Pop Smoke’s debut album Shoot for the Stars, Aim for the Moon falls flat at times, but leans into his talents enough to cover the missteps.
The first time I heard Pop Smoke was at a sparsely populated community college gymnasium. I can’t remember if it was November or December of 2019, but it was well after he had subtly taken over a subgenre of hip-hop. His songs – specifically “Dior” and “Welcome to the Party” — served as the pregame anthems for a team nestled in the suburbs of New Jersey, miles away from the music’s Brooklyn locus.
The songs immediately struck a chord with me. Pop’s bullish growls overlaid on a haunting pair of beats that featured the type of bass that makes you wonder if someone dropped a bowling ball on your chest while you were sleeping. I could barely make out the lyrics over the blown out bass. Still, the songs were enough to impress upon me that Pop Smoke was important. Important to Brooklyn, important to drill music and important to hip-hop.
By the time I had fully indulged Pop’s first and second mixtapes, he was dead. Soon after, news started circling that his debut studio album was planned for a summer 2020 release, with 50 Cent heading up curation as the album’s executive producer. On paper, it sounded great. One of New York’s foremost sons of rap helping to vaunt the artist who could have been the next to claim that title (if he already hadn’t). But come the album’s release, after a handful of delays, on July 3, listeners were treated to a tracklist that sounded more like a passion project for its features than a respectable entry in Pop Smoke’s discography.
There are too many unfortunate parallels between Pop Smoke and Big L’s careers. Both were loyal New Yorkers and had an immediate impact on the rap scene around them — Smoke with his “Woo” conglomerate and L with his Diggin’ in the Crates Crew. Both were also murdered right when critics foretold their jump into stardom.
In L’s case, however, his posthumously released album, “The Big Picture” adhered to the hallmarks that made him a standout during his short career. “Rest in Peace, Big L,” DJ Premier shouts on the intro cut, clearing the air for any misconceptions about his immortality. What follows is an album that preserves L’s artistry, from his love of wordplay on the explainer track “Ebonics (Criminal Slang)” to his brushes with mortality on “Casualties of a Dice Game.”
Pop Smoke recognized his own mortality — seconds into Shoot for the Stars, Aim for the Moon (SSAM), he raps “I looked my killer in his eyes, yeah, I’m talking face to face” — but his collaborators didn’t. After setting up the intro, produced by frequent confidant 808Melo to feel and sound like a natural progression from his previous tapes, SSAM takes a turn towards radio friendly hits and feature artist posturing.
It’s inarguable that Pop Smoke perpetuated an iconic sound, one that crept its way out of the projects of Chicago and into the workstations of hip-hop tastemakers like Drake and Kanye West. But SSAM forgoes that sound in favor of putting Smoke’s vocals on tracks that better serve his guests. “For the Night” hears Smoke’s empty lyrics and short phrases stand at odds with a beat tailor made for Lil Baby and DaBaby’s word-packed verses. “West Coast Shit,” produced by Californian beatmakers Mustard and Bongo ByTheWay, offer Smoke’s album nothing more than a vehicle for Tyga’s inclusion in the zeitgeist. Then, “Yea Yea,” “Enjoy Yourself,” and “What You Know Bout Love” make a play at Smoke’s sonic diversity, when that was never his claim to fame.
These efforts suffer because it’s clear that Pop Smoke can carry a tune by himself. “Got It On Me” is a phenomenal reimagining of 50’s “Many Men (Wish Death),” while “Tunnel Vision (Outro) takes the framework of Smoke’s past work and builds out one of the most layered drill songs he’s performed.
Hip-hop, maybe more than other genres, is too acquainted with posthumous albums. Producers are tasked with establishing or continuing the legacy of an artist, usually deceased far too early. Sometimes it works, as on The Notorious B.I.G.’s Life After Death or Mac Miller’s Circles, both of which continue to explore the themes the artist was consumed with at the time of his death. Sometimes, it falters, as on 2Pac’s Eminem-produced Loyal to the Game, which was a showcase for in Em’s technical prowess connections (creating new words Pac never said like “G-Unit” or securing an Elton John feature) and little else.
Despite its missteps, Pop Smoke’s debut won’t hamper his legacy. If the frequent bonus track, “Dior” is anything to go by, his sound is cemented in hip-hop history.