Shoot for the Stars: Notes On Pop Smoke & His Debut Album

It must have been early 2019 when I first heard about Pop Smoke. I remember my friend sending me a SoundCloud link. I clicked it and I was immediately greeted by a chillingly deep voice that almost didn’t sound human. I recognized the main production elements as U.K. drill, as I was familiar with the subgenre. Nevertheless, when my friend told me this guy was from Canarsie, Brooklyn, or “The Floss,” I was intrigued. I was aware of the New York drill sound that was sweeping across most of the city’s newer and unsigned rappers, but I had never heard someone make it sound so arresting and so demanding of attention. “Welcome To The Party” became a song that defined an artist, a genre, and a city.

It didn’t take long for “Welcome To The Party” to sweep across the city, and the country by extension. You couldn’t go to one kickback, function, party, whatever you want to call it, without hearing either “Welcome” or “Dior.” It really can’t be overstated how much of a force Pop was, and how quickly he became one. For some context, in New York, his songs were played more than some Billboard Hot 100 hits. The City adored Pop. The love that we had for him often reminded of me of when A Boogie first broke through or when Bobby Shmurda and Young M.A started popping off — we knew that they were special. Pop’s music combined a few things that were so distinctly New York that we had no choice but to make him a cultural icon. The dark and aggressive sound of his minimalist drill production truly captured the bubbling rage and weariness that many New Yorkers have with our local government and the NYPD. We have a lot to be mad about and the menacing nature of drill locked that emotion into something tangible. On the other hand, the upwards inflection of Pop’s flow and the vigor with which he rips into every beat perfectly encapsulated the hope and resilience of New York. It’s no surprise that “Dior” quickly became a New York protest anthem of resistance in the wake of demonstrations sparked by the unjust murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, and the countless Black lives unfairly lost at the hands of state-sanctioned police violence.

Pop was just a little over a year older than me. For me and my circle, it was really incredible to see someone just like us put on for our city on an international stage. So, when Pop was shockingly murdered, his death hit home. I remember I was away at college when the news hit, and all I wanted to do was get on a plane and get back home to the city. In fact, I only really spoke to fellow New Yorkers on campus in the time immediately following the announcement. Pop shot to fame so quickly and it was all taken away even faster. It feels like yesterday (it basically was) that I was scouring Internet forums for leaked or unreleased tracks from Pop. I remember the release of Meet The Woo 2, his sharp second mixtape, lifting my spirits and reminding me of home during one of the most hectic and trying times of my life. Now, we have Shoot for the Stars Aim for the Moon.

Recently, Shoot for the Stars Aim for the Moon became the biggest posthumous #1 debut on the Billboard 200 in over a decade with 248,000 album units. The record became Pop’s first #1 album in the U.S. and each of the set’s 19 songs charted on the Hot 100, breaking the record for most simultaneous songs on the chart posthumously. Obviously, this record, and, unfortunately, his death, lifted Pop to commercial heights that he should be alive to see. Beyond the numbers, Shoot for the Stars is an expansive look at the vast amount of potential Pop Smoke had. The guy changed the game with his debut single, and his debut album proves that he truly was just getting started.

Unlike many posthumous albums that sound like obvious random compilations of unused old songs, Shoot for the Stars actively adheres to a theme. Pop truly shoots for the stars and beyond on this album. In fact, he shoots for the whole damn galaxy. From beginning to end, the album moves from Pop’s now trademark drill sound to illustrious Top 40 love songs, slick pop hooks, and R&B-tinged midtempos.

Victor Victor/Republic

The intro, “Bad Bitch from Tokyo,” and “44 Bulldog” are the album cuts that most closely recall the authentic drill of Pop’s first two mixtapes. “Tokyo” (about women) and “Bulldog” (about guns) don’t necessarily bring anything new to the table, lyrically speaking, but the urgent energy of the production helps situate the album in familiar territory. You don’t enter a Pop Smoke album expecting to hear slow jams and singing, so tracks like these serve as references to his prior projects and reminders of the energy and drive that made us all pay attention to him in the first place.

There are a number of features on the album, but none shine brighter than Rowdy Rebel. On an album that houses guest artists like DaBaby, Quavo, Future, Lil Baby, Karol G, King Combs, 50 Cent, Roddy Ricch, Lil Tjay, and more, Rowdy’s verse, recorded over a jail phone, is far and away the strongest guest verse on the album. A member of GS9, along with Bobby Shmurda, Rowdy is due to be released from prison in December of this year. In all honesty, it was quite easy for Rowdy to win the Best Guest Verse title on Shoot for the Stars. A lot of the features on the record sound very corporate. Few artists brought the energy that Pop deserved. Rowdy’s verse is filled with that Brooklyn recklessness and that drive and hunger that relatively unestablished artists have. Like Pop on his debut album, Rowdy had something to prove with his verse. Of course, as an East Flatbush guy myself, I was really proud to see a Brooklyn rapper tear that beat up. There’s nothing better than a cocky verse delivered nonchalantly: “My chain hang, don’t tuck it, I touch down, I’m bustin’/Tell the label I need five M’s, if not, I ain’t signing nothin’.”

