The posthumous effort looks to reconcile what the late rapper was already known for with what he had hoped to become.

By Gary Suarez
July 02, 2020 at 09:00 PM EDT
Pop Smoke
Credit: AMZY OBR

For a genre as transfixed by language as hip-hop is, few words carry as much weight as the term next. After imprinting the summer of 2019 with the anthemic “Welcome To The Party” and the following winter with Travis Scott on “GATTI,” Pop Smoke was, without question, up next. With charming menace conveyed via an uncommonly raspy voice, the 20-year-old sensation almost single handedly launched the hyper-regional sound of Brooklyn drill onto a national platform by way of his two uncompromising Meet The Woo mixtapes. The skyward trajectory of those early successes made the rapper's shocking and untimely death this past February all the more jarring. Pop Smoke had lofty ambitions, but didn’t have the chance to meet them before being struck down by the violence that permeated both his art and tragically short life.

The unfulfilled promise of his otherwise princely coronation looms large over Shoot for the Stars Aim for the Moon, a posthumously assembled set of tracks that serves as the rapper’s proper album debut. Brought to fruition by the people who watched over his come-up as well as big-brother figures 50 Cent — who serves as one of the project’s executive producers — and Quavo, the hour-long effort looks to reconcile what Pop Smoke was already known for with what he had hoped to become.

U.K.-based producer and Pop favorite 808 Melo takes responsibility for the former here, appearing on more than a half-dozen tracks, including the tension-building opener “Bad Bitch From Tokyo,” and the menacing “Creature” and “Tunnel Vision,” which pulls 808’s signature bass wobble from their popular 2019 single “Dior.” Later, in tandem with WondaGurl, who worked on Meet The Woo 2 highlights “Christopher Walking” and “Dreaming,” the trio revel in the aspirational fulfillment of “Aim For The Moon.” Meanwhile, Pop Smoke makes the funereal march of “44 BullDog'' his own, despite its Mobz beat being previously used by a number of Soundcloud rappers.

But Shoot for the Stars begins to lose its foothold when diverging from Pop’s proven strengths in pursuit of his broader wishes. Given how his murder appeared to unite, however briefly, the generally factionalized Brooklyn drill scene, the absence of peers like Fivio Foreign on the tracklist feels like a missed opportunity, especially in light of an abundance of Atlanta trap features. The aforementioned Quavo appears on three songs, including the disjointed “Snitches” with Future, and the inexplicably slight Mustard-helmed “West Coast S--t” with Tyga. Pop Smoke stands out on these tracks, though largely due to how uncharacteristic they are in his repertoire. Blending into the safety of the mainstream has proven successful for plenty in his generation, but that isn’t what endeared people to him in the first place.

Yet the album recovers — and finds a satisfying new direction — through the realization of Pop Smoke’s long-standing comparisons with 50 Cent; he emulates the Queens rapper’s cadence and tone on the “Candy Shop” interpolation of “The Woo” and the next-generation G-Unit vibes of “Gangstas.”

Like so many projects completed after an artist’s passing, Shoot for the Stars leaves honor-bound friends in an uncertain void where good intentions and commercial desires clash. With stakes this high and a legacy to consider, the end result may or may not bear much of a resemblance to what Pop Smoke had in mind. Nonetheless, he sounds alive here, a motivated and vibrant hip-hop talent actively pushing towards that next level. B

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