Last summer, Pop Smoke’s music––guttural, raw, irresistible––coursed through New York’s clubs, car stereos, yawning apartment windows. Born Bashar Barakah Jackson and raised in Canarsie, on Brooklyn’s Eastern shore, the young rapper had broken through with “Welcome to the Party,” a hypnotic study in tone. That song’s video opened with a group of young men invoking the names of those dead or imprisoned, while a red-lettered warning about prop guns flashed on the screen; the beat itself is grim and Gothic, the lyric full of threats. And yet it did feel like party music, somehow, capable of cutting through the humidity and making swaths of people dance, or at least move their shoulders a little bit while they grimaced into their phones’ cameras.
There are no parties in New York this summer. Instead there have been hospitals bursting at the seams and nurses in improvised hazmat suits; instead there have been uprisings in every borough to protest the unending murders of Black men and women by police officers. But Pop Smoke’s music has ruled this summer, too: his follow-up single, the literally growling “Dior,” has been integrated into the modern canon of protest songs. It might seem a strange fit, but is nonetheless appropriate. Even the most hedonistic Pop Smoke songs imply danger around every corner, behind every pleather club booth. They are about posturing, even thriving in a perilous world—and in that way are the opposite of escapism.
Tragically, Pop Smoke did not live to see his music soundtrack those demonstrations. He was murdered this February, at 20, during a home invasion in Los Angeles. At the time of his death, he seemed poised to become the city’s biggest homegrown rap star since A$AP Rocky, and its most creatively consequential one since 50 Cent. Shoot for the Stars Aim for the Moon, a posthumous collection of songs billed as Pop Smoke’s debut album, is out on Republic Records today. It includes some rewarding experiments for completists and a couple of truly essential songs, but, by design, lacks the rewarding insularity of his two beloved Meet the Woo mixtapes.
Pop Smoke was one of the artists on the cutting edge of Brooklyn drill, a mutation of the combative, maximalist music that came from Chicago’s West and South sides and was altered further in East London. The sound is urgent and relentless, deploying clipped ad-libs and warbled melodies as unnerving instruments all their own.
Brooklyn drill generally, and Pop Smoke’s music in particular, follows a now-typical pattern for regional rap subgenres, growing and splintered off from their source material. See the way Los Angeles G-funk was repurposed by rappers in Texas, the way up-tempo bounces from the Bay Area were meshed with Detroit’s electronic music traditions when they reached that city, or the way production styles from Atlanta and Baton Rouge have recently circled back around to L.A. Styles associated with far-off places are reimagined, blended with local musical traditions and studded with new slang and perspective.
Until Pop Smoke, this was the case basically everywhere but New York. Hip-hop’s birthplace has been a proud exporter of rap styles since the ‘70s––and the subject of much hand-wringing and concern trolling when other locales seem to be driving the genre forward. When Harlem’s own A$AP Rocky made national waves by borrowing sounds from Memphis and Houston, some critics and boosters hailed a new era of post-regionalism. But Rocky did not represent a new style of rap adapted for New York City: he proved to be an omnivore, hopping from trend to trend too quickly for any of them to codify. Pop Smoke, by contrast, might have become the city’s first mainstream star who was primarily an importer of sound, turning a style from Chicago into something unique to the neighborhood that raised him.
It began with the voice. A Pop Smoke song is instantly recognizable for that baritone, like that of a crooner who smoked ten thousand cigarettes. On Shoot for the Stars it remains unmistakable, though its effect is often dulled, especially when his vocals are laid over beats that don’t suit him. “Gangstas,” for example, could have been pulled from any mid-period G-Unit album, with a staid piano line that gestures at menace but can’t summon the energy required to sell it, while “Yea Yea” imagines Pop Smoke as one of the innumerable, interchangeable rappers who fill out drive-time radio programming. This makes it all the more rewarding when his posthumous verses are given the nervous, punishing sounds he worked so well on: the closing song, “Tunnel Vision,” and “Make It Rain”—which features an excellent jail-phone verse from Rowdy Rebel—stomp as hard as the best Pop songs do.
The aforementioned 50 Cent hangs like a specter over the album, which he helped executive produce. When he began recording songs for his debut album in the late ‘90s––an album Columbia later shelved, after his mentor, Jam Master Jay, was murdered and after 50 was shot nine times––he was strictly a rapper’s rapper, packing dense, overlong verses into every other song. But the boot camp he went through with JMJ and the then-buzzing producers the Trackmasters taught him to incorporate the kinds of melodies and sneakily-written hooks that could embed him on radio and in video rotation; by the time he had recovered from the shooting, 50 was Trojan-horsing massive choruses onto beat-jacking mixtapes. If there is one surprising revelation on Pop Smoke’s Stars, it’s the three-track suite of softer love songs that come toward the album’s end. “What You Know Bout Love,” in particular, suggests that Pop might have had a few “21 Questions”’ up his sleeve—songs that were irreducible statements of his borough’s style and identity, but formatted and poppy enough for mass consumption.
It would be difficult, maybe futile, to guess which of the songs on Stars represent impulses Pop Smoke was chasing at the end of his too-brief life, and which find his voice simply grafted on. This can be frustrating, especially on the album’s frequently anonymous front half. But the talent, charisma, and sheer muscle that made him special shine through on occasion. The penultimate track, “Got It On Me,” has been the subject of much speculation since Pop Smoke played a snippet of it on his Instagram many months ago. It hears the young rapper flip 50’s “Many Men” chorus:
“Have mercy on me, have mercy on my soul
Don't let my heart turn cold
Have mercy on me, have mercy on my soul
Don't let my heart turn cold
Have mercy on many men
Many, many, many, many men
Wish death upon me
Yeah, I don't cry no more
I don't look to the sky no more.”
Pop Smoke’s posture on wax was not the same as 50’s. The latter liked to traffic in Tupac-sized mythmaking, casting himself as the one exceptional man who cheated death and laughed in God’s face. What made Pop Smoke songs so harrowing is that the threats on his life and violence he promised in retribution were made to sound so ordinary, so de rigueur. His music documents the attempt to cut loose in spite of all that, to put on for a neighborhood neglected by the gears of industry and government. Stars is not the sound of that vision being realized, but at its core is a young Pop Smoke still striving, still reaching.
Originally Appeared on GQ