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Pop Smoke’s posthumous album: A chart-topping debut and a frustrating farewell

Pop Smoke performs at Houston's NRG Stadium on Nov. 9, 2019
Pop Smoke performs in Houston on Nov. 9, 2019.
(Suzanne Cordeiro / TNS)

At the end of the title track of Pop Smoke’s posthumous LP “Shoot for the Stars, Aim for the Moon,” there’s a lament that hits different on Fourth of July weekend in 2020.

“Look at them young n— goin’ crazy-crazy, man / them n— too dangerous / We gonna make ‘em famous / the beautiful country got stars and bangers.”

The lyric, like many on this valedictory LP, is not Pop Smoke’s: It’s from Migos’ rapper Quavo, one of a dozen guests on the 19-track album. But the 20-year-old Pop Smoke, born Bashar Jackson, was shot and killed in February in a Hollywood Hills home invasion gone awry, possibly spurred by social media posts documenting his newfound success. The posthumous record arrives in a summer of seething protests over the murders of Black people by American police.

In a year marked by COVID-19 and social unrest, music stars such as Fiona Apple, Killer Mike, Bad Bunny and Bob Dylan have risen to the occasion.

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So it’s telling that it’s often up to the guests to speak in Pop’s absence here. “Rest in peace to the Pop, make me smoke ya,” rues DaBaby on “For the Night,” an elegy for Pop Smoke on his own album.

“Shoot for the Stars,” released Friday at midnight, was supposed to herald a new era of New York rap, one that refracted a hemisphere’s worth of styles through a hard-edged, noirish Brooklyn drill sensibility. Atlanta’s mournful melodies, London’s icy, stuttering drum machines — this was rap fed by the internet yet completely at home on its own Canarsie block.

But now, that grim “beautiful country” is facing up to generation after generation of violence against its Black citizens. “Shoot for the Stars,” an ambitious but scattered expansion of Pop’s sound, is widely expected to top the charts by a long shot next week. But it can’t do much more than fill in the cracks of what his life and career should have been.

Brooklyn drill, like most exciting regional sounds in the age of TikTok, has already been blown up and commercialized: a whistle-stop for stars like Travis Scott and Drake. Just days before its release, “Shoot” prompted grousing from fans who suspected that Virgil Abloh, the fashion designer, had barely even phoned in his hastily Photoshopped artwork for the LP’s cover (the final version was, indeed, much better).

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Kanye West released ‘Wash Us in the Blood,’ his first new music since 2019’s ‘Jesus Is King’ album, accompanied by a video from L.A. artist Arthur Jafa.

Fame comes fast and hard to young rappers today, let alone to their teams that have to handle their legacies in death. But one person who didn’t seem to struggle with a path forward was Pop Smoke. The most interesting moments of “Shoot” are when Pop shows how ready he was to move on from the tightly wound menace of the sound he popularized.

His distinct low whisper, already one of the signature instruments of rap in 2020, still sounds precision-milled. “44 BullDog” is one of the most brutal, ominous tracks in his catalog. Gunplay is omnipresent in Pop’s lyrics — “Tell my shooters call me FaceTime / For all the time we had to face time,” he raps on the hit bonus track “Dior,” but on New York streets during the police violence protests, the song became something of a rallying cry.

But he also uses that voice for much more, like the mournful singing on “The Woo,” with fellow Gen Z hero Roddy Ricch and 50 Cent, a famously gruff New York elder who greatly influenced Pop. 50 Cent co-executive produced the album, and had been a mentor to Pop Smoke — “Got It on Me” is a rework of 50’s “Many Men (Wish Death).” But his range went further: “Yea Yea,” “What You Know Bout Love” and “Diana” have new open space and melody, with lyrics that are even sometimes tender: “She said she wanna be a teacher / Damn, in my head she would look good as a teacher / Treat her with Balenciaga sneakers,” he raps on “Diana.”

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It doesn’t always work — “Something Special” is thrice warmed over from its Lionel Richie via Fabolous source material, and not a good fit. But it’s admirable that, before his death, Pop Smoke was already figuring out both his lineage in the New York canon and where to take it from here.

One simmering issue with “Shoot,” however, is that there’s not enough of the rapper on the very album meant to cement his own legacy. Pop’s 2019 mix-tape debut “Meet the Woo” was guest-less, distilled and singular. While “Shoot” has a formidable roster of cameos (all the aforementioned join Lil Baby, Swae Lee, Karol G, Lil Tjay and Brooklyn’s Rowdy Rebel, among others), it sometimes feels diluted in its purpose. Pop Smoke may well have been a Tyga fan, but that’s a weird choice to hear on a last will and testament of a record.

As the families and teams of Lil Peep, Juice Wrld, XXXTentacion and Mac Miller know, there’s no guidebook for how to best assemble a posthumous record for a young rapper today. This job fell largely to Steven Victor, a veteran A&R executive. Victor was Smoke’s manager at the time of his murder, and knew better than anyone what his artistic intentions were. But the creative pace today is so quick, and the deaths so young, that careers are born and die all before an artist has time to refine their voice. Fivio Foreign, Axl Beats and Sosa Geek may well ride the Brooklyn drill tide to see the stardom once due for Pop Smoke, but the scene has lost its guiding light.

“Shoot” was begun as a path forward, and in death it might still be — if not for Pop Smoke then for a generation of young rappers who will speak of him reverently in a country still ripping apart from gunshots and chokeholds.


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