Better than Nothing: Posthumous Pop Smoke Album Lands in Gray Area

Photo by Orli Arias

Upcoming albums by notable artists are supposed to evoke feelings of excitement and anticipation. The process of creating an album is a lengthy, tedious, and meticulous process that takes time and requires patience on both the part of the artist, their label/team, and the fanbase that eagerly awaits it. If a single flops, an artist can quickly redeem themselves in a matter of weeks if their next single is fire. If an album flops, an artist will have to live with the failure for at least a year, and then face the uphill battle of not only returning with better music but convincing a disappointed fanbase to tune in again. The amount of buzz an artist has leading up to an album can play both in their favor and against them at the same time. An emerging artist has less to lose if their album doesn’t do big numbers. The further from the pinnacle they are, the less ground they stand to lose if they miss the target. An artist that has already attracted a large audience has more pressure to impress when they release a major project. A well-received album can extend their relevance for another 2-3 years even if they don’t do much afterward. A flop effectively puts them “on the clock”, with a shrinking window of opportunity to prove to fans that the initial buzz they created wasn’t a one-off.

From a business perspective, an artist’s ceiling is determined by their ability to release albums that fans will care about and validates the time they spend waiting to hear them. Artists can make successful careers for themselves off of singles, but if an artist is sustaining themselves through that medium, it’s usually because that’s the only option left.

How “good” an album is is usually fairly easy to determine. An album can score low reviews, but if it still does numbers and fans still buy tickets to shows, then it can still be considered a success. It’s not unusual for the music critic to be out of touch with the typical fan, and at the end of the day, fans get to choose the fate of the artist.

Less often, and usually, under unfortunate circumstances, we get albums from deceased artists, and the lens of perception for these projects completely changes. It’s impossible to judge posthumous albums by the same metrics as a typical album. When a living artist releases an album, there is an expectation of improvement and artistic evolution to be evident. With a posthumous album, we’re not getting what’s next, we’re getting what’s left. In a way, postmortem projects are easier to appreciate. Even if the music itself doesn’t build on what the artist released in their lifetime, it’s easier to be grateful when you know what you’re given is being drawn from a finite well, and when it runs dry, we will never get another song from that artist again.

If Pop Smoke’s Faith had been released while he was alive, the truth is that it might have been a disappointment. In that context, varying degrees of chemistry (or lack thereof) between Pop and the extensive list of featured artists would be an easy first target for criticism. Secondly, a 20 track album that topically explores little beyond excessive wealth, sex, and killing get repetitive far too early in the nearly hour-long project. Thirdly, Pop Smoke himself (with a few exceptions) commits to reusing the same flow over and over almost as fiercely as DaBaby. To be clear, this isn’t to say that the album is poor, because context matters, but if Pop Smoke was still alive, these would be the main points of criticism that will probably be less focused on since he isn’t. The album certainly wouldn’t have killed his career, but likely wouldn’t have advanced it. Judging the album within the context of Pop Smoke being gone, the album feels more like something to be simply received and processed rather than judged. A critical ear will be able to detect why these songs weren’t released before, however, it’s much easier to simply be grateful for the music we’re getting since we will never get to hear the music Pop Smoke could have made in the future. The things that made him appealing are still present. He still sounds larger than life, hyper-masculine, immortal even. Though this proved not to be true, that persona will live forever through his music. The roster of big names featured on the project may be hit-or-miss, but this can probably be attributed to the fact that most of these features were needed to fill in the blanks on tracks that hadn’t been completed. Even if a lot of the features don’t elevate the tracks, getting to them is better than never hearing them. At the very least, it’s fun to hear a variety of Pop Smoke collabs that we might not have ever heard in other circumstances. All things considered, it’s better than nothing.

The 20 track album has a total of twenty-one features. Rick Ross, Rah Swish, Takeoff, Chris Brown, Dua Lipa, Pharrell, and Quavo give the more solid performances, while the rest do what they can to make it work.

The hard-hitting drill that Pop Smoke was single-handedly popularizing in America before his death takes up a large portion of the album, but there are also a handful of more traditional sounding tracks sprinkled in at appropriate intervals, and one can’t help but wonder how Pop Smoke might have broadened his sound if he had been given more time to develop.

As a whole, the album is a bag of mixed emotions. Track by track, it’s a clash of patchwork and potential. Collectively, it is what it is. Listeners should look for the gold in this late offering from a young artist whose career was just getting started and tragically cut short. The gritty bravado Pop Smoke embodied is still there, and when listening to the album, it still feels like he’s invincible. At the same time, lyrics centered around violence, and might making right, now carry with them the sour and inescapable irony of the fact that Pop Smoke’s untimely death was eerily similar to many of the scenarios he describes carrying out in many of his songs. Faith isn’t an album to love or hate. Rather, it’s simply an album to be accepted. It’s an album of “what ifs” that we’ll never know. Unfortunately, that’s as good as it gets, but at least we get that much.

Leave a Reply