By Kayla Dungee
Few people, alive or dead, have entire parades dedicated to them, much less an informal holiday. But the streets of Brooklyn erupted for Pop Smoke on what would’ve been his 22nd birthday on July 20. Thank God that they were specifically celebrating his legacy on “Pop Smoke Day,” and not the release of his second posthumous album, Faith, because if you know anything about New Yorkers, they would never applaud a sellout.
Let’s be clear, Pop Smoke isn’t the sellout here. Faith represents the profit over politics mindset of his record label, Victor Victor Worldwide and Republic Records. Instead of letting Pop rest in peace, they’ve managed to chop and screw their way into creating another album in his name, even though he passed away in February 2020.
The Canarsie-born rapper never got to see the release of his first album, Shoot for the Stars, Aim for the Moon in 2020, so news of a second album felt too good to be true. Pop died five months before the release of his first posthumous project, but 50 Cent stepped up as executive producer of the album and vowed to round out the project, which he delivered on brilliantly. The critically acclaimed album showcased the magnitude of what Pop would have achieved, so it’s no surprise that every song entered the Billboard Top 100.
With stakes that high, you would think Republic Records and Victor Victor Worldwide would only release another Pop Smoke album if there was enough quality content to preserve his legacy. Pretty foolish of us to think that record labels are concerned with anything other than generating sales. Of the 20 tracks on the original album, 14 of the tracks have features — an immediate red flag. This wasn’t a Pop Smoke album, but rather a bunch of artists brought together on an album that featured Pop Smoke on their tracks. Pop Smoke was a guest on his own album, where listeners don’t even get six straight through songs of only him.
The opening number, “Good News,” is a spoken word from his mother, which feels halfway exploitative of her grief. But who could argue against her place on the album? That’s followed by back-to-back songs where Pop Smoke raps 12 or 14 bars, and it’s back to the “featured” artist overtaking his shine. There’s no reason that Bizzy Banks should have a longer verse than Pop on “30.” Wouldn’t it make more sense to have Bizzy Banks put that on his own album? Of the songs that don’t feature other artists, they’re just one-to-two-minute snippets of what probably could’ve been topnotch, full-fledged songs.
What’s even more frustrating is that the rumors that verses used in the album were rejected verses from the first or other featured projects, as well as reference tracks turns out to be true. Lyrics notorious from Shoot for the Stars, Aim for the Moon, are essentially recycled throughout several songs. If you were wondering why you kept hearing variations of “I like my bitches redbone/Ass fat, jello/Lightskin, yellow/ Iced out, hello,” you weren’t losing it. If it was an isolated incident, maybe it could be looked past, until you hear “Back out, brush em/Know some shooters that’ll shoot you for nothin’/No politicking, no discussions,” which are the exact same bars from “44Bulldog” on Shoot for the Stars, Aim for the Moon. If only albums could retroactively be released, because the recycled lyrics make Pop look unoriginal and borderline corny.
“Demeanor” might be tied for the biggest “wtf” moment. They took a disco-esque pop song that Dua Lipa is known for and randomly morphed Pop Smoke onto it. Sure, as artists grow in their careers, they might attempt to cross over into other genres. But to push an artist as genre bending after their death? It makes no ethical sense. You get another attempt at genre crossover on “Top Shotta” (feat. Pusha T, TRAVI, and Beam). The horn and keyboard clad reggae beat is misplaced when compared to the drill music that Pop excelled at. Unfortunately for producers, Internet snoops discovered the original beat, via the song as it was recorded before his death and have posted it to Youtube (truly an act of redemption).
Frustration gets in the way of appreciating the good in the album. The record is not a total miss. Before Faith veered completely off-road during the second half of the album (especially production wise where they infused more pop beats), Pop left a few polished gems, particularly the songs that exemplified why he was the face of drill rap: “More Time,” “Brush Em” (feat. Rah Swish), and “Beat the Speaker.” His signature gritty, baritone voice against the trap beats gives us a glimmer of the Pop we knew.
Pop never had to steer away from solidified style or recollections of street life to reach popularity. His signature style always spoke to the masses — rewind to 2020 when his song “What You Know Bout Love” rapidly circulated TikTok. So Victor Victor and Republic Records, you got your sales. The album debuted at No.1 on the Billboard 200. But that’s not an ode to Pop, but rather testimony to the cunning but sloppy craftsmanship of his label.
Of course, we want to hear more of Pop Smoke’s music, but that means the unreleased finished songs. That did not mean working with scraps to create an entire album that Pop couldn’t sign off on. There’s no effort to even hide the fact that this album was largely unfinished, which makes you consider the ethics of posthumous albums overall. There are posthumous albums that just need a bit of tweaking before they’re released (think Mac Miller and Circles, or Juice WRLD and Legends Never Die). Then there’s this: an album that’s forced to be an album, when a couple singles would have sufficed.
Tupac and Whitney Houston holograms have floated around packed out concert venues, so we know that ethics mean nothing when it comes to taking advantage of die-hard fans. For executives, it’s nothing to capitalize off a grieving fanbase — currency means more than preservation when it comes to late artists. At least the blatant cash grab has a few bangers, so go ahead and add a some new songs to your playlist. But if you ever happen to be riding around Brooklyn on “Pop Smoke Day” and your kid asks who Pop even is, let’s pretend Faith never happened.
You can listen to Faith by clicking below.
Republic Records/Umg Recordings