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Rap is in a funny place these days. 20 years ago, it might have been considered laughable to imagine singing of drug dealing, murder, and poverty so earnestly and, well, sweetly — 50 Cent and Ja Rule’s respective reigns notwithstanding. Today, though, it seems as though hip-hop is finally coming to terms with the melodic swing of the last decade, combining the rhythmic inclinations of traditionalists and the crooning of so-called Soundcloud rap to get back to something resembling the basics.
This balanced approach has been producing some truly impressive results of late as well. Take Chicago rapper Polo G and his riveting debut album, Die A Legend, released over this past weekend to a churning online buzz propelled by its inescapably catchy lead single, “Pop Out.” Polo adopts the stylistic mannerisms of other recent breakout artists like Gunna, Lil Baby, and Roddy Ricch to craft a project that still stands out thanks to Polo’s gutsy and reflective autobiographical sincerity.
The thing about “Pop Out” is that while it’s an unequivocal party banger that showcases Polo’s gift for wordplay, structure, and cadence, it barely scratches the surface of Polo’s narrative abilities. Though it contains bars like “The way that I been ballin’ should make the cover of 2K,” and the whole hook is an incredible clinic on internal rhyme, Polo is at his best when the hard shell cracks and he reveals snippets of his vulnerable center.
The melancholy, yet motivational “PST” is a prime example, summing up both the young rapper’s drive and the circumstances from which it derives. “System got the hood f*cked up, killers, crack fiends, and some Christians / Lil’ n—-, all he know is bang, only 16, on a mission,” he explains in the first verse, which bolsters the chorus’ refrain of “For my family, gotta build a legacy, I’ma be the man when I’m dead.” He’s hyper-aware of the desperation of his surroundings, but equally determined to leave them behind and bring his family with him.
That determination echoes throughout the tape on tracks like “Effortless” and “Through Da Storm.” “I come from a dark place, I’ll never be there again,” he croons on the former, while on the latter, he recollects the dangerous consequences that his reckless abandon can bring. Leading off the song with a recording of his little sister giving him a nostalgic message of encouragement, he recounts how his run-ins with the law almost cost him everything — and details how his newfound career reversed his fortunes.
The centerpiece of Die A Legend, though, is “Finer Things,” the first song he wrote for the album, which he admitted to Genius he crafted while incarcerated. In detailing the writing process for the brooding track he wonders, “How did I even end up sitting in a jail cell?” That reflective nature is what sets Polo G apart from other, similar artists and positions him as a beacon of the future for soulful but bar-heavy hip-hop. He doesn’t just talk about his pain, he examines it, he tries to understand it, and then, most importantly, he translates it in a way listeners don’t just hear, but feel. If he can maintain the same level of introspection and empathy, he’ll be well on his way to living up to his album’s title.
Die A Legend is out now via Columbia Records. Get it here.