Pop Smoke Made the Soundtrack of a Lost Summer

The posthumous debut album of the Brooklyn rapper reverberates with the tragedy of his untimely death.

Ryan Lowry / The New York Times / Redux

Some albums demand ascetic listening, the kind that happens best in solitude or while wearing noise-canceling headphones. Such music has its place, especially in the colder months. But summer is made for the populist records—albums ideally consumed secondhand, whether blaring from the bass-heavy stereos of cars parading down hot, crowded streets or wafting from the open windows of apartments down the block.

Last year, no voice cut through the New York City heat with more force than that of Pop Smoke. The Brooklyn rapper, born Bashar Barakah Jackson in the sweltering July of 1999, quickly rose to the forefront of the borough’s emerging drill scene, a corollary to the London and Chicago movements. With the boisterous anthem “Welcome to the Party,” the first single of his first mixtape, Pop Smoke dominated social events and city streets all summer. His music, booming and self-assured even as it explored heavy themes, captured the irrepressible energy of New York at its most dynamic. By the end of 2019, even with local law enforcement curtailing his public performances, the young rapper and his gravelly baritone seemed poised for national attention and a meteoric 2020.

But in February, the 20-year-old artist was shot and killed in Los Angeles following a home invasion. Now the rapper’s latest album serves as an unlikely soundtrack for mourning the unthinkable—a New York summer without the steady pulse of rowdy social gatherings, and a rap landscape without Pop Smoke, whose music so animated the city. Shoot for the Stars, Aim for the Moon, released last Friday, should have been the official debut of an artist set to thrust his own work and his hometown’s rapidly evolving musical sensibilities further into the mainstream. So it’s especially eerie to listen to Pop Smoke now: Along with Meet the Woo 2, the mixtape he released two weeks prior to the shooting, the rapper’s new album and its haunting title now

It’s not just the 2020 releases that are tinged with this loss, though. Shoot for the Stars joins a song from 2019’s Meet the Woo in taking on a powerfully elegiac meaning. In the months since his death, Pop Smoke’s “Dior” has become a ubiquitous addition to the protest-music canon. Following the death of George Floyd in Minnesota, the forceful track has routinely been played at demonstrations against police violence around the country, especially in New York. Unlike some other recent entries into the protest-anthem category, such as Kendrick Lamar’s conciliatory “Alright” or YG’s inflammatory “FDT,” the boastful Pop Smoke song isn’t an obvious fit. He doesn’t address law enforcement or racism directly, nor does he exhort listeners to reimagine justice.

But as Pitchfork’s Alphonse Pierre notes, the transgressive appeal of “Dior” lies in something much more visceral. The late rapper vividly articulates the contradictions inherent in Black life: “‘Dior’ is cathartic in all that it encapsulates, a song that holds many feelings at once: the frustration of seeing a friend jailed, the fun of flirting and acquiring the latest designer clothes (so you can flirt some more), the sobering reality of knowing that it all could end with a snap.”

That same interplay between fatalism and ebullience is woven throughout Shoot for the Stars, which embodies the qualities that drew fans to earlier records. Perhaps most painful, the record offers glimpses of what the slain rapper could have achieved. The album’s propulsive first section fits in neatly with Pop Smoke’s repertoire, with songs such as “44 BullDog” and “Gangstas” finding the Panamanian and Jamaican American rapper  characteristically gruff and cocksure—which is to say, a New York man—over combative production.

On “44 BullDog,” named for the handgun, he interpolates his own 2019 single “Flexin’” and levies threats between references to Brooklyn’s West Indian population, luxury brands, and partying. Taken alongside “For the Night,” on which the rappers Lil Baby and DaBaby add arioso and vigor respectively, these songs evoke the recklessness of a summer party or the languid flirtation of stoop-side conversations. It almost feels wrong to listen to them indoors, and especially alone. How cruel and poetic that the pandemic now requires the rest of New York to forgo the same spirited gatherings that Pop Smoke is no longer alive to witness.

It’s fitting that the rapper, whose death still feels surreal and catalytic, would remain a preeminent voice of New York—and of a generation of Black youth. In a moment of tremendous political and social turmoil, Shoot for the Stars offers listeners catharsis. The album’s penultimate track provides a kind of mission statement (it also plays before “Dior,” which was included as a bonus track). Toward the end of “Tunnel Vision (Outro),” an unnamed interviewer poses serious questions to Pop Smoke: “What do you want your impact to be on the music industry? / Like, a hundred years from now, how do you want people to remember you? / Pop Smoke did this, he did that, he did what?” The rapper’s responses are confident and nearly prophetic: “Pop Smoke came in and changed the game / Pop Smoke came in and showed them niggas a new vibe / You know, the whole sound, the whole vibe, the whole movement / Different.”

On some tracks, other industry heavyweights flank the rapper, allowing the record to transcend regional barriers. Features from Atlanta’s Quavo as well as Charlotte, North Carolina’s DaBaby and Tupelo, Mississippi’s Swae Lee showcase Pop Smoke’s vocal dexterity and underscore his growing popularity outside New York. The Colombian singer Karol G joins him on “Enjoy Yourself,” a sultry, dual-language song that feels tailor-made for the twilight zone of post-midnight dancing. (“West Coast Shit,” which features Quavo and the robotic Los Angeles rapper Tyga, is a rare misfire, pushing Pop so far into commercial-sounding production that it overtakes his strongest sensibilities.)

The most palpable influences on the album, though, are other New Yorkers, especially the Queens native 50 Cent, who features on one of the standout songs and produced several others. Pop Smoke even sounds similar to the veteran rapper at some points, most notably on “Got It on Me,” which samples “Many Men (Wish Death),” the third single from 50 Cent’s 2003 debut album, Get Rich or Die Tryin’. The song bleeds directly into “Tunnel Vision,” the sequence once again emphasizing the sinister quality of the album’s posthumous release.

Still, Shoot for the Stars manages to find some levity, and not just courtesy of the garish Virgil Abloh cover design that fans pilloried before its release. A surprising suite of tracks late in the album finds Pop Smoke playing with a softer, more melodious sound, at times nearly singing. “Mood Swings,” which features the Bronx rapper Lil Tjay, is the most original of these, with gently percussive production that complements the artists’ amorous lyrics. Of the slow jams that sample earlier hits, “What You Know Bout Love,” which interpolates the R&B singer Ginuwine’s 2001 hit “Differences,” is the clear highlight. Pop Smoke sings the chorus with an arresting warmth and opens the second verse with a rare admission of weakness: “Look, baby, I said I ain’t gon’ front / You got my heart beating so fast to words I can’t pronounce.”

Shoot for the Stars, Aim for the Moon isn’t a perfectly cohesive album, but its scattered feeling reflects the cataclysmic circumstances of its arrival. That Pop Smoke isn’t around to keep honing his music, and to keep pushing New York rap forward, are among many unbelievable tragedies. Listening to the record in isolation, instead of luxuriating in the sound of Pop Smoke’s distinctive growl on every humid city block, is appropriately devastating.