Pop Smoke

Meet the Woo

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Drill has always been a tale of two cities: Chicago and London. After its explosion at the hands of Chi-town innovators like Chief Keef and Young Chop, the genre found reinvention overseas, where groups like 150 pulled its components in new directions. The result was two distinct scenes, drawn from the same thread yet diverse in their sonics. Enter Brooklyn. Typically known in rap circles as the birthplace of legends, the borough formed its own variant of drill in the late 2010s. Divided into two main allegiances, Woo and Cho, the scene has developed a stacked roster of standout performers -- Sheff G, Aladdin Xantander, and Dah Dah, among others -- yet remained firmly in the underground. That is, until Pop Smoke, whose single "Welcome to the Party" racked up millions of views on video streaming platforms in just a few weeks. As the first Brooklyn driller to break the mainstream, Smoke has become the scene's unofficial ambassador, the face of the genre to a wider public. Unfortunately for him, this proves more of a burden than a blessing: on his debut project, Meet the Woo, Smoke seems aimless in his stylistic pursuits.

The success of "Welcome to the Party" rides on synthesis; tapping from both Chicago and London, the song holds a distinctive Brooklyn character while retaining the genre's roots. It is this fusion that makes or breaks Smoke's music. Nowhere is this more evident than on "Hawk Em," where Smoke invokes U.K. drill's typical delayed start for the battle cry of "It's big 092MLBOA," before merging a set of signature U.K. flows with his own. The same can be said of opener "Meet the Woo," which sees Smoke pair Brooklyn slang with references to Chief Keef and a U.K.-inspired beat from 808Melo. The success of these tracks lies in their balancing; through carefully blending his unique vocals with the genre's history, Smoke creates an unforgettable opening run.

More often than not, though, Smoke loses drill's core appeal. Characterized primarily by groups like Harlem Spartans, vocal agility has remained a core tenet of the genre. While slower-flowing drillers like M Huncho have warped drill to match their vocals, Smoke has done no such thing -- his slushy tones, over rapidly shifting tracks like "Feeling" and "Brother Man," sound sluggish rather than impactful. And even when Smoke sounds at home on the track, he's let down by writing. Drill's reliance on unique vocabularies and linguistic cultures has been entirely forgotten, replaced with aimless trap clich├ęs like "Digital dash, I be switching lanes." This, when combined with homophobic jabs and sludgy cadences, creates some the scene's clunkiest work.

What becomes apparent is Meet the Woo's lack of direction; from aimless style-mashing to rehashed lyrics, it's hard to see the album as anything more than a collision of styles. Of course, when balanced right, the album produces some gems: "Hawk Em" remains one of Brooklyn's most brutal drill records, and "Meet the Woo" lives up to Smoke's seemingly insurmountable hype. Yet while its explosive openers prove Smoke has the talent to carry the scene forward, Meet the Woo flounders more than it flourishes. As well as a poor showing for Smoke, this is a disappointing mainstream statement from Brooklyn's otherwise vibrant scene.

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