AILSA CHANG, HOST:
The rapper Pop Smoke was supposed to be the next big thing from New York City. And in a way, that kind of happened. At recent protests against racism and police brutality in New York, people were chanting to his hit song, songs like "Dior" and "Welcome To The Party."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WELCOME TO THE PARTY")
POP SMOKE: (Rapping) Baby, welcome to the party. I hit the boy up, and then I go skate in a 'Rari.
CHANG: Pop Smoke wasn't around to see his music take off like this. He died in a home invasion in February. He was just 20 years old. But his record label has now completed and released his debut album "Shoot For The Stars Aim For The Moon." Briana Younger wrote about the album for NPR Music, and she joins us now.
BRIANA YOUNGER, BYLINE: Hi, there. Thanks for having me.
CHANG: Hey. Well, thanks for being with us. So remind us - who was Pop Smoke, and where was he in his career when he died in February?
YOUNGER: Yeah. Pop Smoke was a rapper from Canarsie, Brooklyn. He was probably the most visible proponent of the style Brooklyn drill, which is a kind of a subgenre within a subgenre even of Chicago drill, which came to light around 2012. Pop's voice especially stood out. It was so deep, so soulful, so unique. It was kind of charming in its own way. It had a level of sex appeal that I think endeared him to women.
YOUNGER: And on "44 BullDog," like, you really hear kind of the essence of both Pop Smoke and that Brooklyn drill sound.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "44 BULLDOG")
POP SMOKE: (Rapping) .44 Bulldog, make them get back. I ain't with the talk or the chit-chat. All you hating ass niggas better sit back.
CHANG: Yeah, I want to talk about that because I love this line you wrote, quote, "Pop's deep, baritone snarl was his instrument." Talk more about that. Like, what do you hear specifically in his voice?
YOUNGER: Yeah. His voice was one of the most special things about him. You get this kind of vintage, rich sound colliding with, like, the sinister production for a result that's really just majestic and menacing at the same time. I think that was one of his most distinct but also, you know, strongest characteristics. And people really latched on to it.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "44 BULLDOG")
POP SMOKE: Brodie gon' (ph) what? Brodie gon' woo. Brodie gon' what? Brodie gon' woo. Brodie gon' brrt (ph) that, brrt that. Brodie gon' get that, get that.
CHANG: So if you could describe it in words, like, what do you think this album is about? What's going on here?
YOUNGER: The album has a lot of the same themes that you heard in early Pop Smoke records - you know, lots of bluster and bravado, lots of, like, showing off in terms of money and having nice things. But his life was also changing. You know, he was seeing success. So some of the records incorporate, like, more melody. They're kind of scaled back. And so, like, on songs like "Yea Yea," there's, like, this juxtaposition where he's kind of doing this gun talk. But it's contrasted with, like, R&B production. His lyrics are being ad-libbed by singing instead of, like, you know, like, gun sounds or...
YOUNGER: ...Just more bravado basically.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YEA YEA")
POP SMOKE: (Rapping) It's a whole lotta Glocks, mops, TECs, shots, dots, knots, rocks, ooters (ph).
CHANG: Yeah. I guess I can hear how this sounds different from the stuff that we just played. But even though it's more melodic, he's still talking about guns and violence.
YOUNGER: Yeah. Like, I think the lyrics kind of stay the same - or the subject matter of the lyrics. But you get this kind of melodic background. And there's a whole handful of love songs on the album where he's flexing that muscle. At the beginning of one of them, he literally says, you ain't know I could sing, in this kind of flirty manner.
YOUNGER: And that's like when we get the fullest glimpse of what kinds of things may have been on his mind before he died. It just kind of makes it worse that we'll never get to see him see that vision through.
CHANG: Yeah. There's sort of this parallel with The Notorious B.I.G.'s "Life After Death." Like, Biggie was another Brooklyn rapper killed at a young age. And I'm just curious - how does that affect the way you hear this record?
YOUNGER: I mean, it's just tragic. And it's hard to separate it from the music. I think, you know, just - it's kind of this reminder that the more things change, the more they stay the same. You know, for young Black men especially, this is the reality of their lives. And you know, you just kind of have to listen to it and still enjoy it and still celebrate it for what it is because this is their life's work even though, you know, they're no longer with us.
CHANG: Yeah. That is music critic Briana Younger.
Thank you so much for joining us.
YOUNGER: Thank you for having me.
CHANG: And you can read her review of Pop Smoke's first and final album, "Shoot For The Stars Aim For The Moon" at npr.org.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SOMETHING SPECIAL")
POP SMOKE: (Rapping) I think you are something special.
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