On Friday 3rd July, the eagerly anticipated posthumous debut album from the New York Hip-Hop & Drill artist Pop Smoke was released. Brooklyn-born Bashar Barakah Jackson tragically died in a home invasion on February 19th, 2020, just as his rise to stardom was beginning to accelerate. Apt, then, that his debut is titled ‘Shoot for the Stars Aim for the Moon’. Pop is not the first artist to have an album released posthumously; from some of music’s biggest names such as John Lennon’s ‘Milk And Honey’ to rap royalty in Tupac’s, ‘The Don Killuminati: The 7 Day Theory’ and the beloved Mac Miller’s ‘Circles’, releasing material that artists were working on before an untimely passing is not a new practice. In Pop Smoke’s case, the tragedy of his death is heightened by this release, as it encompasses the braggadocious nature and distinctive delivery of an artist who held the insurmountable promise of becoming a pioneer in the drill genre in Brooklyn, New York.
A cursory read of the tracklist immediately highlights the length of the album. With 18 tracks (not including the bonus addition of the smash hit ‘Dior’ from ‘Meet the Woo’), it is certainly a substantial debut offering. A distinctive flow matched with Pop’s ability to flourish on drill beats means an album of this length runs the risk of a lack of distinctiveness between the tracks, but to Pop’s credit this is completely avoided. The powerful intro ‘Bad Bitch from Tokyo’, is a fiery offering that runs seamlessly into the equally fierce ‘Aim for the Moon’, featuring the most prolific of the Migos, Quavo. An extremely strong opening run of tracks is characterised by Pop’s signature aggression, with lines such as...
“I ain’t with the talk or discussion/I know some n***** that’ll shoot you for nothing”
on ‘44 BullDog’ setting the tone. Credit must go to the producers who maximise the heavy kicks and hi-hats that Smoke flourishes so well over putting him in the best position to display his range in delivery. Pop is more than just a rapper, however, and he flexes his singing chops on tracks such as ‘Yea Yea’, utterly relaxed over lighter instrumentals and singing more the tender lyrics, “Everything's signed, it's sealed/Baby girl, let me know if your love is real”; Smoke is that rare mix of an artist comfortable in his thuggery and confident in his desirability.
Focus must also be drawn to the numerous features on this project. Some of the most popular voices in the scene including Quavo (3x), new superstars DaBaby, Lil Baby and Roddy Rich, veteran stars such as Future and Smoke’s mentor 50 Cent (co-producer of the album) can be found on this project. Not only does this speak to how highly Pop Smoke was regarded by some of the biggest artists in the scene, it underlines the versatility of his flows as he is able to collaborate with such a range of voices. There are particular standout tracks which highlight this; Pop dovetails magnificently with Swae Lee on ‘Creature’ as they exchange bars and mimic each other’s’ flows.
There are, however, criticisms to be made even within a body of work that stands this strong. As mentioned, Quavo appears on the album three times and although his prowess is not in question, his experience in leading a track threatens to overpower Pop on songs such as ‘West Coast Shit’. Yet, this potential pitfall (especially given the limited nature of Pop’s vocals available) is balanced out and some truly special moments are found such as the beautiful verse entirely in Spanish from Colombian reggaeton artist KAROL G on ‘Enjoy Yourself’.
Pop Smoke was sometimes described as the second coming of 50 Cent and being one of the biggest artists to ever come out of New York this comparison could easily have served at a threat to the way Pop’s music was consumed. But on this album’s evidence, this metaphor is far from hyperbole. The album is crowned with the stellar track ‘Got It on Me’, a sample and interpolation of 50’s 2003 mega-track ‘Many Men’. As well as being an incredible way to close the album, it is undisputed proof that the comparisons were anything but exaggerated and Pop was destined for the very top of the game. This album is a celebration of Pop Smoke’s immeasurable talent and marketability, a true superstar in all senses. In Smoke’s own words in ‘Tunnel Vision (Outro)’,
“I’m a force to be reckoned, I'm God's perfection/Look, God gave me a lot in some months, but it could go in a second.”
Gone too quickly and too soon though he was, Pop Smoke has left us with an undeniable example of his star quality. R.I.P. Woo.