By: Tommy “T-Rod” Rodriguez
I won’t ever forget the moment I learned about Pop Smoke’s death.
As most people do nowadays, I learned of his death through social media, but the situation became much more personal for me. A week prior to Pop Smoke’s passing, a friend and I were sitting in a car, talking about the drill phenomenon himself. It was probably one of the most fun conversations I’d ever had: we did nothing but talk about his monstrous voice, his ability to get a crowd moving, his future as an artist, and what would happen should he order takeout with his trademark growl.
Reflecting on that time now makes me truly appreciate what Pop Smoke could do: he had the power to bring people together for a good time and was truly ready to take over the rap game as we know it. It’s a tragedy to see someone pass away, especially one so young, talented, and beloved.
Pop Smoke’s last offering for hip-hop as we know it, titled Shoot for the Stars Aim for the Moon, was going to be his debut album. Constructed by 50 Cent after Smoke’s passing, the album itself stands as the final beacon of his short but potent legacy. Similar to Mac Miller’s posthumous Circles, this album seems to have been created with more care than most posthumous releases. While not perfect in places, it’s a great listen and a testament to where Pop Smoke was going to go with his trademark sound and personality.
Pop Smoke himself sounded as good as he ever had on this album. His voice still carries the weight of a boulder, his flow is extremely catchy, and his hooks consistently land. “44 Bulldog” features one of his most eccentric flows yet, carrying a head-bobbing melody over villainous synths. “Gangstas” puts Pop’s vocals in the spotlight over a Mobb Deep-esque piano line, with his storytelling matching the truly insidious nature of the beat. Despite his ominous sound, Pop’s skill as a songmaker allows each song to sound like a party in hell.
One of Pop Smoke’s biggest changes on this album was his transition to a more mainstream sound. This transition works rather well considering his background as a drill artist, a genre where the beats are much heavier and the force of the tune much less laid back than traditional trap. Whether he rides more sensual and melody-focused trap beats like “Yea Yea” or channels soft tinges of reggaeton on “Enjoy Yourself,” Pop Smoke shows a hint of where his versatility could have gone. It all stems from his writing and performing powers: he was able to mix catchy and brutal in a way no one else could. He even catches hold of a soulful pop-rap beat in the form of “What You Know Bout Love,” sticking the landing and making a rather poignant love song.
Looking back at Pop Smoke’s previous tracks and versatility on this album, it makes sense that 50 Cent was the one to pull this album together. They both had that balance of darkness and celebration that made each song an enjoyable experience. Pop Smoke’s own 50 influence comes through on the excellent “Got It on Me,” where dramatic chants support his interpolation of 50’s “Many Men (Wish Death).” Their collaboration on club-banger “The Woo” is excellent as well, with Pop Smoke’s hook and “Candy Shop” interpolation working as a great aspect of the track; Roddy Ricch’s verse is great, and 50’s verse matches the beat’s seductive vibe.
Speaking of guest features, there’s an awful lot of them here. Almost everyone from the mainstream industry is present, mainly to provide extra layers to songs that may not have been completed due to Pop Smoke’s passing. While this guest list seems overbearing and very trendy at times, I think that a vast majority of these features did a decent service to Pop Smoke’s creations. Migos member Quavo has some of his best guest performances in years, helping elevate songs like the excellent “Aim for the Moon” to new heights. The duo have always shared great chemistry, so Quavo’s interplay with Pop Smoke is fruitful in making these drill bangers hit hard and stick in your head.
Other features mostly carry their weight as well: as Pop Smoke’s breathy verses bounce on the psychedelic synths and bass licks on “Creature,” Swae Lee adds a great vocal line and verse. Lil Baby and Dababy both bring their trademark swagger on “For the Night,” a surefire hit with its sticky hook, slick guitar, and grandiose presentation. Karol G’s trademark flirtations on “Enjoy Yourself” helps carry the song across the finish line as well; it’s an underrated gem at the album’s back end.
Unfortunately, the album isn’t all fireworks. A few of the guest spots are lacking in the same creative energy Pop brought: Tyga clearly phoned in his verse on “West Coast Shit,” an ironic statement considering Rowdy Rebel actually gave his verse on a phone call on “Make it Rain.” “Mood Swings” is a bit too syrupy at places, lacking the edge the rest of the album carried while being centered on some gross sexual imagery. These songs, like a good deal of songs on the record, have very little Pop Smoke contribution due to his passing, leading to a chunk of this album lacking the identity he brought to the table. The album shines most when Pop Smoke is on center stage, putting his talents for all to see.
And yet, despite all the flaws, the album is still great. On the outro of the album, Pop Smoke states (as part of a recorded interview) that he wished to change the game as we know it. This album shows us that he had the potential to do so, and it’s a shame we’ll never see where he would have progressed from here. While it’s sad to see someone go, we should be happy to have this album to remember him by. It’s a celebration of what he has accomplished, and what he could have accomplished if he were still around.
Thank you Pop Smoke. Rest in Power.
Tracks to Save: “Aim for the Moon,” “44 BullDog,” “Gangstas,” “Creature,” “The Woo,” “Enjoy Yourself,” “What You Know Bout Love,” “Got It on Me”
Tracks to Skip: “West Coast Shit,” “Mood Swings
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