Status Ain't Hood

Polo G’s Sad, Quiet Grace

The latest single from the melancholic young Chicago sing-rapper Polo G is called “33.” It’s named, at least in part, for Scottie Pippen’s number. Within the song, that number only functions as a gun-talk punchline: “This new Glock got 33, Scottie Pippen.” But there’s still something poetic about the best young rapper in Chicago evoking the image of Pippen, the perennial sidekick, during a time when we’re besieged with Michael Jordan hagiography. Scottie Pippen is one of the greatest NBA players who has ever lived, but his greatness was always quiet and subtle, destined to be overwhelmed in the bombast of the Jordan show. I wonder if Polo G relates.

It’s been less than a year since Polo G came out with Die A Legend, his gracefully gutting debut album. On Die A Legend, Polo sang about trauma and depression, about being mentally stuck in the violent chaos of his younger years even as his fortunes improved. His voice was haunted and mesmerizing, its playground-taunt cadences congealing into a sort of blank-faced blues. His instrumentals were soft and empty, full of circular acoustic-guitar lines and fat 808s and empty space. Die A Legend had few guests and few big-name producers. It was almost entirely Polo G easing into his own sound, dwelling on his own darkness, making sense of things. It was my favorite rap album of last year.

Perhaps against odds, one song from Die A Legend crossed over. “Pop Out,” a hypnotic Lil Tjay collab, caught a wave and peaked at #11 on the Hot 100. Polo G has proven that he’s capable of making a cohesive and absorbing album-length statement, but he’s also proven that he can make a hit. That can be a difficult position for a young artist. THE GOAT, Polo G’s second album, came out last week, and it’s a different kind of beast. It’s got big-name guests and big-name producers and at least a few songs that, in theory, could be hits. It’s also rushed and unformed, at least compared to its predecessor. But this is Polo G, so THE GOAT still has its own kind of uncanny power.

Polo G isn’t a showy rapper or a big personality — maybe that’s the Pippen in him — but he always seems to keep his sad, melodic, hollowed-out sound intact. The guests on THE GOAT, like Lil Baby and the late Juice WRLD, find themselves working on Polo G’s wavelength, replicating his flattened-out cadences. The producers, like Mustard and Hit-Boy, offer their own variations on the downbeat piano and guitar melodies of Polo’s regular collaborator DJ Ayo. There’s only one real outlier: The single “Go Stupid,” a fired-up young-rapper throwdown with fellow up-and-comers Stunna 4 Vegas and NLE Choppa. And even there, the beat, from inveterate hitmakers Mike Will Made-It and Tay Keith, still has a fundamental darkness. (Polo, incidentally, proves that he can rap like a demon on “Go Stupid.” It’s just not the kind of thing he’s in the mood to do that often.)

Polo G is still only 21. (He was born a few months after the Bulls traded Scottie Pippen away to the Rockets.) On much of THE GOAT, he tries to flex about his new fame. There are money songs and love songs on the album. But Polo G’s work still cuts deepest when he talks openly and honestly about past traumas. Like this: “Keep tryna fight off all this depression that I’m battling/ Stressing while I’m dreaming, I keep getting sleep paralysis.” Or this: “By his auntie, he was molested as a baby boy/ Messed up his head, it even changed the way he play with toys.”

Polo G interrupts his own love songs to warn a significant other that he’s got significant mental issues, that he has a habit of detaching — something that’s obvious to anyone who ever listened to the kid’s music. Past traumas feed paranoia, and paranoia keeps him traumatized. It’s a vicious cycle: “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 overthinking can get painful/ Watch how I move, one wrong decision can be fatal.” As the album ends, Polo goes off over the sad, florid pianos of Bruce Hornsby’s “The Way It Is,” the same song that 2Pac memorably sampled on “Changes,” while BJ The Chicago Kid sings gospel harmonies. Amidst all those historic shadows and all that melodic pathos, Polo G sounds at home.

THE GOAT came into the world on the same day that Future released his album High Off Life. Future, a man who has his own history with Scottie Pippen, is the undisputed king of emotionally detached and soul-flattened sing-rap cries for help. It’s impossible to imagine Polo G existing without Future. At this point, it’s practically inevitable that High Off Life will overshadow THE GOAT, even though Future’s album is overlong and often boring. This makes sense. Polo G is a whole lot newer on the scene, and THE GOAT isn’t half the feeling-hurter that Die A Legend was. But Polo G’s music still has a quiet, destroyed intensity. I hope people notice.

FURIOUS FIVE

1. 1TakeJay – “Proud Of U”
Blueface may have transitioned into generic major-label C-list life, but the greater Los Angeles area is still exploding with snotty, energetic, disrespectful ruffians. Witness 1TakeJay, setting the tone by telling his mother to shut the fuck up and then keeping that same energy for two and a half snotty-ass minutes.

2. Future – “100 Shooters” (Feat. Meek Mill & Doe Boy)
50 million years after “Mask Off,” I still get excited when Future talks ignorant shit over renaissance-faire flutes.

3. Conway The Machine & Big Ghost LTD – “Dead Flowers”
Rap producers of the world: Please keep feeding doom-metal guitars to the Griselda guys. They know what to do with them.

4. Reason – “Pop Shit” (Feat. Schoolboy Q)
It’s always bothered me that there’s one rapper named Reason and another named Logic. It’s not just that the names are redundant; it’s that they’re too emotionally removed. I’d rather listen to a rapper named Irrationality or Obstinate Refusal To Consider The Facts or something. But I promise to stop being pedantic about that shit if Reason keeps making songs like this. (Logic is, I’m afraid, a lost cause.)

5. Preservation – “Rose Royce” (Feat. Quelle Chris)
That broken-up organ drone is such a nice place to get lost.

IT WAS ALL GOOD JUST A WEEK AGO