Pop Smoke
Hip-Hop

Inside The Remarkable Success of Pop Smoke’s Posthumous Album: ‘He Was Going To Be a Superstar, No Matter What’

Months after its release, ‘Shoot for the Stars Aim for the Moon’ is back at No. 1, and dominating radio, streaming and TikTok. Next up: an historic Grammy nomination?

When Pop Smoke’s Shoot for the Stars Aim for the Moon returned to No. 1 on the Billboard 200 albums chart earlier this week, more than three months after its release, it was another bittersweet moment for Steven Victor in a year full of them.

“It’s a bunch of mixed emotions,” says Victor, who signed Pop Smoke to his Victor Victor Worldwide label in 2019 and closely managed the Brooklyn rapper’s career. "Sad that he’s not here to witness all of this, and I miss him a lot. And on the other side, I'm just proud."

Pop Smoke was only 20 years old when he was shot and killed during a home-invasion robbery in February, 12 days removed from the release of his breakthrough mixtape and a few weeks away from finishing his debut album. Now, several songs on that posthumous album have become huge hits on streaming services and staples on hip-hop radio -- although Victor admits that he tries not to listen to the radio that often.

“I live on the East Coast, and his music is on the radio all the time,” explains Victor of Pop Smoke. “On the one hand, it’s great, because it means so much for his legacy and his family and his fans. But on the other hand, it’s a constant reminder that you can’t call him and be like, ‘Yo, your song’s on the radio!’ You can’t call him, and enjoy the moment together.”

The success of Shoot for the Stars upon its July release through Victor Victor/Republic -- a No. 1 debut on the Billboard 200, with 251,000 equivalent album units, according to Nielsen Music/MRC Data -- hadn’t been surprising for those following the meteoric rise of Pop Smoke, as well as the outpouring of emotion upon the tragic news of his death. Meet The Woo 2, the mixtape released in early February, debuted at No. 7 on the Billboard 200, and Pop Smoke had collaborated with rap stars like Travis Scott and Quavo in the months prior to his death. When Shoot for the Stars was released with a guest list that included Lil Baby, Roddy Ricch, DaBaby, Future, Swae Lee and 50 Cent, hip-hop fans flocked to the project and gave it one of the biggest debut weeks of the year.

Yet Pop Smoke’s posthumous project returning to No. 1 now, in its 15th week of release, underlines its staying power as one of the most popular full-lengths of 2020. Since its release, Shoot For the Stars has earned 1.66 million equivalent album units through Oct. 15, and has not left the top four slots on the albums chart. Meanwhile, Pop Smoke currently has four songs in the top 40 of the Hot 100, and the four most-streamed songs on the album -- the 2019 mixtape carry-over “Dior,” “For The Night” featuring Lil Baby and DaBaby, “Mood Swings” featuring Lil Tjay, and “The Woo” featuring 50 Cent and Roddy Ricch -- have accrued a whopping 1.12 billion combined on-demand streams in the United States.

“We’re in a time now where a lot of projects are carried by one song, but that’s not the case for Pop,” says Carl Chery, head of urban music at Spotify. “When the album came out in July, the standouts were ‘The Woo’ and ‘For The Night,’ and they still are doing well. But what I observed in the weeks after was that there was always a different song gaining momentum. It seems like [listeners] are just living with the album as a body of work, and continue to re-discover songs from it that keep rising to the top.”

The streaming success of multiple songs from Shoot for the Stars has also translated to radio: “Dior” and “The Woo” have reached No. 4 on R&B/Hip-Hop Airplay, while “For The Night” reaches a new peak of No. 19 at Rhythmic this week. “Literally every single that’s been released is in some sort of rotation on my station,” says Paris Nicole, program director at hip-hop station WPHI/103.9 in Philadelphia. “They all research amazingly -- ‘Dior’ will still come back in top research. People don’t get tired of his songs.”

