Photo Credit: @Amzyobr
At the outset of what promised to be a heavy-hitting career, Pop Smoke was shot dead. 20-years-old and renting a home in the hills of Los Angeles to get a taste of the good stuff, he flew a little too close to the sun and he got there quickly. Born Bashar Barakah Jackson, Pop Smoke watched his career explode in the months before his death, hitting Paris Fashion Week with the creative director of Louis Vuitton and enjoying hometown success in New York City that’s impossibly tough to cultivate – some of his songs achieved bigger radio airplay numbers in Brooklyn than Billboard hits at the same time, quite the monumental feat for an upstart.
Shoot for the Stars, Aim for the Moon is a sprawling posthumous album that announces Pop Smoke to the larger world outside of the Big Apple. It became the first debut album by a hip hop act to posthumously debut atop the charts and gives Pop a seat at the table with The Notorious B.I.G., 2Pac, and XXXTentacion as the only hip hop acts to posthumously hit number one (though Juice Wrld has since joined this table with his own posthumous release that debuted atop the charts, Legends Never Die).
Shoot for the Stars, Aim for the Moon was executive-produced and Hail-Mary’d to the finish line by 50 Cent, who secured many of the numerous featured artists presented. Though that laundry list does do the album a disservice in distracting from Pop Smoke’s deep, commanding, visceral voice, the many featured artists bridge the worlds of Brooklyn drill and the larger pop music landscape. Due to his voice being so singular and overpowering, it continues to shine through in his music despite any friends that tag along for the ride (we’re looking at you, Tyga). “44 BullDog” is a led by a skittering, stuttering drill beat that conjures a menacing image – it finds Pop Smoke right at home defending his ground and his honor while contending with his enemies, both physical and mental.
One of the album’s most purely enjoyable moments is “Something Special”, a smitten love track that flips “Into You” by Fabolous and Tamia into something more for the moment. The hook declares it’s all about shopping trips, the diamond earrings, and the clothes, but a closer inspection directs the listener to yearnings for intimacy and romance. “I’m Pop Smoke but you know all my governments” – his government names, first, middle, and last; “What’s your thoughts? What’s your fears? // Yeah, I need that real love,” though he goes on to mention Bobby and Whitney as his examples. Publicly brandishing his wealth and influence was a message to his friends and family in the Canarsie neighborhood of Brooklyn: it can, and will, get better, and I’m here for all of you. He shows affection to his romantic interest though he knows the vulnerability could sacrifice street cred in the eyes of some of his peers, and he’s not interested in those trivialities, even if he’s not ready to leave the streets entirely.
What endures as Pop Smoke’s legacy is the charisma, the integrity, and the wit behind the facade. It’s not the guns and the money, and it’s most definitely not the drama around the initial (and scrapped) Virgil Abloh-designed album cover. Pop Smoke was deeply influenced by those in his community who wanted more for themselves than what the city was willing to credit. His songs are filled with real-life circumstances; there’s lust, violence, distrust, illicit activity, and even hate. None of it is for show. Shoot for the Stars, Aim for the Moon is a compelling portrait of the last works of a star extinguished too soon. It’s impossible to predict the breakthrough of a genre-shifting, landscape-bending hip hop upstart like Pop Smoke, but it is possible to never again take their gifts for granted.