In Review: Pop Smoke – Faith
On the 19th February 2020, Bashar Jackson – better known as Pop Smoke – was staying in a rented house overlooking the Hollywood Hills when four men broke in during the night and shot him dead. Jackson was just twenty years old but he’d already redefined the drill genre. Like Hendrix or 2Pac before him, his is a story of tragically unfulfilled talent.
Pop Smoke’s rise to fame was meteoric. He exploded onto the mainstream incredibly quickly, working with a genre that had been widely demonised on both sides of the Atlantic for its perceived proximity to criminal gangs. This was especially true in London, where drill was lobbied against by the Metropolitan Police for ratcheting up pre-existing postcode wars. Pressure from the London Met got YouTube to remove over 30 drill clips from the site. Digga D, a rapper from Ladbroke Grove, was given parole conditions that forced him to notify police within 24 hours of releasing a track and hand over his lyrics.
Pop Smoke came from Brooklyn, which separated him from drill’s original Chicago sound. He also played a large role in connecting UK and US drill – long kept apart. He was quick to notice the tenacity of drill’s London inheritors, teaming up with 808Melo, a producer from Ilford, on his mixtapes Meet the Woo (2019) and Meet the Woo 2 (2020). These were both wildly influential, gaining Pop Smoke supranational acclaim and symbolically uniting the genre’s transatlantic counterparts. “Booking agent’s worried because he’s new, he’s only got a couple of tracks.” DJ Semtex recalled for the New York Times after Smoke’s death, “I don’t care. I need to bring him to the U.K. first, this guy is hard. I put the tickets on sale at a 600-capacity venue, sells out within 10 minutes; 1,000 capacity — sold out again, straight away.”
Pop Smoke began 2020 locked away in a studio in the Bahamas writing lyrics. It was there that he put together the tracks for Meet the Woo 2, but also for other upcoming projects: an upcoming debut album, Shoot For The Stars, Aim For The Moon (2020), and presumably some of the songs that feature on his second posthumous collection, Faith.
Faith is a twenty-track project first teased by Pop Smoke’s old label head a couple of 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 work quite well. Kanye and Pusha T collaborate on ‘Tell the Vision’, a profoundly moving track that slides in and out of Kanye-fied gospel samples in celebration Smoke’s unlikely ascendance. “Look, I remember the days, same fit for a week straight I used to eat fifty-cent cake, now, it's Philippe's…” However, the innumerable guest appearances are also the album’s greatest flaw; the late Canarsie star feels almost obscured on the album, he’s not particularly present.
Before he died, Pop Smoke was reportedly looking to expand his sound for a more mainstream approach, sculpting tracks more likely to be played on the radio, but some of his posthumous verses on Faith seem a little too far removed from his legacy. Most notably is a bizarre feature from UK pop icon, Dua Lipa. Pop Smoke would honestly feel less out of place appearing on a Pringles advert than he does on Lipa’s song ‘Demeanor’, which swaps out Smoke’s sinister melodies for an outrageously corny guitar line straight out of Maroon 5.
808Melo is barely credited on Faith, which is a bad signifier considering he helped build the rapper’s sound. Pop Smoke’s best work was full of space. His deep, sepulchral delivery felt almost ethereal as it swept over the brooding, sonic landscapes supplied by the east London producer. Smoke’s drill was combative and intimidatory, but it was also deeply emotional. There’s a large 808Melo-shaped hole in Faith and the sound we’ve come to associate with Smoke falls away slightly.
That’s not to say the expanded gamut of genres in Faith isn’t 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 tracks without guest features have echoes of outside influence. The second track on the album (profoundly titled ‘More Time’) is a collection of remembered tragedies, backed by a low-fi piano over the traditional drill snare – it feels like a slight departure. ‘Merci Beaucoup’, the last track on Faith, rings faintly of trap – a genre that works surprisingly well for Smoke on his previous collaboration with Future on ‘Mr Jones’.
Pop Smoke’s passing united disparate drill provinces from the US to the UK, to Ghana, Australia and Brazil. As with all untimely deaths we’ll always be eager for a broader insight into what could’ve been. Faith comes from a worthy instinct of respect, but, sadly, much of it feels gratuitous with Pop Smoke playing an all-too-absent role in his own memorial.
Faith is out now via Republic Records.