Pop Smoke’s death still doesn’t feel real. A year that began with the Brooklyn rapper’s sophomore project Meet The Woo 2—which debuted at No. 7 on the Billboard 200—came to an abrupt end on the morning of February 19, when he was murdered during a home invasion in the Hollywood Hills. For all the pomp and circumstance surrounding hit songs like “Welcome To The Party” and “Dior,” his star was just beginning to rise.
“What you see when you talk to me is what happens when you get rich. What happened to Pop [Smoke] is what happens when you die trying,” mentor 50 Cent said of the 20-year-old in Jon Caramanica’s exhaustive New York Times piece “The Last Days of Pop Smoke.” He was a pioneer of Brooklyn drill music who faced constant police harassment, but by all accounts, he was just happy to be here.
I feel a twinge of regret every time I hear Pop Smoke’s billowing baritone seeping from passing car speakers, every time I see footage of protestors shouting the chorus to “Dior” in defiance of a system that constantly put him, and others like him, down. He took pride in being a bridge between different subgenres of rap and even different cultures. I wish he were here to see the impact his music continues to have on an ever-changing world.
Pop Smoke’s posthumous debut album Shoot For The Stars, Aim For The Moon—out today via Republic Records—comes with high stakes attached. These 19 songs mark both the beginning and end of a career of untapped potential. What hi-octane adventures does the late Pop Smoke have in store for us?
In usual 1-Listen fashion, the rules are the same: no rewinds, pauses, or skips—a straight shot through followed by my gut reactions. Woo!
1. “Bad Bitch From Tokyo (Intro)”
Grunts over glimmering production. Pop Smoke’s voice is so distinct. The bass is guttural. He starts off singing. Not exactly what I was expecting. “I look my killer in his eyes / We talkin’ face to face.” That hurts. Over already? Wow, okay.
2. “Aim For The Moon” feat. Quavo
The rocket is primed and ready. Dancing guitars and skittering 808s are all you need to know some shit’s about to go down. And the bass just dropped and broke my nose! Raps sound effortless. Are those Quavo ad-libs I hear? They’re such a natural pairing. Quavo sounds more alert than he has in a minute. And now they’re vocalizing together. Two songs in and Pop Smoke is already doing more singing than we’re used to hearing. “Aim For The Moon” sounds like champagne being poured into glass flutes. A party starter for sure.
3. “For The Night” feat. Lil Baby & DaBaby
Is that Pop singing over guitars and flutes? I wasn’t expecting to hear so much singing. His gruff voice is a natural fit for these bleeding heart love songs. Pop’s ear for melody was nice. He sounds a little sauced and ready for love; however long it lasts. Here comes Lil Baby! “I got the industry trying to be me.” All praise the new GOAT. Is that DaBaby? He stumbled trying to find his footing in the first half of this verse. He’s gotta stop moving so fast. “RIP to the Pop, make me smoke you.” This verse was unnecessary. I do love hearing Pop singing more. I wonder if he’ll take it further?
4. “44 Bulldog”
AH! We’re back in gravel-sharp drill mode. I love how he’s building momentum. Oh, this shit is SAVAGE. Boogeyman in black AF1s levels of spooky. He’s talking about opps hating how he flexes. Pop Smoke made everyday phrases like “I ain’t with the talk or the chit-chat” sound brand new. “44 Bulldog” is what Batman hears in his head while he’s beating The Joker’s ass. This record is black cape music. Dark and sly all at once. Real hard-edged shit. An early favorite. Let me go clean my bloody nose.
Swirv on the beat. “None of that rainbow-haired shit.” Shots at 6ix9ine from beyond the grave. More singing, much slower to match with the swing of the beat. The piano is giving me heavy Scott Storch vibes. “.44 got a kickback.” Gun talk hits even harder when it comes through slow. “Gangstas” is dripping with swagger. If Grand Theft Auto is planning on adding new radio stations, “Gangstas” needs to be on the shortlist of songs. Menacing and glamorous.
