While “You Can’t Say Pop Without Smoke” is capable enough for a caption, and while its heart is in the right place, it has the disadvantages of sounding market-tested. Before last Friday’s release of Faith, the late rapper’s second posthumous album, Dua Lipa posted an Instagram video of Pop Smoke with the phrase in question, a slightly altered version of a line he said on “Gatti” with Travis Scott and the Jackboys. Pop Smoke, who died last year, is seen dancing in the captain seat of an SUV to the demo of a disco record the rapper was—gasp—singing on with the British pop star. The video, in which the 20-year-old and his gleaming overbite are trying but failing to get everyone else in the car to join the karaoke performance, is precious in its way, and another reminder of what was lost with his death. The song, “Demeanor,” ended up on Faith and is proof that his gravelly charisma would have eventually been able to sell anything—it’s like when “Infatuation” showed up out of nowhere on Takeoff’s 2018 solo album The Last Rocket. That is to say, “Demeanor” goes down surprisingly smooth; a song about popping Perc 30s and shooting people that you’ll probably hear by a hotel pool at some point this summer.
Much of Faith is this kind of acceptable. If we absolutely must have another album wrung from the tragedy of Pop Smoke’s untimely death, then it could be worse. For instance, “Tell the Vision,” the third track on Faith, featuring Kanye West and Pusha T, is born from the chained ideas of an entire bus of producers. At first it threatens to just be another Kanye West song that other people happen to be attached to. But then the drill drum loops are traced onto the art-school synths, and Pop Smoke starts rapping about making it to Bergdorfs from standing outside the bodega. Like Pop Smoke’s Shoot for the Stars, Aim for the Moon, which last year became the first posthumous studio rap debut to net the no. 1 spot on the Billboard Top 200, there are a lot of features on Faith. Less often than on Shoot for the Stars—but still too often—Pop Smoke feels like a guest at his own party. (See Kid Cudi’s desert-walking “8-Ball”; “Spoiled,” the bright Pharrell vehicle; the crowded “Bout a Million” with 42 Dugg and 21 Savage; the very ornate and rich-sounding “Manslaughter” featuring Rick Ross and The-Dream; the unwelcome Chris Brown appearance.)
I’m not saying these songs tarnish Pop Smoke’s memory or are even unenjoyable—most of them are fine. I’m saying it’s close to impossible to keep an album like this from sounding like the Biggie Duets, a star-studded “celebration of life” nakedly commissioned with an eye on the bottom line. Pop Smoke’s breakthrough project, his second mixtape, Meet the Woo 2, was released just weeks before he died. So despite obvious, blinding star power, the breadth of work to draw references from, to craft an afterimage that does Pop Smoke justice and celebrates his eternally imminent rise, is small. Who can gamely fill in the ellipsis for a story cut off at its start? To Republic Records executive Steven Victor and Rico Beats, who were in charge of Pop Smoke’s legacy for Faith, the answer seems to have often been determined by metrics. Occasionally, the algorithm matches Pop Smoke’s energy: Takeoff slides right in on “What’s Crackin”’; Swae Lee and Lil Tjay skillfully search out their own pockets in a gaunt drill beat on “Genius.”
The best songs, by which I mean the most exciting ones, are those featuring Pop Smoke’s Brooklyn drill contemporaries. Smoke and Rah Swish trade warbly threats on the percussive and genuinely alarming “Brush Em”; I texted a close friend of mine that never responds to my one-sentence reviews that Bizzy Banks “lost his mind” on “30.” The solo Pop Smoke songs often feel marginal (“Beat the Speaker,” “More Time”), leaning on producers he’d scarcely worked with when he was alive to sell an unfinished idea. The Neptunes-produced “Merci Beaucoup” is an unlikely success here—Pop Smoke’s lyrics about jumping out on opps and taking their jewelry float into clouds on an airy, dreamlike trap beat. There’s a spoken word outro on which Pop Smoke points for the fences, standing on his accomplishments and predicting more, espousing devotion to his vision. “Never let anyone come between you and your vision,” he says. They are pretty words that ring a little hollow, when you look at the liner notes. When you consider the project in full.
All in all, Faith is like Travis Scott’s fashionably oversized Dior shirt—clean and nicely framed, competently executed, expensive, a little ridiculous. It exists and it’s cool enough, but maybe we could’ve done just as well without it.