Nailing the posthumous album release is never easy. Too frequently they’re a transparent attempt to get one last paycheck from the oeuvre, compromising the artist’s vision for marketability and sales (read: the numerous, wobbly Tupac collections since his death). Thankfully, Pop Smoke’s just-released ‘Shoot For The Stars, Aim For The Moon’ is a posthumous album that is measured with care and is a complete ode to a rapper tragically taken from his family, friends and fans far too early. If the fanbase’s biggest gripe with a posthumous release is its artwork, then you’ve done a pretty good job.
A once-in-a-generation talent, the Brooklyn-born artist’s impact on hip-hop was immediate, providing a powerful, uplifting voice when it was needed most. Pop Smoke had the kind of signature sounds – anthemic drill-inspired production underneath a guttural baritone that spat braggadocious lyrics – which made him instantly stand out. He took the specific regional sound of Brooklyn drill and gave it national attention before then launching it into the global spotlight. Off the back of two mixtapes, ‘Meet The Woo’ and ‘Meet The Woo 2’, Pop Smoke positioned himself as the successor to the long-vacant throne of New York rap.
His murder in February 2020, during an apparent robbery at his rental property in Los Angeles, was cruelly timed. This debut album was nearly finished at the time of his death, and has since been guided through its final stages by his friend, manager and label owner Steven Victor. Executively produced by legendary rapper 50 Cent and featuring 21 producers with an all-star cast of features – including Quavo, Future, Roddy Rich and more – the album is rich, dense and layered but never strays too far from its sole purpose: to remind everyone of the immense talent Smoke held.
From the jump, Quavo and Pop Smoke trade lines on ‘Aim For The Moon’, an aspirational, smoky track with a resounding bass that plummets when their collaborative deep voices spit lines like: “Welcome her to the party / The afterparty’s afterparty, then party again (Oh) / Hundred bitches, hardly any men (Oh) / In my room is where the party began“. It’s an early indicator of the 19-track album’s pomp, as well as Smoke’s singular lyricism.
As the album progresses space is made for pure trap, and certain songs veer towards R&B sensibilities and melancholic reflections. ‘Gangstas’, for example, is Pop Smoke at his very best. Over a haunting piano intro, singed synths maintain that early threat while Smoke delivers his best claim yet to be the King of New York by emphatically stating: “I don’t want none of that extra loud shit / This ain’t none of that rainbow hair shit / Know what I’m sayin’? (I be in New York with the gangsters) / This the real streets shit, yeah, n***a / (I be in New York with the gangsters) / Fuckin’ voice of the streets, man”. A clear shot at rapper Tekashi 6ix9ine’s questionable self-claim to be the king of the city, Smoke comes back from the grave here to correct anyone who might be thinking that he won’t live on in memory.
With production mainly handled by UK producer 808Melo, the beats vary between each track while maintaining the essence of triplet hi-hats, sharp snares and resounding bass that has made Smoke’s tracks eclipse millions of views. ‘Creature’, featuring Rae Sremmurd‘s Swae Lee, burns slowly over slow, pared-back production, while the Future and Quavo-featuring ‘Snitching’ is straight-up icy with Smoke delivering lines that outlined the very real threats he lived with every day and the measures he took to safeguard himself (“there’s never a day I don’t walk without it / Shoot a n***a, never talk about it (Shh)”). Flickers of Spanish guitar are present on ‘Enjoy Yourself’, while ‘The Woo’ features a memorable verse from 50 Cent, who quotes one of his signature tracks in ‘Candy Shop’.
Though the second half of the album tends to meander, especially with R&B-heavy tracks like ‘Mood Swings’ and ‘What You Know About Love’, these songs do show that the 20-year-old had ambitions to break into multiple genres. Though rough, like an early Ja Rule and 50 Cent mashed together, these songs possess enough depth and talent to show that Smoke could’ve gone on to do incredible things in any genre he chose had he been given the time. The album is rounded off expertly with the triple-threat of ‘Got It On Me’, ‘Tunnel Vision (Outro)’ – two tracks that see Smoke looking towards a future he never had – and ‘Dior’, which hits fans with a reminder that his voice is everywhere right now, especially as it was played at many of the recent Black Lives Matter protests in America.
The album’s strengths are many, from its production to its featured guests’ verses to Smoke’s lyrics and skills. ‘Shoot For The Stars, Aim For The Moon’ showcases a multi-faceted artist only just discovering his potential. What makes the album truly stand out is that it serves as a testament to the strength, power and knowledge Smoke held in his ambition to go to the very top. Tragically, his death prematurely vaulted him there, but at least this posthumous release will serve as a lasting reminder of Smoke’s immense talent.
- Release date: July 3
- Record label: Republic Records