When Virgil Abloh revealed the album artwork for Pop Smoke’s posthumous album, Shoot for the Stars Aim for the Moon, fans reacted with immediate backlash. Pop Smoke’s manager and long-time friend, Steven Victor, swiftly responded, and passed the job onto Ryder Ripps, who had previously served as creative director for Kanye West and Pusha T.
“I’ve never seen a public reaction to graphic design like that,” Ripps told Pitchfork. “But the public spoke, and because Pop isn’t here, his fans are the ones who carry his legacy now and keep him alive. So that’s why Steven and team decided to change the cover.”
The late rapper however, wanted Abloh for the cover, as Steven Victor wrote for the graphic’s release, “you wanted Virgil to design your album cover and lead creative.. Virgil designed the album cover and led creative.”
Sure, it’s almost more fitting to have Ripps’ black rose on the cover of a posthumous record that Abloh’s chrome and barbed wire border design, but it stands that this cover was what the fan’s accepted, and not what Pop Smoke had wished. Hell, in a way Abloh’s cover was never approved by Pop Smoke either.
So how do we celebrate an artist’s legacy by highlighting what they’ve left behind? How do we take drafts that may as well have been left on the cutting room floor and turn them into finished products that Pop Smoke would have been proud of?
Shoot for the Stars Aim for the Moon lives in that questionable space between a fitting tribute and picked-up drafts. The record shows us either a trajectory for Pop Smoke that we didn’t expect, or how a roster of A-list contemporaries looked upon the soon-to-be knighted rap innovator.
To most, Pop Smoke was a 20-year-old from Canarsie who gave Brooklyn a feeling that it had worth once again, and he used the emerging sound of Drill to reinvigorate the New York rap scene. Becoming the city’s new champion, you couldn’t turn a corner without hearing “Dior,” “Shake the Room,” or “Welcome to the Party,” and oddly almost none of that same energy is present on his posthumous release.
Executive produced by 50 Cent, a New York veteran that Pop Smoke greatly admired, Shoot for the Stars is full of the same kind of macho love ballad raps that artists like LL Cool J, Puff Daddy, and even 50 Cent himself, helped popularized.
Wading through not one but three Quavo features, the record hardly lets Pop Smoke shine, as we’re constantly hearing out-of-the-blue collaborations with Swae Lee (a voice that could never feel at home on a Pop Smoke track), Tyga on a West Coast DJ Mustard beat, and a made-for-streaming-playlists track with both Lil Baby and DaBaby.
Sure, the experiment might pay off a time or two, like on “Something Special,” a remake of Fabolous and Tamia’s “Into You,” or “The Woo” with Roddy Ricch and a 50 Cent feature where he sings “Candy Shop,” but A-list drama had even made it’s way here, with Young Thug recently pointing out that a song called “Paranoia” was left off of the record because Pusha T’s verse made yet another poke at Drake.
Pop Smoke didn’t want to stay regional, but he wasn’t a national sensation because he had mainstream range and appeal. Pop Smoke’s strength lied in tracks here like “Gangstas,” “Make It Rain” with Rowdy Rebel, and “44 BullDog,” where the Brooklyn Drill magic still vibrates.
Save for Lil Tjay, Shoot for the Stars’ A-list club gaining spots over genre contemporaries such as Sheff G, Sleepy Hallow, Fivio Foreign, or even New York’s bevy of boom-bap hip-hop talent like Griselda, and placing him in the context of Atlanta’s Quality Control and YSL factory feels mishandled.
There’s a reason “Dior” has been on every release that Pop Smoke has put out. His voice, and his music, was special, and we didn’t need a rushed-to-print Avengers-style Summer blockbuster to know that. The world already knew.
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