Polo G Climbs The Mountain
It’s not that hard to get a #1 single right now. I mean, you can’t do it. I can’t do it. But a reasonably famous and popular artist with a smart marketing team can probably do it, if everything lines up right. At this point, the pop charts are oriented around streaming numbers and first-week rushes of interest. If a song has a flashy-enough arrival — if it pairs up a couple of famous artists, or has an eye-catching video or a well-publicized backstory — then that song might make it to #1. 6ix9ine got a #1 single by teaming up with Nicki Minaj and by being the loudest, most obnoxious person in the room. Lil Nas X got a second #1 single by seducing and decapitating Satan in the video. Travis Scott has repeatedly hit #1 through feats of marketing voodoo that I don’t even understand. A lot of the time, these songs debut at #1 and then immediately disappear from the top 10. They don’t necessarily have to be hits. The real question is whether a song can keep the #1 spot for a second week. Polo G did it. Polo G made a hit.
The first time I heard “Rapstar,” the song that effectively established Polo G’s superstar status, my initial thought was: This? “Rapstar” is a perfectly solid song with a couple of really nice moments, but it seems fairly replacement-level for Polo, an artist who makes intricate depressive sing-rap sound second-nature. Polo emerged out of Chicago’s drill landscape a couple of years ago, but his sound is built on simple, mournful beats. He likes to bounce his voice off of a single melodic element in the beat — a filigreed acoustic-guitar line, say, or a tinkly piano figure. On “Rapstar,” it’s a soft, murmuring ukulele figure. Polo wraps his voice around that, alternately flexing and lamenting. He spends some of the song talking cold shit: “Only bitch I give a conversation to is Siri.” Most of the time, though, he’s staring into the void, wondering why newfound stardom hasn’t made him feel good yet: “Anxiety killing me, I just want to leave Earth/ When they ask if I’m OK, it just make everything seem worse/ Try and explain your feelings, sound like something you rehearsed.”
That’s good writing, but that’s just what Polo G does. Polo’s 2019 debut album Die A Legend was an instant classic, my favorite rap album of that year. On Die A Legend, Polo showed up fully formed, eloquently and floridly processing trauma through singsong nursery-rhyme melody. The hypnotic single “Pop Out” was an out-of-nowhere crossover hit; it peaked at #11 and held steady as Polo’s biggest hit until “Rapstar.” But Polo didn’t arrive with a larger-than-life persona or backstory. Instead, he came off a bit like a latter-day Chicago version of Nas, not in style or approach but in presentation and subject matter. Like early Nas, the Polo of Die A Legend was the quiet, sensitive, eloquent kid in the corner — the one who’s only peripherally involved in street business but who’s still seen enough dark things to leave him scarred.
When Polo released his sophomore album The GOAT last year, it was a little less focused or resonant than Die A Legend. The album was still solid, but I worried that Polo had rushed things and diluted his gift, that he’d put himself in a position to get lost in the shuffle. Shows what I know. The GOAT didn’t have a hit anywhere near as big as “Pop Out,” but the album still went platinum and hung around the charts. While Polo was promoting the album mid-pandemic, he half-accidentally landed on his biggest hit.
In 2018, the same year he uploaded his first songs to SoundCloud and signed his deal, Polo G met Einer Bankz. Bankz is a Swiss-born producer and multi-instrumentalist who carved himself out a lane as a guy who played ukulele in videos with rappers. This was his whole gimmick. Wearing enormous shorts and looking very red-faced, Bankz would plunk away at his tiny little instrument while Roddy Ricch or Lil Tjay or DaBaby or whoever rapped next to him. Those videos routinely went lightly viral, and Bankz got production jobs, making tracks for people like 21 Savage and Lil Durk. (Bankz to Complex: “I did this with a ukulele. Fuck. You can’t really tell me shit about what I can’t do.” I can’t argue!) Before Polo released Die A Legend, an A&R person connected him to Bankz, and the two made a video for Polo’s early YouTube hit “Battle Cry.” Both of them liked how it turned out, so they kept making videos together.
My friend Chris Molanphy tells the whole story in his Slate column about #1 hits: About a year ago, Bankz was at Polo’s house while Polo was finishing up a long day of interviews and promotional videos. During a quiet moment, Bankz was noodling on his ukulele, and Polo liked what he heard. Polo has said that he’d had a verse for a while but hadn’t figured out what to do with it. He told Bankz to play the riff he’d been playing, and he rapped the first verse of what would become “Rapstar.” Bankz says that Polo did it in one take. I’m always a little suspicious of pat narratives like this one, especially when they lead to the sort of mega-virality that feels planned. But that’s the story they’re giving, and anyway, that verse went mega-viral in the sort of way that can’t be planned, at least not fully.
That early version of “Rapstar,” which didn’t have a title for months, circulated across all the usual social-media platforms. People made their own beats for it. It soundtracked tens of thousands of TikTok videos. As the album cycle for The GOAT died down, Polo released a few more one-off singles, and most of them went nowhere, even though some of them are really good. (“GNF (OKOKOK),” where Polo leaves the melody alone and goes full drill firebreather, is hard.) Finally, Polo decided that it was time to make that acoustic-freestyle thing into a song. Bankz re-recorded his ukulele loop, without the bum notes this time. Synco, a Bay Area rap producer who’s made beats for people like Blueface and ShittyBoyz BabyTron, put drums on it. Polo came up with another verse, and the half-song became a whole song. “Rapstar” got a precise rollout, with an early teaser and an elaborate video. Polo interrupted the plans for his next album to give “Rapstar” a big release, supposedly going up against his management to make it happen. It all paid off.