Speaking of the “corporate” feel of the album’s features, I can’t help but feel that Republic had a bit too much of a say in some of these guest artists. For example, Karol G replacing Burna Boy on “Enjoy Yourself” and King Combs on “Diana”… why? Not only was King Combs’ verse awful, he’s one of the last rappers to come to mind when you think “potential Pop Smoke collaborators.” In that vein, Quavo and Pop were working on a collab album before his death which, at best, explains his three appearances on the album. Explanation or no explanation, the Quavo verses add nothing to their respective songs. Simply put, Quavo is tired and lately he feels like a waste of space and time on the songs that he is featured on. On this album, at least, the same goes for Future and DaBaby, who was fighting the beat on his verse on “For the Night.” The album works better when Pop is riding solo. It is unfortunate that the featured artists marred the album to some degree. This is one of the issues with posthumous releases, the artists are no longer around to properly execute their vision and they are the only people who can truly hold all parties involved accountable. This was Pop’s debut, and, at times, the album feels too controlled by a label’s desire to boost streams.

As for the features that do work, Tyga (surprisingly), Lil Tjay, Roddy Ricch, and 50 Cent bring the energy needed. On “West Coast Shit,” Tyga assists Pop as they lean into that breezy West Coast flair that anchored Tyga’s comeback hits “Taste” and “Swish.” With production from Mustard, this is a tailor made summer anthem that doesn’t sound forced. Nevertheless, there are summer anthems, and then there are New York summer anthems. I like to characterize New York summer anthems as moodier, more explicit, and straight up nastier than your average summer song. “Mood Swings” ticks all of those boxes. The Lil Tjay-assisted R&B track details how “shorty be catching mood swings/every time [he] fuck without a rubber.” Yeah. It’s nasty and it gets nastier, but that’s New York! It’s crude and sensual and forward, but that’s what makes it such a winner. On the other hand, Roddy Ricch has arguably owned this year (he scored five nominations at this year’s Bulletin Awards), and he doesn’t phone in his verse on “The Woo.” It’s 50 Cent, however, a foundational piece of this album and Pop’s legacy, that really shines on the track. The *moment* doesn’t come from 50 Cent’s verse as much as it comes from the interpolation of his classic “Candy Shop.” When Pop sings that iconic “let me take you to the candy shop,” you can’t help but to lose your mind. It’s the relatively recent past and prematurely ended future of New York rap converging on one celebratory anthem that essentially globalizes “The Woo.” 50 Cent’s influence also appears on “Got It On Me,” the poignant final full-length track on the album. A giant of rap music, and New York rap music specifically, 50 Cent’s “Many Men,” which tackles his near-death experiences and sees him asking for forgiveness, is a classic in every sense of the word. It makes sense that Pop Smoke, New York’s brightest rising star, would sample the seminal track for one of the closers on Shoot for the Stars Aim for the Moon. On “Got It On Me,” Pop interpolates the melody and lyrics of 50’s sung hook in between verses that share the same themes as the original. It’s an eerily beautiful song given Pop’s untimely passing and the similarities his burgeoning career had with Fiddy’s.

As aforementioned, Pop’s highest moments on Shoot for the Stars are the solo ones. When he shifts from drill to more melodic rap on the introspective “Gangstas,” or when he blends drill with standard trap production on “Yea Yea,” Pop creates moments that feel huge. His potential is bursting out of every note and every lyric on this record. He seamlessly switches from classic rap moments to songs that could conquer Pop radio like “Something Special” or “What You Know Bout Love.” The versatility and sheer spirit displayed on the solo tracks are what make the stale guest verses so infuriating. This is Pop’s debut album; his official artistic introduction to the world. You don’t get to muddy that up. It also felt like a slap in the face to basically exclude Pop’s fellow rising New York rappers. Pop was, and still is, the city’s pride and joy. Where were Fivio Foreign, Sleepy Hallow, 22Gz, Smoove’L, Sheff G, and Curly Savv? These artists are the drivers of New York’s most exciting new rap scene, the very scene that Pop helped nationalize. If anybody should have been on his debut, it’s them, not Karol G or King Combs. Arguably, it looks worse if they are tacked onto the album’s forthcoming deluxe edition, then it just feels like they were afterthoughts.

Shoot for the Stars Aim for the Moon is more expansive than either of Pop’s mixtapes, but it’s just as focused, albeit on a different goal. The debut attempts to showcase the different facets of Pop’s artistry and preview the potential roads his career could have taken. Most importantly, the album is a successful, if not open-ended, conclusion to Pop’s story that somehow also feels like a new beginning. It was clear to many from “Welcome To The Party,” but Shoot for the Stars is further proof that Pop Smoke could have been one of the biggest rappers of our time.

Rest in power, Pop. Thank you for all that you gave to the community while you were still with us.

Follow Shoot for the Stars, a “foundation [that] is meant to inspire inner city youth to do just what the name states, ‘shoot for the stars,’ and help urban youth everywhere turn their pain into champagne by making their dreams a reality,” on Instagram here.

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