Review: Pop Smoke – Faith

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The 19e February 2020, Bashar Jackson – better known as Pop Smoke – was staying in a rented house overlooking the Hollywood Hills when four men broke into the night and shot him. Jackson was only twenty years old, but he had already redefined the genre of drill. Like Hendrix or 2Pac before him, it’s a story of tragically unfulfilled talent.

Pop Smoke’s rise to fame has been meteoric. It exploded incredibly quickly into the mainstream, working with a genre that had been widely demonized on both sides of the Atlantic for its perceived proximity to criminal gangs. This was especially true in London, where Metropolitan Police lobbied against the drilling exercise for escalating pre-existing postcode wars. Pressure from the London Met caused YouTube to remove more than 30 drill clips from the site. Digga D, a rapper from Ladbroke Grove, was on parole requiring him to notify police within 24 hours of releasing a track and handing over his lyrics.

Pop Smoke was from Brooklyn, which separated it from the original sound of Drill in Chicago. He also played an important role in connecting British and American exercises – long separate. It wasn’t long before he noticed the tenacity of Drill’s London heirs, teaming up with 808Melo, a producer from Ilford, on his mixtapes. Meet the Woo (2019) and Meet the Woo 2 (2020). These were both hugely influential, earning Pop Smoke’s supranational praise and symbolically uniting the genre’s transatlantic counterparts. “The reservation agent is worried because he’s new, he only has a few leads.” DJ Semtex recalled for The New York Times after Smoke’s death: “I don’t care. I have to get him to the UK first, this guy is tough. I put the tickets on sale in a room with a capacity of 600 seats, the tickets sell out in 10 minutes; 1000 capacity – sold out again, right away.

Pop Smoke started 2020 locked in a studio in the Bahamas by writing lyrics. It was there that he composed the pieces of Meet the Woo 2, but also for other projects to come: a first album to come, Aim for the stars, aim for the moon (2020), and probably some of the songs that appear on his second posthumous collection, Faith.

Faith
is a twenty-track project first teased by the former Pop Smoke label boss a few months ago. It features a star-studded parade of guests such as Pusha T, Kanye west, Future, Dua Lipa, and Pharrell williams. Some of these guests are doing very well. Kanye and Pusha T collaborate on “Tell the Vision,” a deeply moving track that slips in and out of Kanye’s gospel samples to celebrate Smoke’s unlikely rise. “Look, I remember the days, even good for a week in a row, I ate fifty-cent cake, now it’s Philippe’s…” However, the countless guest appearances are also the biggest flaw. from the album; late Canarsie star almost feels obscured on album, it is not particularly present.

Before his death, Pop Smoke was apparently looking to broaden his sound for a more mainstream approach, sculpting pieces more likely to be played on the radio, but some of his posthumous verses on Faith seems a bit too far removed from its heritage. Most notably is a bizarre feature of British pop icon Dua Lipa. Honestly, Pop Smoke would feel less out of place on a Pringles commercial than it does on Lipa’s song “Demeanor,” which replaces the grim melodies of Smoke with an outrageously cheesy guitar line straight out of Maroon 5.

808Melo is barely credited on Faith, which is a bad signifier considering it helped build the rapper’s sound. Pop Smoke’s best work was plenty of space. Her deep, sepulchral childbirth seemed almost ethereal as it swept through the grim soundscapes provided by the east London producer. Smoke’s exercise was combative and intimidating, but it was also deeply moving. There is a large 808Melo shaped hole in Faith and the sound we have come to associate with Smoke fades slightly.

This is not to say the expanded range of genres in Faith is not interesting; artists change their sound all the time and Pop Smoke was an ambitious young star who wasn’t afraid to branch out. Even the few pieces without guests have echoes of outside influences. The second track on the album (deeply titled “More Time”) is a collection of remembered tragedies, backed up by a low fidelity piano on the traditional drill trap – it feels like a slight departure. ‘Merci beaucoup’, the last track on Faith, sounds slightly trap – a genre that worked surprisingly well for Smoke during his previous collaboration with Future on “Mr Jones”.

Pop Smoke’s passage united disparate drilling provinces from the United States to the United Kingdom, passing through Ghana, Australia and Brazil. As with all untimely deaths, we’ll always be hungry for a larger glimpse of what might have been. Faith comes from a worthy instinct of respect, but, sadly, much of it seems gratuitous with Pop Smoke playing too absent a role in his own memorial.

Faith is now available via Archives of the Republic.


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