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In the lead-up to releasing his new album, Hall Of Fame, Polo G gave an interview with Complex in which he restricted the possibility of collaboration with elite rappers like J. Cole and Kendrick Lamar to one crucial condition: his own improvement as a straightforward, bars-first spitter. Now, having heard Hall Of Fame in its entirety, I can confidently say that he was being way too modest and he’s not as far away from that upper echelon as he seems to think. In fact, the best moments on the album come when he operates in that mode more than any other.
That isn’t to say that he should shrink his focus or his drive for more mainstream, playlist-friendly hits. If anything, he shows that he has the versatility to tackle a wide range of subjects and styles — or at least, he will, with a tad bit more practice. For now, songs like “For The Love Of New York” feel out of his reach and out of place with an album that sticks mostly to Polo’s established talents: Painting pictures of his tormented, Windy City upbringing and the dreams of excavating something of value from the scenes of carnage.
That’s the rather literal note on which the album opens. “Painting Pictures” might be on the nose as a song title, but it’s also fitting, as Polo fleshes out the characters that have populated his world as a former resident of Old Town Chicago, where the infamous Cabrini-Green high-rise projects used to tower. “Lil Wooski ain’t your average teen, he see the opps, gon’ bang it out,” he rhapsodizes somberly. “They killed Lamp, he took three with him, they all know what your name about.”
But it’s not all melancholy. Polo’s circumstances are in a state of transition, which is reflected in the project’s cover. As opposed to the dark, moody cover images for Die A Legend and GOAT, the cover for Hall Of Fame is brighter, echoing the sentiments expressed on songs like “Rapstar” and “Fame & Riches” featuring Roddy Ricch. Polo is literally and figuratively moving out of a dark place in his life, trying to maintain his optimism for the future as he acknowledges the trauma and turmoil in his past (see: “No Return” with Lil Durk). But in doing so, he’s faced with a dilemma — an enviable one, to be sure, but a dilemma nonetheless.
As with many young stars on the precipice of greatness — he’s certainly set the bar high enough, with his album titles telling us exactly how he wants to be seen when all is said and done — he’s got a decision to make about how best to get there. On the one hand, if he sticks with what got him here, he can appease longtime, day-one fans, and build on their goodwill with increasingly polished craftsmanship a la heroes like Cole, Kendrick, and Lil Wayne, who Polo goes bar-for-bar with on “Gang Gang.” Like Cole and Kendrick, though, this means struggle: Struggle with meeting fans’ admittedly hazy standards for greatness; struggle with mental health and anxiety as he dwells on such traumatic material and the pressure to live up to his and fans’ expectations; struggle to connect on a commercial level.
Both Cole and Kendrick were well into the second decades of their respective careers before achieving their first No.1s. Polo already has, so there’s going to be added pressure to continue to perform, and proportional ridicule should he be perceived to decline or stall out. Fans will demand growth but will reject it if it doesn’t come on their terms. Polo’s insistence that he needs to get better at the craft before attempting to work with these elders suggests that he understands this.
However, pursuing playlist exposure and radio hits has its own dangers. As with some of the sunnier songs in this set, such pop reaches can clash with his already established image as a survivor of Chicago’s trenches. He’s managed to balance commercial viability with that image so far thanks to his breakout hit “Pop Out” and songs like “Rapstar,” but should popular trends shift even a little, he may be out of luck. He already faces criticism of his beat choices, which find him more often than not rapping in a torn legato cadence over moody pianos, but stepping out of his comfort zone means risking the ire of day-ones. Remaining in it means competing with similar acts like Rod Wave, with whom he’s wisely collaborated twice (once on Wave’s SoulFly and once here on “Heart Of A Giant”) to provide a contrast test for their respective sounds, but the lane is still rapidly filling up, and we’ve seen how quickly tastes can change within hip-hop.
Hall Of Fame positions Polo to make either of these choices well enough while also highlighting the potential danger in choosing either. It also shows that they are not mutually exclusive. He shows mastery of the pen on the upbeat tracks and mostly good instincts on the pop reaches (the Nicki Minaj feature notwithstanding). Now, I think, the important thing for him to do is put some distance between his projects — three lengthy releases in back-to-back years leave him with little life experience to speak on and expand his range of topics, which is something he’ll want to do to achieve the sort of longevity that will lead to him fulfilling his dream of making it to the hallowed halls of rap’s greatest of all time.
Hall Of Fame is out now via Columbia Records. Get it here.