Album of the week: Polo G – The G.O.A.T.
Part of hip hop’s appeal is the competition aspect; the battles, the boasts, the countless debates about who’s the best in the game. The 21st century (Twitter especially) has become a channel for emoji-driven opinions and fearless blanket statements regarding the highlights and lowlights of each year. Albums that are the “best of the decade” are suddenly lost in the algorithmic abyss due to over-saturation and short term memories. Lil Uzi Vert’s Eternal Atake is considered the project we need during quarantine until Westside Gunn outshines him on Pray For Paris (supposedly). Suddenly, when people reference Uzi in their social media posts, a shit emoji is attached to his name. Why? I don’t know. Maybe because someone like him doesn’t live in between the lines of tradition. Or maybe it’s because we tend to forget about what we listened too the other day so easily. It’s hard to make ageless music nowadays, mainly due to a growing number of short attention spans. It’s even harder to separate yourself from expectations.
The rappers from this particular era feel the brunt of the criticism from people of all ages. Listeners will praise Westside Gunn over Uzi because the former works with DJ Premier and The Alchemist. He’s rooted in traditional 90s boom-bap while Uzi performs at the beat of his own drum (and works with underground Soundcloud legends like Working On Dying). Fans fucked with Lil Yachty for an entire summer until he apparently said Biggie was a tad overrated. Now people look at him as a joke. Social media culture loves to put the past on a pedestal without realizing how forward-thinking and eccentric a lot of this new crop is. Don’t ever forget where the genre started, but please don’t use the early days as a blueprint for everyone else; because not every artist gives a shit.
Much of Polo G’s allure comes from his ability to move cautiously around this type of bullshit without ever buying into it. Everything about his overall persona is generally mysterious aside from the vivid straightforwardness found in his music. Hip hop twitter doesn’t express as much interest in his aurora because he doesn’t offer much in the way of outgoing charisma. He also doesn’t receive legendary cosigns. His music is unapologetically his own (his first album basically had no features at all).
You can count on one hand how many rappers can keep themselves secluded from the public eye without constant debate. Even Kendrick and Frank-two artists who generally turn a blind eye to the public-are too popular for people not to talk about them on a daily basis.
Polo may never find himself in the midst of mainstream debates because that doesn’t matter to him or anyone who genuinely cares about his music. Aside from Pitchfork and many underground music blogs, Die A Legend fell outside of the casual fan’s purview. I don’t know why. It was clearly one of the most ageless records of 2019. Maybe it’s because people didn’t realize “Pop Out” was a blatant outlier to the actual poignancy found inside his cracked melodies and tragic personal narratives. Maybe it’s because he worked with Lil Tjay, a rapper who still hasn’t garnered respect amongst the traditional New York crowd (someone on Call of Duty the other day ranted about how much he sucked-I’m a fan of his but the conversation was pretty entertaining). Maybe it’s because he comes from Chicago’s drill scene, and most listeners find the sub-genre to be dangerously exploitative and one-dimensional (I am not one of this people).
Polo G is traditional in the sense that he reports what he sees and experiences, but I also consider him to be a breath of fresh air. His second official album (and second bold title) The G.O.A.T. continues his streak of piano-heavy heartache mixed with bare 808s that are rooted in that classic drill. His newfound fame has him stuck in real-life purgatory, where demons circulate his headspace while money piles up on his newly-minted bed sheets. “I’m getting money but I’m still hurting, that’s why I’m bipolar” he sorrowfully spits on “Relentless.” He embodies the emptiness of materialism. The Benz may be in motion, but so are his nightmares that haven’t left in years. He dedicates his ice to the homies he’s lost. He’s a selfless motherfucker.
The best thing one could do with a career in music is be themselves. Polo only subtly puts himself on a pedestal through his project titles and occasional one or two comparisons (“GOAT-ed like Pac, go from a gangster to an activist”). His greatest attribute is a genuine personality. His words pierce your mind and soul more than any Metro Boomin drum or Kanye West sample. He raps as if on the verge of tears, which in turn affects my tear ducts in the process. To me, “I Know” is the most perfect song of 2020 because it encapsulates every living and breathing emotion. The guitar is as lush as any on the album, Polo’s words are as nostalgic and vulnerable as ever before-“By his auntie he was molested as baby boy/Messed up in the head, even changed the way he played with toys.” He offers explanations for his neighborhood’s trauma, and how it normally leads to unwarranted violence. He’s stating the origin of male insecurity found in people only he knew.
