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Pandemic P: Polo G Became A Star During Quarantine

Backseat Freestyle
Pandemic P: Polo G Became A Star During Quarantine
By Jayson Rodriguez • Issue #24 • View online
Welcome to Backseat Freestyle. This is my weekly hip-hop newsletter that I send out every Friday focusing on one big thing that happened over the past seven days. I also include links to what I’ve been listening to, reading and watching. If you’re a subscriber, thank you for your continued support. If you’re arriving to this issue by way of forward, LinkedIn or social media, please subscribe below. With that said, let’s get into it….

Polo G // Credit: Daniel Prakopcyk (@daniel)
Polo G // Credit: Daniel Prakopcyk (@daniel)
Front Seat
This is what’s driving hip-hop this week….
IF YOU’RE LIKE ME, your head is spinning from the sheer volume of festival and tour announcements arriving on the daily. A sure sign as any that things are opening back up at a blistering pace. I touched on that two issues ago, but I wanted to put a coda on that now that full swing is on the horizon. Last week (in which I skipped an issue), the first major showdown of the year commenced, with new releases between Migos and Polo G. While the Atlanta trio are entrenched in culture, it was the ascendant Chicago rapper who topped the charts this week. What was a surprise to many, shouldn’t have been. During the pandemic, Polo G transformed into a star before our very (homebound) eyes. Here’s how he did it. But, with the caveat that he’ll have to shore up one weakness that was hidden during quarantine if he’s to reach to superstar status: performing.
Back Seat
Respect my mind or die from lead shower.
WAY BACK IN EARLY 2019, before the panini, when going outside was a regular activity, two labels, Columbia and Def Jam, were vying for attention by introducing new signing classes to the masses. The former used the Undisputed banner to usher in some 20-plus rappers to the forefront, although their most successful upstarts from that campaign became singer YK Osiris (and DaniLeigh, who wasn’t featured but was a rookie on the roster nonetheless). The latter, on the other hand, pushed a more concentrated effort via The Draft, which saw Lil TJay, Polo G and Yung Bleu make their primetime debuts. 
On February 28th, each company staked their claim. 
Def Jam received a glowing Billboard cover story touting Undisputed as its plan to “Reclaim Its Hip-Hop Crown.”
Meanwhile, on that same date, Columbia held their Draft showcase at Sony Hall. 
At the time, I was employed at Vevo, and we rolled crew thick to the Draft concert. 
Outside of the venue, I saw my lawyer, who also represented Polo G and he praised his client and told me I should pay attention to the Chicago rapper. Inside, I saw one of Lil Tjay’s managers, a friend, and he tipped me off about what to expect from his artist. I knew less about Young Bleu, at the time, but after making a lap around inside label folks delivered his pitch. 
Polo G’s music was more contemplative and included a touch of introspection that was hopeful despite many of his songs being entrenched with a grim fate.
Based on what I knew before that night and what I gathered from inside, my attention was drawn to Lil Tjay. He had a local buzz going for him in the city, plus “Pop Out,” which he featured on with Polo G, had just been released. He didn’t disappoint. On stage he was charismatic, bouncing with energy and as a Harlem native he already had an in with the audience yet won them over regardless. (In an ironic twist, YK Osiris, who was also in attendance, bounded on stage for a cameo and nearly stole the entire evening.)
Before TJay’s set, Polo G performed and his sincerity won him buy-in from the crowd even if his show wasn’t nearly as strong as everyone else that night. For me, the night was a smashing success for Columbia all around, however, I walked away most impressed with Polo G (and immediately pressed to make him a Vevo Dscvr artist). Tjay and Bleu were easy to root for, the runway was right in front of them to take off. 
Polo G was different. His music was more contemplative and included a touch of introspection that was hopeful despite many of his songs being entrenched with a grim fate. But could he carry that same measure in his songs and be entertaining while performing them? It was a question many had leaving Sony Hall that night. 
Before an answer could arrive “Pop Out” took off. Like, really took off. 
Threatening, more up tempo and balanced out by Polo’s smooth delivery and Tjay’s energetic taunts, the record became a streaming juggernaut and later a radio smash. The kind that necessitates a star-studded remix. Lil Baby and Gunna were recruited to extend the record’s long shelf life. 
It was the type of life-changing record every artist craves, save for maybe Polo G. 
His debut, Die A Legend, was released on June 7, 2019 and was praised in reviews; Stereogum called it “remarkable” and said it was a “beautifully crafted blend of honesty and tragedy.” “Pop Out” redux it was not. But he had arrived, with the imprint of a rapper who had a deft take on life and loss. 
A not-so-funny thing happened on the way to releasing his sophomore album. Two months before the May retail date for The Goat, the world was shut down under the auspices of a global pandemic courtesy of Covid-19. For the foreseeable future, we would all be homebound. Some artists chose to push their album release and others instead pushed ahead. 
Rather than rest on his laurels and perhaps as a way to further bolster his stock before everything opens back up, Polo G is back with a new project.
Polo G was among the latter. His The Goat album arrived and was insteadly hailed. It was among my favorite albums of 2020. “Heartless” was his priority record; produced by Mustard, it was a slow-burning, story-telling number where Polo G painted an opaque picture of Northside Chicago youths. He was all of 21-years-old telling this tale. 
“Flex,” “21,” and “Relentless” were among the many tracks to take this restrained approach. It worked. And without the need to move fans’ feet at clubs, concerts or festivals, he was able to fill their minds with deeply-moving songs amidst the country trying to reconcile the conditions that led to the conditions Polo G often rapped about. He met the moment with the right (beautifully, crafted) material. 
Rather than rest on his laurels and perhaps as a way to further bolster his stock before everything opens back up, Polo G is back with a new project just a year later with Hall of Fame
The album continues his ghetto gospel and primed with the attention stardom begets, he’ll now have more good will as he looks to move past the curated pre-taped performances he conducted for the likes of Genius, NPR and late-night television. 
His lead single “Rapstar” has scored him his first Hot 100 chart-topper and RapCaviar fans crowned the record the best of the year (so far). 
For his part, