In a now-deleted Instagram, the manager of the late rapper Pop Smoke declared: “POP WOULD LISTEN TO HIS FANS.” What the fans wanted was a full retraction, a redo, a complete and total rehaul of the Virgil Abloh-designed cover art for Shoot for the Stars, Aim for the Moon, Pop’s posthumous album, out this week. The final announcement was a culmination of a very rough night for the designer and the artwork he created—rare instance of the designer’s typical Midas touch failing him, and a reminder of the power of fans.
The project came together with the very best of intentions. Before Pop Smoke was tragically murdered by gunmen who invaded his home in February of this year, he and Abloh had conversations about multiple collaborations, including album cover art, according to an Instagram post the designer eventually took down. Abloh also brought Pop out to Paris for Off-White’s fashion week show. “You wanted Virgil to design your album cover and lead creative,” his manager Steven Victor wrote in an Instagram caption. “Virgil designed the album cover and led creative.. we love you and miss you more and more each day.” (Victor did not immediately respond to a request for comment.)
Abloh wrote that his design was based on a conversation he’d had with Pop, and drew inspiration from how “his story felt like the metaphor of a rose and thorns growing from [the] concrete of his hood in Canarsie, Brooklyn.” The result is a pretty literal interpretation of that metaphor: a photo of Pop surrounded by barbed wire and metallic-looking roses in the background. “In your memory I just finished it yesterday,” Abloh wrote. Little did the designer know he’d be back to the drawing board so soon.
Almost instantaneously, Pop’s fans made their voices heard—loudly, clearly, and ruthlessly. The album artwork suddenly appeared in all sorts of unflattering contexts: next to an old Abloh tweet that reads, “Design is the freshest scam. Quote me on that one,”—people were all too happy to oblige that request—or on top of a petition demanding a change to the artwork. The petition seemed to start as a goof, with a meager goal of only 100 signatures. Over the ensuing hours, though, the petition’s creator kept raising the goal, from 100 to 500 to 1,500 to 15,000. As of Tuesday afternoon, the goal currently sits at 25,000–and there are near 20,000 signatures.
That Abloh found himself tangled up in a discussion over a design that fans feel isn’t all that surprising given his design philosophy. In a Harvard lecture on his design “cheat codes,” Abloh shared his three-percent rule—the one that dictates a design doesn’t need to be tweaked more than three percent to be successful. He’s also joked, “Duchamp is my lawyer,” in reference to the conceptual artist who reframed everyday objects like urinals as works of art. Maybe it’s pure coincidence, but those statements don’t mix well with Twitter users’ findings that the image of Pop Smoke on the album is the very first one that appears when Googling the late rapper.
Shockingly enough, the Twitter campaign worked. In a move reflective of the time the makers of the Sonic movie agreed to redo the hedgehog, loud and brutal roasting actually affected change. Pop’s manager announced fans would get what they were clamoring for: a new design, set to reemerge on July 3rd. “As pop’s label & as his friends/family, it is our obligation to bring his vision to life he wanted virgil to lead creative, we fulfilled his wishes however, unfortunately, he’s not here to give his final approval his fans are,” he wrote in a since-deleted Instagram post.
The fan-powered movement didn’t stop there, either. On Twitter, fans are now doing their own version of shooting for the stars and aiming for the moon: they’re dropping artwork they’ve made themselves in Victor’s replies.
Abloh, though, will get another chance to design the cover, according to 50 Cent, who helped executive produce Shoot for the Stars, Aim for the Moon after Pop died. “Hey Virgil we need new album art, they ain’t going for this bullshit,” 50 Cent wrote on Twitter. “Love ya work let’s get to it. 🤔Steven i told you this shit was 😡 eww let’s get it right!”
In a conversation with Westside Gunn after working on his album artwork, Abloh explained why he pursued projects with people like him and Pop. “For me, like I always say [when asked] why I work at Louis Vuitton and why I do Nike or why do Off-White or why do Moet champagne. That’s the best in class,” Abloh said in GQ. “It could be Drake’s plane and West Side Gunn’s album covers. Those are the best in class of their operation.” Abloh is learning that demands for best-in-class are a two-way street.