A Conversation With Steven Victor

By Michael Dominguez

There are many layers to the tragic death of Pop Smoke and his legacy: a rising talent gone too soon; another incredibly young rapper suddenly lost in recent years; the next generation of New York hip-hop. Just as important is the success his posthumous album, Shoot for the Stars Aim for the Moon (Victor Victor/Republic), has earned this year. Finishing the album and overseeing the strategy of all things Pop, label head Steven Victor helped turn the late rapper into hip-hop’s next superstar—despite his absence.

Released in early July, Pop’s debut full-length has reached #1 twice (it’s contending for a third #1 this week) but has never left the Top 4 in its 18 weeks on the chart. It also reached #1 in the U.K. in September, becoming the only debut album to top the chart in Blighty this year. The only other comparable debut albums in recent memory are from Cardi B, Billie Eilish and Roddy Ricch. Even though it was released midyear, Pop’s LP is on pace to join Lil Baby’s My Turn as one of only two albums to eclipse 2m units of total activity in 2020.

Pop Smoke’s artist-development triumph is second to none in the music biz over the last few years. The album isn’t riding the wave of one hit single—it’s dominating as a full project, which has owned the second half of 2020. We spoke to Victor about developing Pop over the last year and a half—the window in which he rocketed to rare air, becoming rap’s most dominant presence on the charts.

Take us back to when you first met Pop.
In November 2018, my friend [producer] Rico Beats started telling me about this kid from our neighborhood, Pop Smoke. We didn’t get to meet until February 2019—I immediately knew he was a superstar.

How did you turn the local success of “Welcome to the Party” into something bigger?
So I signed him, and we started working on the mixtape. “Welcome to the Party” was getting a lot of buzz in the Tri-State area. I thought we should capitalize on this, and we made a conscious decision to put out the project before the song got bigger than him.

Right, that’s a problem a lot of these viral acts are running into.
We wanted to avoid that. We didn’t want people to recognize one song more than they knew him. I knew how special he could be, so we took our time and were careful with the rollout. We had to get him on tour early. He wanted to be a global artist. His first show was in London for a reason—his producers were from there; his sound originates from London, Chicago, Africa. So we decided to home in on Europe and then go back to the States. He was support for Skepta.

How did you get from the Meet the Woo mixtapes to the album?
With the Woo series, he was able to establish a consistent sound, and as soon as MTW2 dropped [in February 2020], we immediately started working on the album. We saved some of the songs that were [initially] for the mixtape for the album.

You released around 50 songs in 2020. That’s crazy.
He started gaining more buzz, so while we worked on [MTW2], we started planning the album to drop the following summer—we planned for him to go on tour in March to establish a touring base. The idea was that he would have the majority of the album done before the tour; having all these songs was part of the plan. We were working at a rapid pace; he wanted to own the summer.

What separated Pop from his peers?
When Rico first played the music for me, I was, like, “It’s okay.” But when I met Pop, I was blown away. He had a very focused look on his face. He was so mature. He knew exactly what he wanted; maybe he didn’t necessarily know how to get there, but he knew he wanted success and he was willing to work hard for it. You could tell when you met him that this kid was a superstar. It wasn’t just the music.

What do you think Grammy recognition would’ve meant to Pop?
He definitely wanted Grammy love. He knew what these things mean as an artist. He cared about all of it because he knew how it played a role in his career. All the great artists he was a fan of had these accolades.

So what’s next for Victor Victor Worldwide and Pop?
Finding a director for an upcoming documentary. Pop was in a movie, so we’re helping with the soundtrack for that. He auditioned for a small part and ended up landing a bigger role in the film. It just goes to show the type of person he was. He lit up the room when he walked in.

I’ve just been focused on Pop. I haven’t been in the emotional space to work on other things—I’ve been putting my head down, giving this project my full attention and making sure it can be the best it can be.

The development and success must be overwhelming.
It’s a constant reminder that he’s not here. Even with the success of this album, it’s very bittersweet. He’s not here to enjoy it with us—obviously, he’s watching down on us. We would speak every day; we were friends. It’s sad, but when you turn on the radio, look at the charts, the success can be overwhelming. But at least we’re able to fulfill the things he wanted to accomplish.

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