Posthumously released after his murder earlier this year, the young Brooklyn MC’s debut studio album is a mixed bag that doesn’t escape feeling like a work-in-progress but, nevertheless, calls attention to his burgeoning talent
If nothing else, the legacy of Pop Smoke might be limited to writing one of the year’s most defining pop songs. Eight days before he was shot dead in a reported home invasion, the 20-year-old rapper put out Dior, the signature anthem included on all three of his full-length projects, namely the two mixtapes released during his short life, 2019’s Meet the Woo and 2020’s Meet the Woo 2, and this, his posthumous debut album. Notching respectable if not spectacular rankings in the charts, following his death, Dior went platinum and surprisingly found a second life as a protest song in the era of George Floyd’s murder. Dior’s success makes sense – hard and gruff, flavoured with a UK drill heft, it goes out of its way to grab your attention – even if its political impact doesn’t: the author of a Pitchfork piece on the subject concluded it was simply “cathartic” for black youths in the States experiencing day-to-day police harassment and racism.
Even so, there was a moment when Pop Smoke’s legacy looked like it would be overshadowed by the particulars of Shoot for the Stars, Aim for the Moon’s release. Rather unceremoniously, the original sleeve design drew the ire of Smoke’s fans. And for good reason: it was rotten, a rushed, cheap-looking, lazily knocked-together mess, made worse by the fact that it was produced by Virgil Abloh, founder of fashion house Off-White, Louis Vuitton’s menswear artistic director and the man responsible for the artwork for Kanye West’s iconic Yeezus. Earning itself condemnation from no less than 50 Cent and a Change.org petition for it to be changed, the design was dropped in favour of the infinitely more tasteful version here: what looks like a chrome-plated rose on black, like an epitaph or poignant wreath for the late rapper. Understandably, efforts have gone into ensuring the album looks and sounds faultless. Production-wise, the album is immaculately upholstered: there’s barely a spot of distortion, the music panoramic and sharp, bass notes fattened and full.
Questions surrounding Pop Smoke’s legacy, and whether it’ll be able to endure beyond Dior’s hit-making power, continue to hang over Shoot for the Stars, Aim for the Moon. The reason why lies in the quality of its contents. Nothing here, fortunately, is fingers-in-ears terrible. Quite a fair bit of it is really great. Creature benefits from the deep growl of UK drill – for ages now, a tougher version than the Chicago-based US variant, the backdrop here smothered by dolorous electronics, video-game whirrs and an echoing sample of a bird’s caw – and a reliably accomplished vocal from guest artist Swae Lee. Smoke’s voice suits this setting better. It’s hoarse and gravelly – huffing like he’s asthmatic, during 44 BullDog, on which he raps very capably over its pounding rhythm, he keeps taking massive gulps of air as if he’s struggling to get through the opening hook. Snitching’s energy-boost comes courtesy of Quavo and Future doing their usual and very appealing shtick. Diana is a true anomaly – futuristic, unsettled and startlingly melodic, moving slowly to a thick, clotted groove.
Obligatory spots of chart-pop contemporaneity still prevail, however. When Colombian reggaeton singer Karol G saunters in, delivering a Spanish guest verse on Enjoy Yourself, it’s accompanied by the exasperated fear that it won’t be long before you’ll find it on a Spotify playlist called something like Latin Licks or Reggaeton Rap Summer Selection. He’s not always the source of why some tracks are weaker than others, to be fair. It’s 50 Cent who ruins The Woo, which you’ve definitely heard something like before – sub-bass plonks and vibrations, some acoustic guitar thrown into the mix – meanwhile the sad piano sample swimming around in pools of reverb on West Coast Shit is particularly hackneyed. But West Coast Shit does underscore Pop Smoke’s big Achilles’ heel. He’s not a strong lyricist. Granted, that’s not a major problem for some of his peers, like Lil Baby or DaBaby, who both appear on For the Night, but it highlights the sense of anonymity that pervades the album.
Tyga’s cameo on West Coast Shit reveals a down-home wit (“Today was a good day, fly as a blimp,” he raps, joking later about his car costing “an arm, leg, and limb”) and natural charisma that Smoke doesn’t have. Yea Yea’s misty, skulking slow jam buries a looped female R&B vocal beneath trap beats at odds with the lyrics, exhaustively rattling off firearm brands; it’s only when he reaches the second verse does Smoke call out “baby girl, let me know if your love is real”. The usual batch of luxury cars and name-brand alcoholic beverages make their inevitable appearance on For the Night, leaving you resolutely unmoved. Moreover, his attitude to hedonism feels pretty tame and rehearsed on Aim for the Moon, not exactly improved by some awkward political incorrectness: “You don’t know what you started / I pop a Perc’, go retarded”. Few moments illuminate the considerable hype and praise that Pop Smoke attracted around the time of his mixtapes, something you’d potentially attribute to the outgrowth of novelty interest in his pioneering of Brooklyn’s own drill sound.
Then again, there are moments that provide evidence of what made Smoke a promising young hopeful. As if someone’s twisted a Isley Brothers sample left lying around, Something Special’s 90s R&B pastiche should be awful, but it’s not: clichéd sonic signifiers they might well be, the shimmering chimes and buttery guitar chords nonetheless complement each other smoothly. He tackles the drill tracks with pugilistic enthusiasm, even if his words aren’t sharp enough to match his commanding presence behind the mic. “I don’t want none of that extra loud shit, this ain’t none of that rainbow hair shit,” he says pointedly of his lesser peers with a snarling self-confidence on Gangstas. You might not be totally confident of Pop Smoke’s legacy living long in hip-hop memory, but, at the very least, he’s made his mark.