From his long braids, dusky baritone and cocksure cackle to an all-around Brooklyn swagger that came through on every track, rapper Pop Smoke had the sort of pointed signatures that made him unique and immensely sellable. Bugged-out, drill-inspired cuts such as 2019’s “Welcome to the Party” and “Dior” – the latter a taut and tension-filled anthem of NYC’s BLM protests this summer – were as raucous and sinister as anything Wu-Tang Clan ever committed to vinyl. Like RZA’s Staten Island crew, Pop Smoke and his British production posse (fronted by 808Melo) concocted something nihilistic and noir-ish, but also contagious and somehow gleeful – a summer block party taking place in Stephen King’s “Haven.” While Wu-Tang’s rugged sound was steely, the most inviting aspect of Pop Smoke was his fluidity. If you ever wondered what a plumber meant by the phrase “hard water,” listen to “Flexin.”
Pop Smoke was well on his way to becoming 2020’s premier haunted-house hit-maker when he was shot dead in February in what looked like a robbery at his rental property in Los Angeles. He was 20 years old. Happening as it did right before COVID-19 and that city’s ongoing BLM anti-police protests, Pop’s murder still has no answers or suspects. What Smoke does have in the immediate wake of his death is his posthumous, debut full-length, a nearly-finished album put together in its final stages by his manager/pal/label-owner Steven Victor, with beats from 808Melo and a crew of drill’s finest. Add in features from 50 Cent (the album’s executive producer), Future, Roddy Ricch, several Babys (DaBaby, Lil Baby) and more, and “Shoot For The Stars, Aim For The Moon” holds weight, innovates and – pardon the pun – blows more fire than smoke.
Commencing with a dozen “Yeah, yeah, yeahs” and a shout to his producer, “Bad Bitch From Toyko (Intro),” finds Smoke’s debut off to a mean start with lyrics like “I look a killer in his eyes,” giving the track a Robert Mitchum-esque danger. Things quickly get aspirational when the higher-pitched Quavo joins forces with a smoky, choky Pop for the braggadocio of “Aim For The Moon.” 808Melo and WondaGurl’s cymbal-tapping groove, mixed with gravelly bass drops the depth of a freshly-dug grave, allows the rappers to sound as if they’re flying high above the fray. The same is true on the growling, Philly-meets-Atlanta soul of “Yea Yea” and “For The Night.” The latter features Lil Baby and DaBaby with production by CashmoneyAP and Palaze. Here, Smoke’s low, AutoTuned baritone drifts above an airy arrangement of folkish flute and acoustic guitar for shocking melodic uplift. Tracks like these make you realize Pop Smoke had the potential for languorous, even sweet, song-craft beyond drill. The “808 and Heartbreak”-like clip of “Mood Swings” and the processed vocalese of “Something Special” – complete with lines like “Yeah, I need that real love/I’m talkin’ Bobby and Whitney” – are so romantic they wind up as corny, but in a genuinely touching fashion. Having such delicious melodies to guide Smoke is what lifts these tracks. Whether he’s barking about acquisition, ire or desire, Pop Smoke gets the art of song.
Besides, there’s plenty of room for pure trap here. The creeping “Creature,” with Swae Lee, and “Hotel Lobby” are good examples of drill’s death disco vibe. While the singed synth tones of “44 Bulldog” give Smoke a chance to cough and rhyme at the same time to what sounds like a John Carpenter cinema-scape, the piano lead-in to “Gangsters” is as haunting as its lyrics. Owning the streets of New York is Smoke’s sing-songy concern here, with lines like “Voice of the streets, man / It’s like Jesus walkin’ / More Christopher Walken” proof of a hard roll. Still, it’s Smoke’s melodic sensibility that makes “Gangsters’” chorus poignant and memorable – the feel-bad hit of the summer, starting from its first line, “I be in New York with the gangsters (Woo).”
Woo is a big thing for Smoke. His EPs of 2019 and 2020 were named “Meet the Woo.” It’s used as punctuation throughout so many of his tracks, like James Brown’s “Good God” or Michael Jackson’s “Shamon.” With that, “The Woo,” with pals 50 Cent and Roddy Ricch, and a surprisingly gentle 808Melo production, is another oddity. Rather than represent drill’s darker tones, or even Smoke’s usual dusky cackle-croon, the track is filled with flickers of Spanish acoustic guitar, and Smoke making high and nice with his buds, even letting 50 quote from one of his signature cuts, “Candy Shop.” Oddly enough, at times Smoke sounds a little like Curtis Jackson – take the guitar-strummed “Enjoy Yourself.”
The album moves into a sleepy lull with so-so tracks such as “West Coast S—“ and “Make it Rain,” but luckily bounces back in time for the triple threat finale of previously-released anthem “Dior” (a bonus track here), the bell-bonging “Got It On Me,” and the ambient “Tunnel Vision (Outro).” While the latter seems pasted together with clips of Pop Smoke interviews by track’s end, the grand “Got It On Me” is Smoke at his future-forward clearest. Like the track it interpolates (50 Cent’s “Many Men (Wish Death)”), Smoke’s ”Got It” prays for those who are out for his blood, be it a minor dis, or an all-out attack. While its verses offer choice slippery rhymes (“Is you ridin’ or you hidin’?/ If you slidin’ then you owe me”), its soulful chorus – like so many of Smoke’s centerpieces – offers a sense of uplift, even when his back is against the wall.