yet figured out how to do that seamlessly. Maybe he would’ve gotten there, if he had time.
For too much of Shoot For The Stars, we just don’t hear what was special about Pop Smoke. The album comes perilously close to transforming him into one more boilerplate rap star. Pop’s massive voice cuts through in any context, and the producers on Shoot For The Stars at least attempt to integrate the complex berserker drum packaging of Brooklyn and UK drill. But a whole lot of Shoot For The Stars is autopilot playlist-rap. For every “44 BullDog,” a bracing and electric piece of unrefined menace, there’s a “Snitching,” a Quavo/Future collab that only barely even features Pop Smoke. Speaking as someone who has written many, many nice things about Quavo and Future over the years, nobody needs another Quavo/Future collab. It’s not what we should get on a Pop Smoke album.
There’s a certain clumsiness that’s inherent to posthumous rap albums. We’re never entirely clear on what the late artist would’ve actually wanted to put out there for public consumption and what was simply a studio experiment that would’ve gone unheard. We don’t know how many of the guests on Shoot For The Stars ever even met Pop Smoke. Some of the album’s hollow dissonance is unavoidable. But there’s also a dispiriting clumsiness surrounding the album’s release. It’s in the fan backlash over Virgil Abloh’s shitty proposed cover art. It’s there in the weird flap about the track with the Pusha-T guest verse that was supposedly taken off the album at the last minute at Drake’s insistence. It’s there in all the numbing love songs piled into the second half of the album.
Shoot For The Stars reminds me of a Fabolous album — something I was thinking even before I heard Pop interpolate Fab’s 2003 single “Into You” on his own “Something Special.” Fabolous was a gifted, exciting young Brooklyn mixtape rapper who never seemed entirely comfortable when his handlers attempted to turn him into a pop star. Fab never ended up making a great album, though a few of his singles hit and some of his mixtape moments continue to resonate. He remained a solid B-lister during his entire time in the limelight. The posthumous Pop Smoke album hits a lot of the same walls as plenty of Fabolous records did. It’s forced and incoherent and consumed with chasing different audiences when it could force those audiences to reckon with a young star whose gifts didn’t need to be translated. That’s a shame.
Shoot For The Stars ends with the bonus track “Dior,” a song that already appeared on both of Pop’s mixtapes. “Dior” is undiluted Pop Smoke, operating within his element, growling and booming and chanting designer-label names over a beat that sounds like it’s about to swallow itself. The song has gained anthem status since Pop’s death; it’s appeared in tons of videos from the protest movement that Pop didn’t live to see. When “Dior” shows up at the end of the album, it’s a jarring reminder of what was so exciting about Pop in the first place. Maybe Pop Smoke didn’t leave behind more songs like “Dior.” But if those songs exist, those are the songs that should be getting the grand rollout now.
1. Mr. Muthafuckin’ eXquire – “Black Mirror”
Madlib is great at all sorts of dizzy, heady things, but I love how he conjures a straightforward kind of ’90s boom-bap beauty on this. And I love how eXquire, whose seems to be catching fire once again, goes into reflective-storyteller mode on this. The warmth is tangible.
2. Shoreline Mafia – “Change Ya Life”
A thing I like about Shoreline Mafia: Even when they’re talking to the ladies and attempting to flex their pop appeal, they still throw a big, nasty, absurdly funky bassline in there.
3. AKAI SOLO – “Barbatos”
Edan made this beat, and it makes me happy to hear two different generations of dazed, internal-explorer indie-rap artists finding each other. Pretty song, too.
4. Saweetie – “Pretty Bitch Freestyle”
Saweetie is out here with the Freddy Krueger nails, talking confident shit over a hyphy version of the Black Rob “Whoa” beat. I really like her.
5. Yo Gotti – “Recession Proof”
What a flex. I wonder if Yo Gotti would like to contribute to the Save Stereogum Indiegogo campaign. I’m not a real hustler; I’m not recession proof.