At 21-years-old, Chicago rapper Polo G has released his sophomore album, THE GOAT.
It’s pretty presumptuous for a rapper who is only on his second album to call himself the greatest of all time. But it’s not what you think. It’s a zodiac thing. Polo G — who was born Taurus Bartlett on January 6th, 1999 — is a Capricorn. The symbol of Capricorn is a goat.
“[The album title isn’t] necessarily me trying to call myself the greatest [rapper] of all the time because I’ve got so much respect for everybody before me,” Polo G said during a phone call just days before his album would release. “But I’m open to that controversy and people believing in that though.”
A gripe many (older) rap fans have about MCs under the age 25 is that they don’t rap about anything. Young rappers have skills and charisma but their subject material is shallow, and topics rarely ascend tales of rags to riches. This is not a criticism that can be thrown at Polo G.
In the last year, there hasn’t been an artist — in any medium — who has spent as much time deconstructing the longterm trauma of growing up in an unsafe, impoverished environment. Since 2019, he has released dozens of songs and verses, almost all of them vulnerable yet stoic tracks detailing his PTSD.
Polo G, who grew up in Marshall Field Garden Apartments in North Chicago with his mother and siblings, survived jail, drug addiction, and gang violence. And that residue is featured on every track, making his songs extended therapy sessions more than anything.
What makes this more striking is when you contrast his subject material with his melodic gifts; Polo G songs are the closest you’re going to get to rap blues — or, “gang blues,” as he calls it on his Juice WRLD collaboration “Flex” — in 2020.
Back in December, the New York Times published an article declaring that rappers sing on tracks because of Drake. Veteran Pop Culture Critic Jon Caramanica described hip-hop in a post-Drake world as “singing as rapping, rapping as singing, singing and rapping all woven together into one holistic whole.” This caused a considerable amount of debate, with fans (and MCs) pointing out that rappers had been sing-rapping for years.
There’s truth to both sides of the argument. Yes, rappers have been singing for years but there is no stigma around singing on rap songs anymore. This is largely because of Drake and his success. And while Drake was merging rapping and singing to make calculated pop records, another style of sing-rapping emerged. This style featured MCs rap-singing devastating tales of street life. This includes rappers like Polo G, Lil Durk, NBA Youngboy, Rod Wave, and Future making tracks showcasing real vulnerability, rather than trying to sing perfectly. (Future put it best when he critiqued Drake’s Nothing Was the Same in 2013: “Drake made an album that is full of hits but it doesn’t grab you. They‘re not possessive; they don’t make you feel the way I do.”)
The earliest Polo G records are deadpan, traditional Chicago drill songs, more in the mode of G Herb. He first started experimenting with melody on “Welcome Back,” a song he dropped in early 2018. He did it because he saw the trend becoming popular.
“I wanted to make a full-blown harmonizing song because that was the newest way that artists were doing,” Polo G said. “It seemed like, at least from my point of view, that artists were bigger when they harmonized than the artists that would drill and just straight rap.”
When Polo G speaks of artists being bigger he isn’t talking about Drake, but the NBA Youngboys and Lil Durks of the world. Lil Durk, who started adding melodies to his drill records back in 2013, specifically gets looked at as a pioneer in that front.
“Durk has been doing that. He has been doing it before it became a wave,” he said. “When he was doing it back then, people in the city was caught off guard by him, ‘Oh, he be singing,’ or whatever. But it was all in the music that he was making straight hits. People later on down the line was getting on the bandwagon.”
For Polo G, the transition from traditional rapping to a more melodic style was natural. He grew up with music everywhere, which would form his own identity.
“I go to my grandma’s house, they listened to pop music on the way to church or something,” he said. “I’d go back to the crib and everybody only plays Gucci Mane or Lil Wayne. But then you’ve got my pops…listening to Musiq Soulchild and CeeLo Green and John Legend. I had a lot of different perspectives on music at a young age.”
The first time you heard Polo G’s voice was probably the fall of 2018. That August he released “Finer Things,” a melancholy song he wrote while doing a skid bid in Cook County. The song would blow up, racking millions of views on YouTube within weeks, and he would sign a deal with Columbia Records.
After getting his first radio hit with “Pop Out,” with Lil Tjay in 2019, Polo G would release his debut album Die a Legend. It was his first project ever, and by almost all metrics the album was a success. He recorded 14 tracks for it; all 14 songs made the album. The album, which debuted at number six on the Billboard charts, was produced almost entirely by JTK and Ayo, a pair of local producers who would craft beats around Polo’s vocals.
The producers and Polo G had chemistry — almost too much chemistry. Die a Legend is a remarkable debut and it’s because the Chicago rapper does most of the heavy lifting. The production, mostly piano-based could be nondescript, with songs bleeding into each other.
It’s a critique that the young rapper seemed aware of. And something he looked to rectify with THE GOAT. He has started to alter the way he records music now.
“I don’t go to the studio and try to make 10 songs in one night, five songs in one night,” Polo G said. “I limit the amount of music that I try to make because I don’t want anything sounding like the same thing I just recorded. I don’t want anything to be too oversaturated or me running on fumes.”
On THE GOAT, Polo G enters a more experimental phase of his career. This time around he’s more collaborative, rapping alongside Juice Wrld, Lil Baby, Stunna 4 Vegas, and NLE Choppa. He has also expanded his production taste — going outside of his home team getting help from the likes Tay Keith, Mustard, Murda Beatz, and Hit-Boy.
The results are mostly strong. The energetic, Tay Keith, Mike WiLL Made-It-produced posse cut “Go Stupid” is an obvious standout, with Polo G spitting one of the most animated verses of his career. (In our interview he mentioned that Ludacris is one of the first rappers he really connected with; you can hear Luda’s influence all over that verse.) And, on “Martin and Gina,” we see him exam being in a relationship for the first time.
“I’m talking about relationships, problems and issues,” Polo G said. “I know people can relate to them. I’m doing it in a cool way. I feel like a lot of people are going to gravitate towards that, especially women.”
Not all of the bigger swings work, however. “Chinatown” is a clumsy and odd whiff and album closer “Wishing for a Hero” is a hokey flip of Tupac’s “Changes.”
There aren’t a lot of misses. And THE GOAT makes a strong argument for Polo G being the best writer in hip-hop. The standout track is “I Know,” which is led by an acoustic guitar. In a thoughtful, impassive voice, he raps:
Trauma got me fucked up, so I’m mentally unstable
I got wrapped up in my emotions, now I’m tangled
Deep in my thoughts and overthinkin’ can get painful
Watch how I move, one wrong decision can be fatal
Hidden messages, conversations with my angels
Just walk with me and you’ll see I’m tryna save you
Most times I’m by myself, I’m still confused from betrayal
With the state of the world in a disarray because of COVID-19, It’s a tough time to drop an album, especially one this heavy. But Polo G, who is quarantined in his house in Los Angeles — far from North Chicago neighborhood where he grew up — is optimistic. He thinks it’s the perfect time to drop an album showcasing his gifts.
“Most of the time you drop it, there’s so much things going on in the world that people are getting a feel for the music,” he said. “[Now] they’ve got time to really dissect the lyrics, really get the meaning of a song, right off the bat.”
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