You can’t get a #1 hit without perfect timing. That’s been true throughout pop history, and it’s especially true now, when major artists seem to go out of their way not to step on each other’s toes with their big streaming-single releases. Polo G primed his fanbase for “Rapstar,” and anticipation for the song’s release built up for nearly a year. To me, “Rapstar” seems like a slight song. In its beat and its title, it’s a little too close to DaBaby and Roddy Ricch’s 2020 smash “Rockstar,” which was too close to Post Malone’s 2017 smash “Rockstar.” But “Rapstar” still represents something bigger than “Rapstar” itself. It’s the moment that Polo G won.
With “Rapstar,” Polo G is the first person to come out of the Chicago drill underground and to go all the way to #1. Polo’s also the first Chicago rapper with a #1 hit since Chance The Rapper was on that DJ Khaled song in 2017, and he’s the first solo Chicago rapper with a #1 hit since Kanye West made “Stronger” in 2007. Thus far, eight songs have reached #1 in 2021. Only two of them, “Rapstar” and Olivia Rodrigo’s dominant smash “Drivers License,” have held the spot for more than a week. Some serious planning and marketing savvy went into Polo’s big moment, but he got there without any craven hit-chasing musical choices. He got there without changing his musical style or his writerly viewpoint. He didn’t even have to lighten up. It’s a pretty amazing achievement.
“Rapstar” is no longer the #1 song in America. This week, the Weeknd added his old collaborator Ariana Grande to a remix of “Save Your Tears,” and the song became the umpteenth #1 hit for both the Weeknd and Grande. “Rapstar” tumbled to #4 — down below Silk Sonic’s “Leave The Door Open” and Justin Bieber’s “Peaches,” the two songs that seem like they’re going to pull a Post Malone and stay in the top five forever. But Polo’s achievement stands. I’ll be fascinated to see where he goes from here.
In July, Polo G will play Miami’s Rolling Loud festival. He’s nowhere near headliner status. On the festival’s poster, Polo is in the second line of Saturday performers, tucked all the way at the end. Swae Lee and Don Toliver and Nav are all listed above Polo. Polo is in the same spot on the poster as the Kid Laroi on Friday and as $uicideboy$ on Sunday. This seems disrespectful. (Polo is, however, listed several spots above drill founding father Chief Keef, which also seems disrespectful.) But I understand why Polo’s not up at the top. Rolling Loud is a festival for sweaty-guy push-pits and turn-up anthems. Polo G doesn’t really make those. He makes interior music. Even after a hit like “Rapstar,” can you make interior music and keep your rap-star status?
Polo G is a versatile and gifted rapper, and he’s said that his forthcoming album will expand on his sound: “I’ve got something that somebody from any type or facet of life could pull from on this project. If you don’t like the standard pain, melodic rap, I’ve got something that’s going to turn you up, too. I’ve got all types of shit for somebody to fuck with.” But the fact that Polo doesn’t do all that stuff — that he doesn’t carry himself like a brand — is a huge part of what I like about him. Polo has gravitas, which isn’t something I can say about too many other rappers of his micro-generation. On the other hand, as much as I love his music, I could probably walk past Polo G on the street without recognizing him. That, I imagine, is a problem. Polo has made it to #1. In the months ahead, we’ll see what he does to stay there.
1. Big Jade – “Dem Girlz” (Feat. Erika Banks & BeatKing)
I know it’s cheap to keep running back the beats from early-’00s Southern rap hits. I know that I’m showing off how washed I am when I talk about it. But I’m not sick of it. If this little mini-trend means I get to hear the beat from David Banner and Lil Flip’s “Like A Pimp” on a new song in 2021, then I’m good with it. This one gets bonus points for Erica Banks tearing the track to pieces while wearing Harley Davidson leggings, which is not a thing that I’ve seen before.
2. ALLBLACK – “10 Toes” (Feat. E-40 & G-Eazy)
I like to make fun of G-Eazy, but shout out to Gerald for transitioning from a period of brief and terrifying pop stardom to utility-player duties on Bay Area slaps. Gerald is the worst thing on this song, but how’s he supposed to compete with Earl talking about getting fetti since caveman piss?
3. Yungmorpheus & Eyedress – “Candyman/Four Week Cure”
Yungmorpheus, raised in Florida and based in LA, is part of that whole Pink Siifu/Mavi lo-fi rap school. But on this welded-together double-single collaboration with the Filipino producer Eyedress, he evokes the psychedelic stagger of the early-’00s underground — a more concrete sound than what most of his peers are bringing. I like it.
4. OMB JayDee – “Subliminals”
This guy just fucking charbroiled Fivio Foreign’s soul for the crime of being thirty-plus, and I love it even though I’m forty-plus.
5. Tr3 Black – “Real Quick” (Feat. WB Nutty, Los, & Rio Da Yung OG)
If the Michigan rap underground is going to take things to the next level, it doesn’t necessarily need Lil Yachty, although Yachty’s patronage is cool. It’s going to need hooks. It’s going to need songs like this.