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Five Burning Questions: Pop Smoke Scorches the Charts With ‘Shoot For the Stars, Aim For the Moon’ Debut

In the months following the murder of Brooklyn rapper Pop Smoke at age 20, the rapper has been elevated from a rising star to a national icon — a legacy now cemented with the stellar debut of his posthumously released Shoot For the Stars, Aim For the Moon album.

The set debuts at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 this week, with 251,000 equivalent album units moved, one of the year’s best first-week numbers. In addition, it launches all 19 of its tracks onto the Billboard Hot 100, including Pop Smoke’s highest-charting hit 100 to date with the No. 6 bow of “For the Night.”

How will the album be remembered? And which song from it will end up being biggest? Billboard staffers answer these questions and more below.

1. Pop Smoke’s enduring resonance is hardly a shock at this point, but 251k is an absolutely massive first-week number — just short of Lady Gaga’s Chromatica debut. How surprised are you by that Shoot For the Stars bow? 

Josh Glicksman: I’m a very firm sort of? here. On one hand, Shoot For the Stars was one of the most highly anticipated releases of the year so far, and given the collection of streaming giants amassed on the project, I’m not stunned that the listeners came in droves. That said, it’s still 251k! That’s not a number to be taken lightly for anyone at any point in their career, let alone for a debut album from a rapper that many weren’t familiar with before his Meet the Woo 2 mixtape earlier this year. It’s the sort of accomplishment that, like so many other things tied to this record, feels bittersweet.

Carl Lamarre: On a scale of 1-10, I’ll probably say 8. I think everyone was aware of Pop’s immense potential. When Meet the Woo 2 dropped, it debuted at No. 7, selling under 40K — a pretty great look for someone who just began gaining traction on a nationwide scale. He had the proper ingredients needed to become a rap superstar.

But to be fair — and executive producer 50 Cent said this in our new interview — I think the vision of 50 and Steven Victor and the camaraderie of the hip-hop community helped push this project over the hump, and deservingly so. Though Pop had many great tracks recorded before his passing, the execution, along with the promotion of the album, pushed it across the finish line.

Jason Lipshutz: Not surprised at all. Less than two weeks after Pop Smoke’s Meet The Woo 2 was released in February, its creator was tragically killed — and in the months that followed, streams of the mixtape remained impressive, “Dior” became an unlikely anthem at national protests, and the legacy of Pop Smoke kept growing. On the night that Shoot For The Stars was released, the posthumous album dominated Twitter chatter and streaming charts, and continued to do so well into the weekend; 251,000 equivalent album units is indeed a massive number, but if you were paying attention, you would have seen it coming.

Andrew Unterberger: I am still a little surprised that the debut was this resounding — but I think it just shows how much the culture was starting to embrace him with Meet the Woo 2 and has thrown their complete support behind him in the wake of his murder, particularly as so many other artists are following the lead of his signature sound. I mean, if all you knew of hip-hop was Hot 97 and Power 105.1, you’d probably already have thought that Pop Smoke was the biggest star on the planet anyway; I was flipping between the channels the weekend of the album’s release, and folks were calling in saying they were streaming the album non-stop even as they slept to ensure it got to No. 1.

Christine Werthman: Very surprised due to my own ignorance about Pop Smoke’s level of star power outside of New York. It’s pretty mind-blowing that not only is he the first artist to debut at No. 1 with a posthumous album since XXXTENTACION’s Skins in 2018, but he did it with his debut album. Sure, he’d had the Meet the Woo and Meet the Woo 2 mixtapes, so he wasn’t brand new, but the man only released that first one last July. And a year later, he’s nearly hitting near-Gaga levels? If that doesn’t drive home that hip-hop is our pop music and Pop Smoke was one of our most promising pop stars on the rise, I do not know what will.

2. Shoot For the Stars also launches all 19 of its tracks onto the Hot 100 this week, led by the No. 6 debut for the Lil Baby- and DaBaby-featuring “For the Night.” Do you think the song has legs as a hit, or is it just a matter of any Double-Baby song being an automatic hit upon entry in 2020? 

Josh Glicksman: There’s no denying that the Baby2 formula is a bonafide path to chart success in 2020 — DaBaby and Lil Baby have strongholds on the Hot 100 and the Billboard 200, respectively. Still, there’s a reason (or better yet, 10 of them) that both Babies have dominated the year besides just their reputation preceding them. They’re simply outpacing the competition at the moment, both in terms of volume and, oftentimes, quality, too. “For the Night,” though it may not have quite the same staying power as some of their other successes, is a hit in its own right, and shouldn’t just be reduced to the names on the track.

