I thought another new Pop Smoke album would make me sad. His murder last year was senseless. He was finding his way. “Dior” ran New York City through several seasons. That rarely happens here. In another year, Pop would’ve been a superstar. It felt like the clouds opened, like the stars had aligned. Last year’s Shoot for the Stars, Aim for the Moon was gutting because you could hear the artist lining up his shots, branching out of drill, and casting a wider musical net. Cuts like “For the Night” and “What You Know Bout Love” showcased a growing ease with smoother, more commercial sounds. He was working out how to take a local sound nationwide and trying to leave his wilder ways behind. But the album felt transitional, unsure of how thick to lay it on with the poppier material, and the feeling that we’d never find out where its many new directions would lead made it sting. Faith just makes me want to knock over someone’s drink in the function. It’s joyous and celebratory and snide. Everyone who’s anyone is there, and Pop holds court with mainstream music kings like born royalty. The twists are crazier; the stretch where he jumps on a disco bop with Dua Lipa, skates over smooth R&B with Pharrell, and then sings the blues with Kid Cudi is one of the more ambitious sections of a mainstream rap album this year. It’s playful. Most of it works.
To my ears, the one from Faith with the most alluring ratio of wild ideas to improbable successes is “Tell the Vision,” where Pop, Pusha T, Kanye West, and an army of producers come up with a song that feels like it’s traversing multiple microgenres at the same time. The beat tacks textbook drill drums onto synth pop sounds, breaking for a sample of a choir. Kanye shows up mumbling and spitballing syllables as he does when he’s demoing flows for verses he hasn’t finished writing. (Was this originally a DONDA song?) Pusha T is as arrogant and eloquent as ever. (People think he’s going at Drake when he complains about clowns being crowned king of rap because everyone naturally assumes every Push sub is for Aub now. The funnier reading is to see the line as a postmortem on that time Tekashi 6ix9ine anointed himself King of New York, almost immediately caught RICO charges, then sang in court; funnier still when you remember that Kanye is all over Dummy Boy.) There’s a sample of New York rap-radio veteran Angie Martinez on the air the day Pop passed speaking to the rapper’s gifts and his role in the explosion of Brooklyn drill over the last few years. It’s all somewhat perpendicular to Pop’s verse and chorus, though, where he toasts to trading bodega snacks for steaks and old clothes for threads from Bergdorf, all of this while threatening to shoot us. It’s so crowded and outrageous and spirited and weird there’s almost not even time to stew about mortality.
Faith is full of these moments. It refuses to let its somber circumstances weigh it down. I’m reminded of the spirit of New York rap albums like Big L’s The Big Picture or Big Pun’s Yeeeah Baby, works that hold a mournful significance for us as listeners — as we first heard both after the rappers had passed away — but sound so comfortable in their element and so determined to keep on thriving in their newfound wealth that it’s hard to be upset. This is not to say that “Tell the Vision” is “It’s So Hard” or to pass judgment on Faith, which I’m currently still processing. It’s just that when it’s playing, Pop Smoke feels very alive and happy.