6. “Yea Yea”
You know the song’s about to hit when it starts with a smoker’s cough. Pop is rapping nasty over a beat that wouldn’t sound out of place on Tory Lanez’ Chixtape 5. He’s sliding up and down the beat. He jumps from confirming a relationship to paying his lawyer to catching “a body out a Tesla” with ease. “Yea Yea” has something for everyone. I can’t make out who that is singing in the background, but they’re holding it down.
7. “Creature” feat. Swae Lee
Another crushing beat. The sequencing on SFTSAFTM is excellent. Is this Swae Lee? [Editor’s Note: Yes.] This verse is fine, but it’s blown out of the water by Pop’s voice. “I went and did some time in the jail because I’d rather take the fast route.” He’s jumping between sex, jail, guns, and fashion talk so quickly it’s hard to catch up. Quavo has the only feature so far that doesn’t feel invasive. Pop didn’t need guests. “Creature” is another one for the car.
8. “Snitching” feat. Quavo & Future
“I get paid to snitch now, nigga.” Anti-snitching anthem incoming? Another Quavo feature, huh? “If Quavo tell me get ‘em, I’ma do the dash.” Cold. Buddah Bless This Beat stepped on diamonds. It’s Future! He’s hopscotching across this beat effortlessly. He just called himself Evel Knievel, and I can’t disagree. The beat ties these verses together. “Snitchin” isn’t a favorite, but I’m not mad at it.
9. “Make It Rain” feat. Rowdy Rebel
Yamaica powered up the bass cannon for real. Pop Smoke is riding an asteroid through deep space. “Have your momma like ‘Whoa / There go Pop Smoke!’” Getting your opps’ parents to be your fans is a different kind of flex. This song oozes sinister energy. Rowdy Rebel called in from jail, and he’s EATING his verse. Rhyming on beat through a jail line is beyond difficult. Rowdy makes it sound easy. I love that Pop Smoke and his team made this feature happen. What a ride. There’s a reason “Make It Rain” was chosen as the lead single.
10. “The Woo” feat. 50 Cent & Roddy Ricch
Smooth flamenco guitar is a secret rap weapon. Pop Smoke took to singing. The hook is entrancing. Roddy Ricch landed right in the pocket. He’s been a cheat code throughout 2020. He and Pop wear many of the same hats, so hearing them attack a track together is fitting. 50 Cent!! It was only a matter of time before he hopped on a track with his protégé. “She be sayin’ some shit like ‘When you gon’ fly me / in private so I can land on that dick?” It’s been a while since we’ve heard 50 talk that slick talk. It’s clear where Pop gets it from. Beat switch! That “Candy Shop” reference was smooth. Pop ate that shit. “The Woo” was a surprise. A highlight.
11. “West Coast Shit” feat. Tyga & Quavo
Mustard beat. Pop meant it when he said, “West Coast Shit.” This beat rides. Pop is handling this beat. I’ve never heard him over anything like this, but he adapted easily. Experimentation is the name of the game on SFTSAFTM. Tyga continues to make moves in 2020. How? A third Quavo feature? They fucked with each other the long way. I appreciate the experiment, but “West Coast Shit” is forgettable.
12. “Enjoy Yourself” feat. Karol G
I love the bounce of this record already. Pop Smoke was ready to embrace singing fully, and he’s got a nice voice for it. He slides in and out of cadences so effortlessly. “Enjoy Yourself” sounds like a baecation for the ages. Karol G’s voice is so beautiful. I love how her verse complements Pop’s cadences. These two were fully linked up. The best feature on the album, so far. “Enjoy Yourself” is another pleasant surprise. SFTSAFTM is giving Pop so much dimension. There’s something in my eye.
13. “Mood Swings” feat. Lil Tjay
Nothing like an Auto-Tuned Lil Tjay intro. "Shorty my lil Woo thing" sounds so romantic coming from Pop, man. Real thugged out satin sheet music. Oh he jumped to XXX territory real quick. Both Pop and Lil Tjay are horny on main right now. The beat just fell away and they're both having an MTV Unplugged moment. "And I kept it undercover cause I don't kiss and tell." Uh... you just did, bro. Cute song, though.
