‘Shoot for the Stars, Aim for the Moon’ Captures the Spark and Versatility of Pop Smoke

Remember the children’s game of “Telephone,” in which a phrase whispered into one player’s ear is whispered into another’s until it becomes something new altogether? There are innumerable musical parallels, but a striking one is the late Brooklyn rapper Pop Smoke. As the story goes, he recorded his breakthrough single, “Welcome to the Party” on a whim, taking the mic when the designated vocalist fell asleep. The beat he rapped over came from UK grime producer 808 Melo, who had, in turn, taken inspiration from Chicago drill music. Drill itself is a relatively esoteric scene, trap’s estranged cousin. The UK variant is a hyper-regionalized sound, characterized by wonky synths and other UK garage signifiers. Smoke took the track and made it about as Brooklyn as it gets, repping his burrough in both drawl and slang, and suddenly causing a resurgent flurry of attention in the vicinity of hip-hop’s birthplace. 

It would be an understatement to say Smoke moved fast. That same single spawned different remixes featuring Nicki Minaj and Skepta, and within the year, Smoke had scored a Billboard Hot 100 hit with “Gatti,” featuring Travis Scott. Sadly, he only released two mixtapes, “Meet the Woo” and “Meet the Woo 2,” before the thug life that makes its way well into his work caught up with him, and he was shot dead. His debut album, “Shoot for the Stars, Aim for the Moon,” is being released posthumously by executive producer 50 Cent. Soon after Smoke made a name for himself, certain songs of his surfaced with uncanny resemblances to 50 Cent. In a turn of events, as peculiar as the whole situation at large, 50 took Smoke under his wing, and has gone on to preserve his legacy through the album. Such is the passionate anticipation of this release that when unsatisfactory cover art was teased online, havoc ensued until a petition made rounds and mandated a change of artwork. It is a question for the ages what exactly Louis Vuitton artistic director Virgil Abloh had in mind when he turned out his original specimen. Nevertheless, Pop Smoke’s dynamic, star-studded debut is finally here.

On “Bad Bitch From Tokyo (Intro,)” Pop Smoke dons his signature grizzly growl, and makes some international hollers to set the scale of things, as a razorblade percussive rattle fuels his fire. He makes sure to mention Dior, as usual, and it’s on to the title track, “Aim For the Moon.” Smoke sticks to the UK drill-style beatwork that has become a hallmark trait. The first of three songs with Quavo, it finds the Migos member singing and rapping with his characteristic cadences, but they take on a new energy in the frenetic concept of the beast, and the two transcend the greater trap sphere when they join in the chorus. “For the Night” places Smoke over more standard trap stylings. Lil Baby’s hook is melodic rap at its most effective, and Da Baby drops a short verse, filling out the mid register, as Smoke throws out nonsensical, snappy snippets about romantic intrigues. “4A Bulldog” rebounds in a flash, and is as militaristic as one might guess from the title, all slick slang and hype talk, with rather comical, animated sound effects interspersed with Smoke’s machinegun grunting.

Then, out of the blue, Smoke goes full 50 Cent on “Gangstas.” Everything from the timbre to the way of stringing together tunes within rap verses, and the choice of beats, is based on 50’s template. Smoke does it in a way that always seems like tribute rather than mimicry. On this song, he ventures to separate the real gangsters from the charlatans, and takes a quite obvious shot at 6ix9ine, noting, “This ain’t none of that rainbow hair shit.” He makes the gangster life sound particularly mellifluous on “Yea Yea,” piecing a chorus together from syllables like “glocks” and “shots,” and turning it into swaying, feelgood fare. “Creature” returns to drill, and brings back the menace in Smoke’s flow, while Swae Lee provides a counterbalance with an effortless hook. “Snitching” is a particularly colorful track with Smoke alongside both Quavo and Future, his Brooklyn voicings offsetting their Southern swag, as the three trade triplets in their distinctive inflections about the ultimate anathema. 

It doesn’t get much more gangster than recording a verse over the phone from jail, and that’s what GS9’s Rowdy Rebel does on lead single “Make It Rain.” The verse sounds exactly like it was recorded as such, barely intelligible. The distorted noise adds to the track like something you might hear on an El-p track, and Smoke sounds indomitable over the austere drill backdrop. Smoke devotes a song to his famous catchphrase with “The Woo.” 50 Cent is actually featured here, although Smoke could have fooled us. When it comes time to interpolate a bit from 50’s 2005 hit “Candy Shop,” it’s Smoke who takes the mic. Roddy Ricch packs plenty of personality into a verse, and the beat is a full throwback to the type of 2000 fare as R Kelly’s “Fiesta (Remix.)” “West Coast Shit” brings Quavo back, along with Tyga, whose voice makes a classic hip-hop counterbalance for Smoke’s. The three rap over a simple, cowbell-heavy loop for some no-nonsense cool.  

“Enjoy Yourself” finds Smoke at the poppiest of his 50 Cent emulations. It’s might be a bit too glossy and wholesome than you’re used too, but he pulls it off, with some help from expressive Columbian singer Karol G. “Mood Swings” continues in this vein, reuniting Smoke with Lil Tjay, whose Auto-tune contribution fleshes the tune out into more radio-ready fare. Come “Something Special,” which models itself after Fabolous’ 2003’s “So Into You,” Smoke seems to have switched altogether to sappy hood songs. “What You Know About Love” sounds like Smoke channeling “21 Questions”-era 50 Cent, but holding himself back with hopelessly generic lyrics. “Diana,” a cat call anthem of sorts, ascents somewhat from the stretch of smitten soft songs, with a grounding appearance by King Combs.

On “Got It on Me,” Smoke interpolates the chorus from 50 Cent’s “Many Men,” then switches to an entirely different voice and style during verses that include some of his most ferocious rapping moments. Just the way he effortlessly shifts gears here puts him in a league of his own. And he leaves on a high note, with an outro that returns to the juggernaut posturing and skittering drill percussion as the intro. Interview samples make their way into the wind of the track, and a voice asserts, “Pop Smoke changed the game.”

And, so he did. Pop Smoke made a song on a whim with a beat that met his fancy, and the world took notice. He was not only a marvel of serendipity and brave instinct, but the real deal, living the content that makes its way into his songs. There are few baritone rappers that truly stand out, and Smoke is definitely among the ranks. Moreover, his emulation of 50 Cent makes for a heartwarming story. Smoke was so impressive in his efforts that his own idol became his mentor, and eventually lived on to carry his work. Of course, 50 Cent is no fool. Smoke switches in a flash from aughts throwback mode to combat drill and back in a way that puts him in another league. It’s no wonder his debut album is filled with so many of the biggest names in hip-hop. The album shows the full versatility of Pop Smoke. Certain stretches can be a bit sappy, and the erratic switches speak of an artist still experimenting with different sounds. Considering the circumstances of the album, however, that’s only to be expected. Altogether, “Shoot for the Stars, Aim for the Moon” thoroughly captures Pop Smoke in all his vibrant promise.

Shoot for the Stars, Aim for the Moon” is available July 3 on Apple Music.