Polo G Shouldn’t Be This Good At Expressing Trauma On ‘The GOAT’

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When Polo G named his debut album Die A Legend, he put his grand intentions on Front Street. The cathartic introduction was a commercial and cultural success, solidifying him as a name to watch and putting him on track to join Chicago’s legendary rap lineage. For his sophomore effort, he hammered his foot on the gas even more by deeming himself The GOAT.

A great artist is but a testament to the impact of their predecessors. During Polo’s adolescence, Chicago artists like Chief Keef and Lil Durk helped push the boundaries of what hip-hop could sound like. Polo’s cathartic, melodic album demonstrates two things: how much Chicago’s 2010s GOATs inspired him, and how capable he is of taking the baton as the mouthpiece for a new generation of teens and 20-somethings.

The production is handled by a star-studded cast, including Mike Will-Made It (“Go Stupid”), Mustard (“Heartless”), Hit-Boy (“Flex”), and Tay Keith (“Go Stupid”). There’s a different producer on each of the project’s 16 songs, but to Polo’s credit, the project is a cohesive soundscape of downtempo, oft-piano laden tracks which are apt for him to rattle off his trademark sing-songy flow.

Remnants of G Herbo and Lil Bibby’s astute lyricism and poignancy permeate tracks like “Don’t Believe The Hype” and the BJ The Chicago Kid-featuring “Wishing For A Hero,” the album’s Tupac-inspired closer. Chief Keef and Lil Durk’s knack for melody is evident all over the project, especially on “Flex,” featuring a posthumous appearance from Juice WRLD. Both artists float over Hit-Boy’s quaking production, as Polo hits pockets with such ease that a listener could see him churning out similar earworms for the rest of the 2020s.

Of course, one could have said the same thing for Juice WRLD before his tragic death last December. It’s eerily fitting that Juice WRLD is on the album. If one ever wanted to know how real Polo’s peril is, it’s exemplified by Juice having one of the best guest verses on the album — and a tribute song two tracks later. Juice’s appearance elucidates two of the album’s major themes: grief and the corrosive consequences of trauma.

On “21” Polo figuratively speaks to the sky to tell Juice, “We was tweakin’ off them Percs, I popped my last one with you,” on a track where he also notes, “I was in the trenches, tryna see a life beyond that / ‘Cause complacent n****s usually die up in they complex.” The track is a quintessential example of the squeezed-between-the-sides survivor’s guilt and moral excavation that frames The GOAT.

It’s squarely evident that Polo G is a gifted MC, capable of harmonizing or tearing through verses as he does on “Go Stupid” with NLE Choppa and Stunna 4 Vegas. “Martin & Gina” and “Beautiful Pain (Losin My Mind)” even demonstrate an ability to talk about romance beyond the genre’s crass, misogynistic norms.

But what’s also glaring is how inexorably the Chicago streets have framed Polo’s worldview. He matter of factly states, “’Too much madness in this world, shit got me fiendin’ for pills” on “Trials And Tribulations.” Seemingly every song on the project is shackled by the specter of death. His generally easygoing delivery belies the bare grimness of lines like “he f*cked up in the head, he wanna see some more brains” from “Heartless’” or “they been killin’ legends, I refuse to put my pole up” on “Chinatown.”

On “DND” he plays both sides of the coin. He salutes that his shooters “hawk sh*t down ’til you get tired of runnin’,” but in the very same rhyme scheme laments, “I dressed up for too many funerals, I’m tired of comin’.” That dissonance reflects his youth, but undermines the album’s potential. His ability to encapsulate his pain (and that of his peers) is so compelling that idle threats and empty boasts about sexual conquests feel like wasted bars, even if it’s understandable that he’s trying to reach a demographic accustomed to such. He can definitely fit on a song with any of his gun-toting, menacing peers, but he shows potential to be so much more. Consider how much he says in the opening verse of “Relentless”:

“White folks starin’ like I don’t belong
What about them nights I had to suffer?
Like they tryna make me feel insecure about my color
Ever since I made a play, been tryna educate my brothers
Heaven ain’t the only way we can escape up out the gutter
And I been through so much that it be hard to say I love her”

It would have been intriguing to see him explore more elements of race as a young Black male, how to “escape up out the gutter,” and even how his trauma informs his vulnerability — or lack thereof — with women. But at 21, he’s still trying to find those answers for himself. On the second verse of “I Know,” he shows a willingness to speak on taboo topics, exploring a young boy’s molestation by his Aunt and linking that trauma to a desire to “stand over a n****, leave his face destroyed.” And on “Wishing For A Hero,” one of the album’s finest moments, he channels Tupac’s social agency while appraising a bankrupt system over a modern redux of his “Changes” classic. 20 years later, his conclusion is like Pac’s: “Some things’ll never change.”

From Meek Mill to G-Herbo to Lil Baby, who provided a perfect change of pace on The GOAT’s “Be Something,” so many young artists are being forthright about how systemic inequality stokes trauma. Polo’s The GOAT is one of the strongest entries in a canon that probably shouldn’t exist. Polo is way too adept at communicating what trauma looks like in underserved areas, and The GOAT reflects that bittersweet gift. Hopefully, with more life experience, he can evolve into his full greatness and balance his lyrical gifts with more exploration of what healing looks like.

The GOAT is out now on Columbia Records. Get it here.