14. “What U Know About Love”
Muffled chipmunk soul. I already love this beat; it sounds like something Cam’ron or 50 would’ve tackled back in the early 2000s. The type of song BET Now was made to run into the ground. It’s almost jarring to hear Pop rhyming about buying his girl Fashion Nova in the middle of it. “I be lookin’ at the top and, girl, it’s only us.” I love hearing Pop’s tender side. His tempo has slowed down, but his voice still cuts through everything. 2000s lovey-dovey music at its finest. A nice shot of nostalgia. “What U Know About Love” is another left turn on an album full of them. Another favorite.
15. “Something Special”
These guitars are giving me a vibe. Is that... YES, he pulled Fabolous and Tamia’s “So Into You” out the vault. We’ve hit the oldies section of the album. The beat is timeless, and Pop is giving it a new context amid Fab’s domestic abuse charges. Even when he’s in love, he’s got a glizzy on his hip, no hot dog. I never imagined I’d hear a Pop Smoke song made for sensual suntan lotion rubdowns, but here we are. I would’ve loved to hear Pop try out a Chixtape-style trip through R&B covers. This guy was full of surprises. “Something Special” is just that.
16. “Diana” feat. King Combs
Another switch-up with a new flow. “I need your number and that’s that.” To the point. He found a nice bounce over these bubbly synths. King Combs has a love for Black women, whether they’re light-skinned or dark-skinned. Always a plus. Pop knew how to spit game, man. You can’t teach that kind of charisma. “Diana” is catchy and straightforward. A palette cleanser.
17. “Got It On Me”
The violins and bells are signaling a return to Pop’s more ominous sound. The R&B vibes were nice while they lasted. “I don’t cry no more / I don’t look to the sky no more because I got it on me.” Chills. He fell into a whole new bag. His flow on that first verse was Road Runner fast. He unloaded the mental clip. Ahhhh, this is his verse from his LA Leakers freestyle. It sounds even more menacing over this new beat than it did over 50 Cent’s “U Not Like Me.” Pop had so much more left to tell—another highlight.
18. Tunnel Vision (Outro)”
We’ve hit the end of the road. It’s fitting that we’ve returned to that drill shit. Bass warbles for days. He’s talking about having million-dollar dreams and waking up to go back to the block. “God gave me a lot, but it could go in a second / If I fuck the wrong bitch or walk up in the wrong session.” I dunno how I feel about that one. I appreciate his focus elsewhere, though. You could tell he put a lot of effort into his music. Ending the song with an interview clip about his impact and legacy. “Pop Smoke came in and changed the game.” And there it is.
19. “Dior” (Bonus)
This song never gets old.
Final (First Listen) Thoughts on Pop Smoke’s Shoot For The Stars, Aim For The Moon
Pop Smoke’s posthumous debut album, Shoot For The Stars, Aim For The Moon, makes one thing abundantly clear: the man had range.
Pop nimbly jumps between rapping and singing and even across genres with ease. He experiments with different flows (“44 Bulldog”), different kinds of production (the fiery guitars of “The Woo” and “Enjoy Yourself”), and dives headfirst into R&B (“For The Night,” “Yea Yea”) on occasion. A genre chameleon in Dior sweatpants.
Shoot For The Stars has more hits than misses, helped by the album’s stellar sequencing. His team—including executive producer 50 Cent—put a lot of thought and care into crafting what was, and still is, a statement piece for a rapper who was looking beyond drill while never ashamed to embrace his roots. The project slots comfortably into the Good Posthumous Rap Album canon alongside Mac Miller’s Circles from this past January, which came together under similar circumstances.
Excellent and wide-ranging at its best, Shoot For The Stars does feature some dead weight. Intro track “Bad Bitch From Tokyo” feels unfinished and could’ve been cut entirely. “West Coast Shit” is an admirable attempt at a Mustard-sized hit that doesn’t fully connect. DaBaby’s feature on the otherwise lovely “For The Night” ends the song on a sour note with an unnecessary verse.
These are minor gripes for an album with 19 tracks. Although Pop’s not here to see the landing, Shoot For The Stars, Aim For The Moon is a tremendous display of his talent and range. Pop Smoke was barely scratching the surface.
[Editor's Note: A previous version of this article incorrectly credited a verse to Polo G on "Snitching" and was missing the song "Mood Swings" feat. Lil Tjay.]