(Credit: Pop Smoke / Press)

New Music

Pop Smoke and the posthumous album problem

Last Friday, Pop Smoke released his second album, Faith. The Brooklyn superstar, present tense, has been one of the leading figures in bringing drill to the forefront of the mainstream rap scene. He’s one of the most reliable sellers and most successful artists in popular music today — he’s also been gone for over a year.

Pop Smoke, real name Bashar Barakah Jackson, was killed during a home invasion on February 19, 2020. The circumstances behind the robbery, and Jackson’s incredibly young death, are confusing, tragic, and incredibly depressing and have fueled a wave of grief with every new release. Pop Smoke didn’t live to see an official album release, but now he has two official full-length LPs.

So how does an artist claim authorship and assert their presence when they don’t have the ability to actually do so? As we’ve seen first with Shoot for the Stars, Aim for the Moon, the responsibility falls in the hands of his collaborators, peers, and friends to bring to life Jackson’s vision as closely as possible to how he would have wanted it.

Or do they? What Faith shows clearly is that Pop Smoke had a wealth of unreleased verses and musical ideas stored away for future releases. Or, at the very least, he had ideas that he was going to polish for the future. But now that he’s gone, those who have access to these unfinished ideas and recordings are taking it upon themselves to bring Jackson’s music to the fore and continue his legacy after his incredibly premature death.

To be fair, it’s hard to have put Faith in any better hands than it ended up in: production is handled by a number of incredibly talented individuals, including Swizz Beatz, Dru Decaro, The Neptunes, and Kanye West

Features include just about every top name in the rap or pop game: Pusha T, 21 Savage, Rick Ross, Future, Pharrell, Dua Lipa, Kid Cudi, Kodak Black, and Migos members Takeoff and Quavo. Just based on superstar status alone, Faith is being helmed by some of the greatest minds of this current generation.

So why does Faith sound so slight? Maybe because Pop Smoke is a featured player on his own album. The more pop adjacent material, like ‘Demeanour’, ‘Top Shotta’, and ‘Manslaughter’ rides mostly on the work of its singers, leaving Jackson’s verses to wrestle for the spotlight whenever they come up. Elsewhere, tracks like ‘Bout a Million’ and ‘Genius’ are stuffed with guest stars that toe the line between helping bring the deceased rapper’s songs to life and overshadowing his contributions.

But there’s also something to be said regarding its creator’s intentions and whether they remain on the album at all. It’s impossible to know what Jackson would have approved of, disapproved of, changed, kept the same, or tweaked in some fashion. He doesn’t get to make those decisions now, even if his name is the most prominently displayed.

‘Tell the Vision’ was reportedly set to be featured on own West’s upcoming LP, and it’s one of many tracks that sound like his fellow artists trying to find a happy medium between Jackson’s signature drill sound and the preferences of their own tastes and styles. The main problem with Faith is that it’s not a Pop Smoke album, but rather a committees idea of what a Pop Smoke album should be.

It could be argued that the same fate befell DMX’s Exodus or even Juice WRLD’s Legends Never Die. What remains is an approximation of what the artist might have done had they been here to tell their own story. Pop Smoke, sadly, is no longer in control of his own narrative, and while Faith tries its best to let Jackson keep living through his own words, the assistance that is required to mount a full length release feels obstructive. 

I don’t have any idea what Pop Smoke would have done, and by the sounds of Faith, there doesn’t seem to be any consensus among his collaborators either.