Genre: Rap, Brooklyn Drill
Favorite Tracks: “Make It Rain,” “Enjoy Yourself,” “44Bulldog”
Pop Smoke’s debut, SHOOT FOR THE STARS, AIM FOR THE MOON can’t help being disappointing. To be fair to the quality of some of the material present, this album had more working against it than any album I can recall in recent memory. Pop Smoke’s life was cut tragically short at a young age earlier this year, one more gut punch in a year overflowing with them. This was to be his debut, a kingmaking event for an incandescent ascending star in hip hop, already flush with expectation. Tragedy threw creating a posthumous album in the mix, tricky business for even the most responsible of estates to navigate. Compounding the difficulty further was Pop Smoke’s youth, leaving far less than the standard quantity of recorded material to construct a posthumous album from, while what is there shows the partially-complete evolution of a young artist still finding his voice. Toss in the chance to be a dominant figure in New York, a city keen to anoint a new rap sensation, and SHOOT FOR THE STARS buckles under the weight. The thing is: almost none of it is attributable to Pop himself.
The album’s standard version is 18 songs, long but not absurd for a modern major label rap record. The deluxe version balloons the tracklist to a bloated 34 songs, even throwing “Dior” on for a comical third appearance on a Pop Smoke album. There’s a great debut in here somewhere, buried in a sea of weak features and clumsy attempts at crossover appeal. The end result is an album that reveals many more fingerprints besides Pop’s than anyone who enjoyed the trim, explosive volumes of MEET THE WOO would hope for. Those records had tremendous focus, and efficiently distilled the appeal of Pop Smoke.
Though sometimes rough and guilty of recycling ideas, MEET THE WOO VOL. 1 and 2 are Pop Smoke playing to his strengths. The dark, bass-driven beats sourced from the Brooklyn-by-way-of-London-by-way-of-Chicago drill scene are automatically elevated by Pop’s voice. Pop Smoke belongs to a venerable club of iconic, instantly recognizable rap voices. Fellow members like Snoop Dogg, Kendrick Lamar, Jadakiss, or Lil Wayne lean into the unique aspects of their voices; within the first few seconds of vocals, they are unmistakable. For his part, Pop Smoke has a supervillain’s baritone, gravelly, impossibly deep, and instantly intimidating. It’s the perfect voice for the hyper-aggressive subgenre of drill music, barking threats and puffing out his chest with a conviction you feel in your bones. As a whole, each mixtape achieved what it sets out to do by producing an impressively consistent product, with “Hawk Em,” “Dior,” “Element,” “Invincible,” and the original hit, “Welcome to the Party,” going particularly hard.
There are songs that fit this motive perfectly on SHOOT FOR THE STARS; “44Bulldog,” “Bad Bitch from Tokyo,” and “Make It Rain” feel like incremental evolutions of the strongest MEET THE WOO tracks, with cleaner mixing and better production. There’s still a reliance on outdated language and repetitive subject matter, but Pop Smoke tracks are about momentum, not lyrics. Among the aforementioned clumsy crossover attempts, there are successes in branching out to new sounds. “Gangstas” gives Pop a smoother, piano-driven backdrop his mafia don growl suits well, and “Enjoy Yourself” finds perfectly paired Karol G lapsing in and out of Spanish over a lush beat that Pop Smoke finds a nice groove in despite the unfamiliar mood and pacing. On these tracks, Pop Smoke is the figurehead of Brooklyn drill, not just another pop rapper. These moments are unfortunately fleeting, as an infuriating flood of executive boardroom choices parade over the burgeoning style of the ostensible star. He is curiously sidelined in painful collaborations with Future, Tyga, Swae Lee, and Quavo, who shows up an unforgivable three times while managing to not do a single interesting thing with his runtime. The beat on “Snitching” is sleep-inducing, “West Coast Shit” telegraphs its already lazy premise, and “Creature” is immediately forgettable.
Ultimately, the flaws of SHOOT FOR THE STARS can be summarized in one track: “The Woo.” The production is chasing radio play with a breezy guitar loop far better suited for the featured Roddy Ricch, the human incarnation of pining for Top 40 action. The production bafflingly flattens Pop Smoke’s mighty voice with layers of Auto-Tune until he’s rendered indistinct and impotent, singing an uninspired hook. Finally, a washed-up 50 Cent turns up to cash in on the undisguised throughline being painted from his own GET RICH OR DIE TRYIN’ to Pop’s debut, as if the dozen references to 50 lyrics scattered through the tracklist were going to fly over our heads. “The Woo,” like much of the album, trips over itself to take its subject and plaster over him with expensive features, appeals to radio, and attempts to cement a place in New York’s unrivaled rap lineage, a place that was still in the early stages of its formation when we lost Pop Smoke. In doing so, the qualities that made him special were marginalized, hidden amongst misguided attempts to guess where he could’ve gone next. It’s no coincidence that the best tracks are Pop by himself, or with features that fit better in his world like Rowdy Rebel and Fivio Foreign. That’s the real disappointment of the album, that the voice behind it had such great potential that will now go unexplored. [Corey Guen]