Carl Lamarre: I think it’s a steady combination of both. The record is one of my favorites on the project, amongst many others, but the Baby brothers’ streaming prowess helps tremendously. Lil Baby is having an MVP year, while DaBaby himself is only inches away from reclaiming his title courtesy with his torrid run on the Hot 100.

Jason Lipshutz: Having Lil Baby and DaBaby as the featured artists on “For The Night” was all but a guarantee for a high chart entry, but Pop Smoke’s the star of the song, pulling back the reins of his gruffness on one of the album’s best hooks. It has legs as a hit because it functions as a smart change-up from hits like “Dior” and “Welcome To The Party,” showing us a different but no less compelling side of Pop Smoke.

Andrew Unterberger: I think it’s largely a result of the names involved, but after I vastly underestimated the staying power of DaBaby and Roddy Ricch’s “Rockstar,” I’m done assuming that high Hot 100 debuts for starry collabs are automatically attributable to the names involved. And the song is a banger, albeit a slightly understated one compared to Pop Smoke’s previous radio killers.

Christine Werthman: Both. It gets the auto-hit status because of the lineup, but it’ll stick around because of the singable chorus and the strong, but not scene-stealing, performances from all involved. I recall a similar question being posed about DaBaby’s “Rockstar” featuring Roddy Ricch, and we see how that one played out — with five weeks spent at No. 1.

3. Not counting the already certified “Dior,” which of the other 18 tracks on the album do you think has the most potential to be an enduring smash? 

Josh Glicksman: I could be relying too heavily on historical context here, but I’ll go with “44 Bulldog.” With his two biggest hits prior to the album firmly rooted in Brooklyn drill (“Dior” and “Welcome to the Party”), listeners may opt for the comfort of familiarity on return spins more than anything else. As a disgruntled Brooklyn Nets fan, I can’t in good faith support the Jayson Tatum dunking reference, but I’ll be damned if that stops me from looking forward to hearing Pop Smoke’s gravelly voice make the comparison time and again, as car speakers throughout New York City blare the song on max volume this summer.

Carl Lamarre: I’m going to go with “The Woo” simply because Roddy Ricch hasn’t missed once this year, especially on the features front. The kid can’t write a bad verse. His knack for colorful rhymes and streaming success will give Pop sustainability on the Hot 100, especially this summer where anthems reign supreme. Also, who wouldn’t want to see 50 back in the top 10 on the Hot 100? It’s only right.

Jason Lipshutz“Make It Rain” is the sort of head-rattling Pop Smoke anthem that could pretty easily become a New York rap radio staple — it’s the song to play casual fans who only know “Dior.” And Rowdy Rebel’s verse, recorded over the phone while he was still in jail, is fairly spectacular, translating Pop Smoke’s chest-thumping threats into a sense of quiet menace (and tossing in some ad-libs for good measure, too).

Andrew Unterberger: It’s probably “44 Bulldog,” and deservedly so, but I’d be remiss not to shout out “Something Special.” After all, It’s summer in New York, and there’s something just feels right about there being a song on the radio that uses the Commodores-via-“So Into You” sample that’s proven unkillable through multiple generations of FM hits.

Christine Werthman: Not only can Pop Smoke make these aggressive drill smashes, but he can also slow down, hone in on melody and knock out something super playful and slick, much like his mentor, 50 Cent. “Gangstas” is the combo, tough on the outside, melodic on the inside, with a sub-three-minute delivery and a hometown shoutout on the chorus that’ll make hearts swell. And if you’ll allow me a bonus round, “Yea Yea” is a real R&B goodie, with Pop’s gruff delivery mixing with the sweet little two-note guitar and the female vocal for a perfectly balanced tune that has sleeper hit potential.

4. While Shoot For the Stars is technically Pop Smoke’s debut album, it’s hardly his first full-length release of the year — the 13-track mixtape Meet the Woo 2 was released to acclaim (and a top 10 Billboard 200 debut) back in February. Which of the two sets do you think is most likely to be Pop Smoke’s best-remembered from 2020? 

Josh GlicksmanMeet the Woo 2. Of course, Shoot For the Stars will forever be remembered for a multitude of reasons, but Meet the Woo 2 felt like the arrival of one of hip-hop’s next staples for years to come. It’s 45 minutes of Pop Smoke showcasing Brooklyn drill in spectacular fashion, with each two- or three- minute track feeling like he spent every ounce of energy in the booth rapping as hard as he possibly could. It’s an undeniable set and one that gives Pop Smoke the center stage spotlight he deserves throughout.

