Polo G Made A Classic
The rap albums that stick with me the most — the ones that really impress me — aren’t always the ones that push the genre forward. Just as often, they’re the albums that take the sounds of the moment and execute those sounds about as well as they can be executed. Those albums deal with all the same limitations that all big centrist rap albums deal with — the pandering singles, the of-the-moment guests, the all-over-the-map stylistic shifts — and they still find ways to resonate. I’m talking about Life After Death. Capital Punishment. Vol. 3: The Life & Times Of S. Carter. Let’s Get It: Thug Motivation 101. Tha Carter 2. Teflon Don. Pluto. My Krazy Life. SremmLife. Culture. Invasion Of Privacy. Drip Harder. Polo G’s Hall Of Fame is one of those.
You can quibble with every last one of those albums I just named. You can talk about their commercial compromises, their overstuffed guest lists, their straight-up pop moments. You can compare them to any number of underground rap albums, or even to any number of more prestige-oriented mainstream rap albums. In most cases, you could say that those albums I named are inferior to relatively focused and intense albums or mixtapes from the same artists. In some of those cases, you wouldn’t be wrong. But I love seeing someone take mainstream rap on its own terms and then own it. It’s the difference between a great arthouse film and a great blockbuster movie. Both are important. Both will enrich your life. But one of them is walking a higher wire, working with a higher degree of difficulty. If an artist can meet the public on the public’s own terms and still make something powerful, then that artist has really accomplished something.
It’s pretty amazing that Polo G has made it this far. Last month, after Polo’s single “Rapstar” debuted at #1, I wrote about how strange it was that this fundamentally inward-looking young rapper had captured enough of an audience to ascent do the genre’s A-list. When Polo debuted with his album Die A Legend two years ago, he made dark and hypnotic and emotional music, music that spoke the language of mainstream rap but only seemed to address one corner of it. Polo was a solitary figure, a loner trying to process his own trauma through twistily complicated flows and through singsong incantations. His single “Pop Out” became a crossover hit, but the rest of the album didn’t chase that audience. I loved it.
I don’t think Hall Of Fame is a better album than Die A Legend, but I do think that Hall Of Fame is the best album that Polo G could’ve made right now, after ascending to stardom and landing his first #1. Polo has never carried himself as a brand, which is the kind of thing that big rap stars generally have to do these days. He comes off shy and humble and sad even when he’s talking tough, which he does often. (Polo loves coming up with new ways to talk about shooting someone.) After “Rapstar” hit #1, Polo said in interviews that he had different styles of music on his new album, that he had tracks for people who wouldn’t be into melodic soul-ventings. I worried about that. Hall Of Fame veers all around the different corners of circa-2021 mainstream rap, which is a dangerous aesthetic path to tread. But Polo pulls it off, and he makes it all sound natural, without ever compromising the central persona that he’s been presenting from day one.
Hall Of Fame has party songs. It has love songs. It has forbidding street-rap snarls. It has all the pre-release singles, which were hit-or-miss in the moment but which work better in the context of a full album. Hall Of Fame also has the same collection of guests that you’d expect to hear on just about every other event-rap project of 2021. But the album feels different. In between Die A Legend and Hall Of Fame, Polo G released The GOAT, a transitional album that attempted to translate the insular power of the first album to something bigger. The album was good, but it didn’t have the same kind of focus or assurance. It felt rushed. Hall Of Fame does not. The new album is Polo leveling up, finding ways to stick with his instincts even as he’s satisfying all the demands of his various major-label A&R people.
You can hear that strategy at work on “Rapstar,” where the sprightly little ukulele riff doesn’t stop Polo from getting heavy: “Anxiety killin’ 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.” Polo brings that same vulnerability when he’s talking about relationship troubles or friends who were killed in the streets. He talks real shit even when he could get away with sleepwalking. There are lyrical moments all through Hall Of Fame that’ll stick with me: “I’m fakin’ smiles, I’m hurt inside, can’t let my fans see/ They hear me talkin’, but I don’t think they understand me.” There are moments that are wild and objectionable but still full of feeling: “Tired of being heartbroke/ Numb to the pain, he let his heart go/ Posted on the strip, selling Demi Lovato.” There are profoundly sad moments, like the one where Polo addresses a dead friend: “Ain’t see you in so long, it’s like your voice is slowly fadin’ out.”
