Polo G is dead!

“Every day a battle, I’m exhausted and I’m weary / Make sure I smile in public, when alone, my eyes teary / I fought through it all, but that shit hurt me severely.” Even acknowledging the widespread vulnerability and emotional honesty in today’s rap scene, these are still startling lyrics for a US No 1 hit. They’re written by 22-year-old Chicago rapper Polo G, and taken from Rapstar, the lead single on his new album, Hall of Fame. The track also reached No 3 in the UK in April, and his previous album The GOAT has spent 47 weeks on the UK album chart, with his brand of mournful melodic rap perhaps particularly appealing during the introspection of lockdown. A candid but tense meeting with him shows the reality of those lyrics.

His recent success means his schedule is filling to the point where our video call gets repeatedly pushed back due to flights and late-night chatshow recordings. When it does happen, the camera shows the ceiling of a car as he is driven to the bank. The disorienting whirl of album promo is taking its toll. “It’s kind of stressful: the constant ‘we need you to do this’,” he says. “But it’s just a matter of me getting back into the loop of the world opening back up.”

These are dizzying heights for the man born Taurus Tremani Bartlett in Chicago, surrounded by poverty and crime. He initially toyed with the idea of boxing or wrestling, eventually settling on music, which led him out of a period of back-to-back arrests and brief stints in jail on charges relating to drugs and car theft. “Music became therapeutic for me,” he says. “Something that I did [in] spite of everything that I was going through.” Tracks stemmed from “seeing the ups and downs of being from an impoverished neighbourhood, and just witnessing and experiencing death, witnessing and experiencing mental trauma or depression. Things of that sort were making me lean towards music.”

Using plangent guitars and pianos alongside the crisp snap of rap percussion, his lyrics often centre on violence and race in the US, and are frank about the trauma of experiencing years of hardship – he says he writes so that his fans “know that they are not alone”. Wishing for a Hero samples the instrumental from 2Pac’s Changes, and continues the spirit of the original song in addressing the struggles of his country’s poor Black population: “Stuck in the system, they just watchin’ us fail while they sittin’ back … It’s hard to get a job, so we hustle and flip a pack / It’s all a set-up, that’s why they call this bitch a trap” (the trap being somewhere drugs are sold or prepared).

Is music one of the only escapes from that system? “It can be an escape, but like …” He pauses and rolls his head to the side, looking out of the car window. “You’re figuring everything out within. You could know these things, and you could preach these things in music, but until you actually act on them you’re going to be forever trapped up in this mess. Coming up from where we coming from, having the colour skin that I do, it’s a lot of things that go against us. There’s a lot of traps that we may fall into, or that we might be privy to. It’s up to us to make up our mind one day if we gon’ keep falling for this same shit.”

Polo, who became a father at 20, has his sights set on a big picture. “I’m focused on longevity,” he says, “I’m trying to make sure that me and my momma straight, my kids’ kids straight.” That fixity comes following a rocky relationship with drugs: in 2019 Polo said that he almost died of an overdose, and the opioid crisis is visible in the lifestyle and lyrics of his contemporaries, many of whom have documented their struggles in music before being consumed by them. Lil Peep and Juice WRLD both died of drug overdoses aged 21, and in the song 21 Polo G says he took his last ever Percocet – an opioid painkiller – with Juice WRLD.

Polo is reluctant to speak on what led him to start taking drugs initially, but more forthcoming about why he wanted to stop, saying he’s “outgrowing that, and understanding that that’s not really necessary in order for me to just have a good time, or to feel good about myself, or to escape reality. It’s figuring out your own tendencies, how to go about situations differently, and [finding] better coping mechanisms, because that’s all that drugs essentially are for a lot of people”.

‘I’ve stayed true to myself’ … Polo G.
‘I’ve stayed true to myself’ … Polo G. Photograph: Daniel Prakopcyk
Success has also left Polo negotiating social and economic shifts: “We from the trenches, we moved on to the finer things,” he raps on the track Martin & Gina. Obviously money can open doors, but how much does it really help young Black men in the US who feel trapped in the system? “Money can’t change how you feel deep down inside,” he replies. “If you was a sad person before you had [money], you gon’ be a sad person with it. It’s just a stress relief [from] having to worry about paying this or taking care of this.” (A few weeks after we speak, he is arrested in Miami on charges including battery on a police officer and resisting arrest, and released on bail.)

Real relief comes from meeting simpler needs, such as feeling safe, “just being able to go outside without looking over your shoulder”, he says. “There’s probably a kid somewhere in Chicago, he’s probably eight years old, he’s just seen somebody get killed in broad daylight. There’s just a lot of stuff that goes on in the city that’s not televised, not seen and not talked about.”

The camera is still tilted awkwardly towards the car’s ceiling, and he looks at me less and less. I ask about his young son: what has he learned that he would like to pass on to him? “Just to be your own person, that’s the No 1 thing, and then just stay true to yourself,” he says flatly. Is there an example in his life that can demonstrate that? “I’ve stayed true to myself by making it out because I could still be on the block right now,” he says, sounding steadily more weary. “I wouldn’t be right here rapping, and doing this interview, if that was really what I was supposed to be doing.”

When asked if there is anything that he would like a new audience to understand about him he responds “not necessarily”, still looking out of the window. Despite him saying, in Rapstar, “when they ask if I’m OK, it just makes everything seem worse”, I can’t help myself, and ask if everything is alright. He sounds frustrated, but still polite. “I’m outside, ma’am. I’m looking at you when I get the chance to. I apologise for doing the interview in the car, but I’m just watching my surroundings. That’s just second nature.”

Hall of Fame is out now on Columbia Records

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