Pop Smoke’s posthumous debut, Shoot for the Stars, Aim for the Moon, may be impossible to duplicate. It was arguably the hip-hop event of a pandemic-blighted year, generating hit singles even as fans of his mixtape work rebelled against everything from the initial Virgil Abloh-created artwork to an excess of collaborations that included mentor and executive producer 50 Cent (who helped finish the project after Pop Smoke’s tragic murder in February 2020) and, uh, Jamie Foxx (on the deluxe edition). No matter: The massive, award-winning, double-platinum success of Shoot for the Stars felt properly due for a 20-year-old rising rapper who lost his life before he could fully capitalize on the unique amalgamation of Chicago, New York, and British drill styles that had made him a star.

By contrast, Faith arrives under very different circumstances. As the world reopens for business — Delta variant be damned, apparently — mainstream rap’s gilded class is rushing to drop long-gestating opuses. There are lauded projects from Tyler, the Creator and Brockhampton, and rumors of new work from Kanye West, Kendrick Lamar, and Cardi B. There’s a crucial debate over whether Faith is truly intended for the benefit of Pop Smoke’s legacy or is merely a cash cow for his estate and his label. Listening to the results, it feels like business as usual for an audience whose attention may be elsewhere. 

Faith has its share of impressive moments. Dua Lipa adds a plummy verse to the sleazy disco pop of “Demeanor.” “What’s Crackin’,” with Takeoff, suggests that a Pop Smoke and Migos tape could be a classic superstar team up that never was. Then there’s “Spoiled,” where Pop floats over Pharrell Williams’ inimitable keyboard melodies; it’s a nice moment, even if the lyrics calling women “spoiled” sound a bit mean-spirited. On “Tell the Vision,” Pusha T rhymes, “Tyler got the album of the year … for now/But Pop about to drop, I see the platinum in the clouds.” Pusha T could be right: Whether “real trappers” like it or not, it’s possible Faith will scale the same commercial heights as Shoot for the Stars, Aim for the Moon.

Still, the thuggish intensity that fueled Pop’s 2019 breakthrough, Meet the Woo (and, to a lesser extent, Meet the Woo 2), is inevitably diminished when Rick Ross, Chris Brown, Future, and too many others to name here are scrapping for mic time. Meet the Woo found Pop hammering through one 808Melo-produced drill track after another, resulting in 30 minutes of charged passion. By contrast, Faith consists of audio files recombined by producers and record executives into something coherent, listenable, and at times even enjoyable, but not quite dazzling. Maybe it’s not an Anthony Bourdain doc constructed with artificial intelligence, but it still feels a bit weird.

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