It was supposed to be a massive year for Pop Smoke. The Canarsie native, born Bashar Barakah Jackson, had only started rapping at the end of 2018, after originally dreaming of playing professional basketball, but being forced to abandon the sport after the discovery of a heart murmur. Yet his gravelly voice, pinpoint flow and adoption of a New York-based variation of Chicago drill music had turned him into a star in 2019, with singles like “Welcome to the Party” and “Dior” growing from local anthems to national hits, and setting up the top 10 bow of Meet The Woo 2 in early 2020.

“Everything was super deliberate,” says Victor. “We’d have the mixtape in February, and then he was supposed to go on tour in March, but we were gonna to finish a bulk of the album before his tour, and then use the time while he was on tour to mix, master, and get the features done. Then we’d put the album out in June or July, and that would run its course through the end of the year.”

Instead, Shoot for the Stars had to be finished this spring in the wake of tragedy, with Victor co-executive producing the album alongside New York hip-hop heavyweight 50 Cent. All 19 songs from the full-length debuted on the Hot 100 upon its release; some of the album tracks that didn’t impact hip-hop radio or appear on streaming charts were used in TikTok videos that often went viral. “Pop Smoke's music inspired a breadth of creativity from the TikTok community throughout this past year,” says TikTok U.S. music editorial lead William Gruger, who points to comedy sketches that riff on the lyrics to “Mood Swings,” as well as the choreography that Will DeVane and Jenna Sinatra created for “What You Know Bout Love.”

Although the album continues the Brooklyn drill sound that Pop Smoke had brought to a national level, its more soulful moments have yielded some of its biggest hits -- the crooned hook and folk flutes on “For The Night,” or “What You Know Bout Love,” an R&B standout that samples Ginwune and rises 15 spots to No. 29 on this week’s Hot 100. Victor isn’t shocked that Pop Smoke’s slower songs have proven as commercially effective as his more club-ready drill tracks -- after all, when he met the young rapper and asked him who his favorite MCs were to get a sense of his influences, Pop Smoke responded by playing him a bunch of R&B cuts.

“He grew up singing in a church, and he loved R&B music,” says Victor. “He was like, ‘This is what I’m really trying to do. I really want to be a global star, and make super melodic music.’ ... He started making [drill] songs like ‘Dior,’ and we were like, ‘This is a great pocket for you,’ and he was just really good at it. But I’m not surprised about any of the R&B stuff having success, because that was one of his first loves.”

A 34-track deluxe edition of Shoot for the Stars was released on July 20, on what would have been Pop Smoke’s 21st birthday, and a remix of the song “Iced Out Audemars” featuring Lil Wayne was issued earlier this month. Victor says that “there’s definitely more music, there’s definitely more remixes,” but can’t speak to the timing of future releases, even as he’s constantly asked on social media by Pop Smoke fans ravenous for unreleased tunes. “They’re happy that the world is seeing how great Pop is because of the success that he’s having,” he says, “but at the same time, they miss him, they want more music, and I don’t blame them.”

The week after Shoot for the Stars debuted atop the Billboard 200 chart, it was replaced by another posthumous hip-hop release, Legends Never Die by Juice WRLD, who passed away at the age of 21 last December. The sad coincidence punctuated a brutal three-year stretch of rap artists passing away at far-too-young ages, from Lil Peep to XXXTentacion to Mac Miller to Nipsey Hussle, among others. Some of those artists got to experience a proper album release before their deaths; others, like Pop Smoke, did not.

And while the immediate response to Shoot For the Stars may have partially been informed by the shock of his death, its sustained commercial success suggests that Pop Smoke’s music will endure well beyond the tragedy. “Some people will point out situations where somebody gained in popularity because of their death,” says Nicole, “but he was going to be a superstar, no matter what.”

In the more immediate future, Pop Smoke could make Grammy history when the 2021 nominations are announced on Nov. 24. Shoot for the Stars has been submitted in multiple categories, Victor confirms, and Pop Smoke could become the first artist in Grammy history to be posthumously nominated for best new artist.

“I would be shocked if Pop doesn’t get nominated for best new artist, especially now that they’ve [expanded the category] to eight nominees,” says Chery. “He’s likely to get nominated for a bunch of Grammys, and that alone will give the album an additional boost. So you could very well be listening to this album well into next year.”