Carl Lamarre: It has to be SFTSAFTM because, to me, that was his championship banner. Yes, Meet The Woo 2 had its flashes, displaying Pop’s dynamics as a drill lieutenant and how he can control the streets with elastic ease, but his debut album showcased the real him: A melodic wunderkind who can remake classics like Tamia’s “So Into You” and 50 Cent’s “Many Men” with surgical precision.

Jason LipshutzShoot For the Stars has the chart-topping accolades and bigger guests, but the answer here is Meet the Woo 2, Pop Smoke’s true star-making moment and one of the most singular rap releases of the year. While artists like Quavo, Fivio Foreign and Lil Tjay are included on the track list, Meet the Woo 2 derives all of its power from Pop Smoke’s pavement-pounding flow, immense choruses and the drill production that serves as his chosen environment. “Shake The Room,” “Element,” “Christopher Walking,” even “Dior” and its Gunna-assisted remix — these are the songs that have defined Pop Smoke’s appeal, and the ones we’ll best remember a decade from now.

Andrew Unterberger: While there’s plenty of jams on Shoot For the Stars that should stay massive on radio and streaming all summer, none of them quite have the livewire electricity of the Meet the Woo 2 highlights. It’s telling that the team behind SFTS couldn’t resist sticking “Dior,” already a bonus cut on MTW2, at the end here as well — even though it’s a year old, it’s still unavoidable, and there remains an excitement to hearing it out in the wild that it’s unclear if any of these newer tracks will be able to match.

Christine WerthmanShoot For the Stars. This one is the enduring pop smash that went higher on the charts and really showcases his versatility. That said, Meet the Woo 2 was Pop Smoke’s final release before he died, so unlike the album, he officially stamped the mixtape with his approval. To some fans, that will make it more worthy of remembrance, but Shoot For the Stars is the one more people will remember.

5. As triumphant a moment as this sales week is for Pop Smoke’s legacy, it can’t help but be bittersweet for reminding of all of the rapper’s tragically unrealized potential. Where would you have liked to see his career go from here, and do you think Shoot From the Stars shows him already on the way there?

Josh GlicksmanShoot For the Stars throws a lot of different looks at the listener, some of which work more successfully than others. While the sound that brought Pop Smoke to the forefront of the genre is the one that likely would’ve continued to do him the most favors, songs like “Yea Yea” and “Something Special” showcase the potential he had to melt his bravado into love songs reminiscent of the album’s executive producer, 50 Cent. It’s all so hard to forecast, though — Pop Smoke was just 20 years old at the time of his death. He would have thrived by heading in any number of directions.

Carl Lamarre: I think Pop was well on his way to rap superstardom. As his team mentioned in past interviews, his Meet the Woo series served as a stepping stone en route to mainstream. He already wanted to work with Latin artists, whip up melodies, and prove that he wasn’t a one-trick pony. Though he relished his role as New York’s preeminent drillmaster, he sought after world domination, and if his debut album confirmed anything, it revealed that he had the right tools to do it.

Jason Lipshutz: The best, and hardest, quality of listening to Shoot From the Stars is hearing Pop Smoke fully realize his potential — there are the speaker-blowing anthems like there were on Meet the Woo 2, but songs like “For The Night” and “Yea Yea” showed that he could slow it down as well, while “The Woo” represents an NYC torch that was being passed his way. Most posthumous albums exist on a supposed trajectory, with the ones left behind by an artist attempting to actualize an incomplete vision, but so much of Shoot From the Stars sounds like everyone involved doing the obvious: letting Pop Smoke blossom, and then getting out of the way.

Andrew Unterberger: I wish we could’ve seen a little more care put into developing him as a crossover artist — the pop and R&B lifts on Shoot For the Stars are undeniably fun but a little clumsy, more an attempt to call back to the glory days of EP 50 Cent’s era than a realization of how Pop Smoke would best fit in that space in 2020. And I wish we had gotten more time with him as a local sensation — working with scene producers and co-stars — before trying to take him global. But ultimately, Shoot For the Stars does show how limitless his potential was, and I do think we would have seen that realized eventually regardless. Might’ve just taken an extra year or two.

Christine WerthmanShoot for the Stars shows what a dynamic artist Pop Smoke was, whether he was weaving around a punching beat on “Make It Rain,” smooth-talking on the Karol G collab “Enjoy Yourself,” channeling LL Cool J on “Something Special” or putting his own spin on 50’s “Many Men (Wish Death)” on “Got It on Me.” He was well on his way to a storied career. He never forgot where he came from musically, but he didn’t play it safe — he took chances. It’s infuriating and heartbreaking that he didn’t get to show us what else he had planned.

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