One of the strengths of Hall Of Fame is that Polo understands how his voice works, what kinds of tracks suit him best. Only a few big-name producers appear on Hall Of Fame. Polo doesn’t chase sounds. Instead, he finds the sounds that suit him. Hall Of Fame is full of pianos, acoustic guitars, and low synth tones — soft and pretty and unshowy beats that give Polo plenty of room to find melodies. His voice dominates. Even on a song like the self-explanatory DaBaby collab “Party Lyfe,” Polo keeps his voice raw, and he raps over a guitar’s bluesy murmurs. Even on the few musical departures on the album — the shimmering reggaeton drums of the Nicki Minaj collab “For The Love Of New York,” the seething London/Brooklyn drill stutters of “Clueless” — Polo still sounds like himself.
It helps that all the guest-stars on Hall Of Fame bring their A-game. That’s smart on their part. Polo habitually makes people look stupid, and none of the people on this album want to look stupid. Lil Wayne goes crazy on “Gang Gang.” G Herbo breathes fire on “Go Part 1.” Rod Wave is gentle and graceful on “Heart Of A Giant.” DaBaby and Young Thug and Roddy Ricch, all of whom are stretched thin and overexposed and prone to autopilot these days, sound present and invested. Even the Kid Laroi sounds pretty good delivering the hook on “No Return.” And when the late Pop Smoke shows up on “Clueless,” he’s rapping about being in downtown Chicago with Polo. It’s not some leftover verse being sold off to the highest bidder. It’s Pop tailoring his appearance to an artist who he clearly admired.
But for all those big-tent moments, Hall Of Fame hits hardest when Polo is focusing on his own demons and losses: “Remember every line from that obituary poetry.” Polo says that he’s a creature of his environment, that he can sense danger when it’s there. Even as his career is exploding, Polo still faces plenty of dangers. Late on Friday night, leaving his own album-release party in Miami, Polo was arrested, with police giving a made-up-sounding story about how Polo was beating up a cop after a traffic stop. When Polo sings about the things plaguing him, he doesn’t have to reach too far back in his past. Hall Of Fame ends with “Bloody Canvas,” a breathless and finely observed story-song about a group of young men who end up dead or in prison. On a track like that one, Polo still sounds raw and hungry and urgent. He’s a star now, but he hasn’t lost that.
When Polo called his debut album Die A Legend, that title seemed like a grandiose claim. It’s not grandiose anymore. Hall Of Fame is the work of someone navigating the pitfalls of the industry and still making something truly special. Polo G is 22 years old and very much alive, but he’s already a legend.
1. Juicy J – “Take It” (Feat. Rico Nasty & Lord Infamous)
That classic Three 6 underground style still refuses to age, and so does Juicy J himself. Also of note: The late Lord Infamous says that he’ll steal your blood type so they can’t transfuse it.
2. Benny The Butcher & Harry Fraud – “Sink”
Even when Benny reflects on his own come-up, he still sounds pissed-off and sad. He’s good at sounding pissed-off and sad.
3. Your Old Droog – “Madson Ave”
You can’t be a real New Yorker unless you’re completely disgusted with New York at least 85% of the time, which means “Madson Ave” is one of the most New York songs I’ve heard in a while. That 88 Keys loop is lovely.
4. BabyTron – “Jugg Messiah 3”
“If you ain’t looking for the checkmate, you ain’t thinking right. Every move you take be an L, you must be the knight.” “My bitch working magic with the Visas, she know witchcraft.” “Thought he heard a T-rex. That’s the engine revving, goofy.” “Real shit talker, think I need a hundred Tic Tacs.” Magnificent.
5. Pi’erre Bourne – “Sossboy 2” (Feat. Lil Uzi Vert)
Pi’erre Bourne was always a great producer. Did he somehow become a good rapper, too? Did he just outrap Uzi? This could be an issue.