The producer list this time around is electric, but you wouldn’t know because every one of them sacrifices their normal style for Polo’s own vision. Murda Beats makes his most skeletal beat to date on “Beautiful Pain (Losing My Mind),” Mustard retires the bouncy percussion found in Greedo and Roddy Rich’s music for a solemn flute passage on “Heartless.” Tay Keith and Mike Will had to go harder than ever for “Go Stupid.” This is the subtle respect Polo rightfully deserves. Having these guys adapt to his message is also a testament to Polo’s growing impact.
Much like Polo’s first effort, The G.O.A.T. begs listeners to be in a particular headspace, one that provides empathy and a stark attentiveness to the stories at hand. While hopelessness radiated throughout Die A Legend, Polo’s latest album features some semblance of optimism. It’s refreshing to hear a beautiful love song like “Martin & Gina,” and it’s even better that it paints the woman in focus as more than just an object. Much like the rest of his topics he discusses, Polo approaches love with great care and accountability. He doesn’t chase girls, he just looks for the right one who can balance out his pain and administer some sort of catharsis.
The title of this project is misleading because many who haven’t formally listened to his music may find his proclamation to be eye-rolling. The content is far removed from his swagged-out artwork. If anything, he’s simply playing a caricature to mock the competition. If he actually did care about that title, his album would reflect it. But to Polo, life is deeper than that, a sentiment he portrays on the intro “Don’t Believe the Hype.” If anyone questions his actual rapping ability, just listen to “Wishing On a Hero,” a tasteful re-imagining of Tupac’s “Changes.” The systemic racism and cold-bloodedness found within his neighborhood will always permeate without some type of heartfelt discussion. The song is a perfect summary of what he values as a young 21-year-old; the idea of bettering himself, the community, and the country at large. That’s a lot of pressure to put on someone of that age, but unfortunately, as him and BJ the Chicago Kid so effortlessly point out on the finale, that’s just the way it is.
Polo will soon reach the upper echelon of rap’s historical hierarchy. But again, that shit doesn’t matter. Polo G makes music that disregards any ridiculous Twitter debate. You couldn’t fit his universal message into one simple emoji, nor could you describe it in the context of some nonsensical comparison post. This is what timeless music looks like. I’m so happy there’s still a place for beautiful drill music. I’m even happier that Polo G exists.
Some other Tracks To Check Out
Van Buren Records – “Mo in the Benz”
Shoutout to Van Buren Records for continuing to make Massachusetts residents like myself proud. Every one of them has released a substantial album over the past two years. When they’re together, they’re just as unstoppable. They’ve really helped me through these tough times.
Sheff G – “2nd Intro”
Between last year’s The Unluccy Luccy Kid and this new album One And Only, Sheff G has proven that Brooklyn drill can enter unparalleled directions. His subtle accent is unique and emotionally paired down to its barest of bones. Him and local producer Great John (who produces all of this basically) continue their under appreciated run as a perfect artist duo. This type of music shouldn’t feel so heavenly, especially when you hear the lyrics. But it does thanks to a chipmunk choir harmonizing in the background of the intro’s instrumental. Sheff shows great improvement as a rapper too, using anecdotal one-liners to hit listeners right in the chest.
IDK & YungManny (Rico Nasty, Big Flock, Big JAM and Weensey) – “495”
IDK’s newest album Is He Real? didn’t impress me as much as most people because I felt like the religious elements weren’t as fleshed out as they probably should’ve been. I do think he’s a talented artist though and has a boat load of potential; some of which is emphatically demonstrated on this incredible posse cut from some of the DMV’s finest young up-and-comers. Juicy J continues to showcase his production chops, adding that signature Memphis flavor found normally in Megan The Stallion bangers. The intermixing of regions goes over well thanks to each rapper’s unique personality. To me though, it’s YungManny’s charm and Rico Nasty’s signature punk-rap aesthetic that really takes this track to a whole other stratosphere.
Apparently the song is going to be featured in a new documentary from Kevin Durant called “Basketball Count: In the Water.” The doc is supposed to highlight the best basketball players from KD’s hometown, but I hope it also highlights some of the rising rap talent from the DMV, because there’s a lot.
Kent Loon (feat. Chester Watson) – “Rax”
South Florida rapper Kent Loon and POW Recordings’ signee Chester Watson collaborate for a succulent piece of music that may or may not cause involuntary hip-swaying. Watson takes the producer reigns and implements a churning horn riff to complement Loon’s alluring rumble. My only critique is I wish it were longer. That beat is so infectious.
UnotheActivist – “Inches”
Uno is usually associated with Playboi Carti’s singular riffing, but I hear a lot of Thug influence on this one. The song is just as catchy as ever though. Uno can glide over any Pierre-style beat with the suave of a silk sheet that Drake most likely sleeps on.