It sounds like a mantra, a Zen koan: “We pop out at your party, I’m with the gang / And it’s gon’ be a robbery, so tuck your chain.”
The cadence is a mocking singsong, a playground taunt. But the voice delivering that taunt is flattened and desiccated: “I’m a killer, girl, I’m sorry / But I can’t change / We ain’t aiming for your body / Shots hit your brain.”
He’s young. That much is clear. But he’s old-soul young, been-thorough-it young: “We come from poverty, man, we ain’t have a thing / It’s a lot of animosity, but they won’t say my name.”
His words fit together intricately. They’re considered and finally sculpted, the result of real writing work. But they’re here to express a certain soul-death, a broken nihilism: “They killers rock with me / Little nigga, don’t get banged / Cuz they’ll do that job for me while I hop on a plane.”
That voice belongs to Polo G, a 20-year-old sing-rapper from Chicago’s fractious, gentrifying North Side. The song is “Pop Out,” a dark and lovely lament with a melody that rolls around and around, a wheel within a wheel. It sounds fragile. Producers Iceberg Beatz and JD On Tha Track keep it muted and depressed: music-box piano tinkles, minimal 808 bass hits and hi-hat jitters, a flute that sounds like a lost ghost wandering through the fields of purgatory. The song’s guest, the 18-year-old Bronx sing-rapper Lil Tjay, has a chirpier voice, but he’s just as destroyed: “If I told you all my charges, you won’t look at me the same / Made some choices in my life I wish I never had to make.”
Right now, “Pop Out” sits right outside the top 10 on the Billboard Hot 100. It is a genuine summer jam, a track that will pop out at your party and cause instant singalongs for a long time to come. It is also a truly sad piece of music, a work of trauma and sucked-out emptiness. It is beautiful and ugly in equal measures. If you let it, it will sink into you and pull you down to its level. Polo G knows how to do that. He does it a lot.
A week and a half ago, Polo G released Die A Legend, his remarkable debut album. At first glance, the album’s title seems like rap triumphalism, the sort of thing that Tupac Shakur might’ve barked about doing before he actually died a legend. It looks aspirational and show-offy. But when you listen to Die A Legend, it’s clear that Polo G knows that dying is a bad thing, whether or not it turns you into a legend: “These bodies keep dropping, summer cold like it’s January / When you die, they gon’ praise you, now they see that you legendary.”
Die A Legend is an album haunted by death and trauma and depression. It’s an album of night sweats and dark visions: “My homie died at 16 / I remember I was up all night, kept seeing death in my dreams.” It’s an album that mourns for the youth that Polo G never got a chance to experience: “I done got so used to funerals, can’t show no emotion.” And it’s an album of empty boasts and numbing drugs and conspicuous consumption that’s supposed to mask something that can’t be masked. Polo G tries to put a brave face on it sometimes. At one point, he says “Came a long way from depression, all these riches keep me smiling.” But he doesn’t sound like he’s a long way from depression, and he doesn’t sound like he’s smiling.
About a year ago, Polo G was in jail, arrested for stealing cars. On the North Side of Chicago, there are a lot of cars to steal. We don’t hear too much about North Side rappers. Most famous Chicago rappers come from the South or West sides — vast stretches of city with bleak statistics. But the North Side has existed in a weird state of flux for at least a generation.
My wife and I moved to Ukrainian Village, a North Side neighborhood, a decade ago. It was a nice bougie neighborhood like the nice bougie neighborhoods where we’d already lived in different cities. We had a supermarket across the street nicer than anything we’d ever seen in New York. We had a great record store, a great comic book store, a lot of great bars and restaurants. Our car got broken into a few times, but that was nothing new. Then, a year later, we were watching American Idol on a Monday night, our six-month-old daughter asleep in the next room, when a bullet smashed our window. Someone had been shot right outside the apartment. We never found out what had happened to him. The next morning, when my wife opened the blinds, the bullet was still sitting there on the windowsill, trapped between one broken pane of glass and one miraculously intact one.
I live a privileged life, one where I never had to be the guy outside my apartment. For me, the bullet was a freak scare, not a constant fact of life. All the people in Chicago — even in that seemingly bougie neighborhood — are not so lucky. The North Side was the site of the massive Cabrini Green housing-project complex, demolished in 2011. Much of Polo G’s family lived in those projects. Chicago is doing everything it can to remove all traces of Cabrini Green and the people who once called it home. In this Pitchfork interview, Polo G talks about how that gentrification has made things more difficult for his family: “They never cared about us, they was trying to lower their crime rate. They didn’t care about a solution, just how to get rid of us… It’s like you ain’t good enough to live in your own neighborhood.”
In jail for stealing cars, Polo G decided that he didn’t want to be in this situation again. So he committed himself to music. He talks about it on Die A Legend: “Sitting in that cell, I used to feel my potential wasted.” So upon his release, he recorded the viral hit “Finer Things,” crooning dissolutely over dark, florid pianos: “A lot of people dying, and it’s a chance that you might / You got God on your side, but it’s hard to do right.” More viral hits followed.
Polo G was part of a new wave of Chicago rappers — melodic and emotional young guys who sang these heavy-hearted street-life songs. That sound evolved out of drill, the spartan fight music that came out of the city in the early part of this decade. And it’s especially influenced by Lil Durk, who came up alongside drill giants like Chief Keef and King Louie but who distinguished himself by singing sweetly through Auto-Tune even as he described the same apocalyptic bleakness. Durk has begat a whole new wave of Chicago sing-rappers: Polo G, Calboy, El Hitta. Their sound can be defiant, as drill so often was. But it’s less about snarling, more about taking emotional stock of growing up in a place where death is always right there.
Calboy just released Wildboy, his own impressive debut album. Polo G is on there, trading lamentations with Calboy on “Caroline.” Another track, “Chariot,” has Calboy alongside Lil Durk, Meek Mill, and Young Thug — a sort of new-canon trio that gives some idea where these new Chicago rappers are coming from. If you were to triangulate Durk’s melodic hardness, Meek’s desperate eloquence, and Thug’s free-floating expressiveness, you might find someone like Calboy or Polo G.
But there are almost no guests on Polo G’s own Die A Legend — just Lil Tjay on the hit and Lil Baby and Gunna on the hit’s remix. The rest of the time, Polo G is all on his lonesome. By himself, he plays his lane. He can snap from hard, driven rapping to airy singing, but he has a sound. Producers like DJ Ayo give him twinkly, pretty, near-ambient beats. And over those beats, Polo G sings about lives lost and lives shattered: “Judge tryna give ‘em life, so them gang signs turn to prayer hands / I come from a dark place / I’ll never be there again,” “Life been better now, but I’m still expecting the worst / I hop in foreigns for my boys who took a ride in that hearse.” It’s a stark, overwhelmed, terribly affecting sound. It sticks with you.
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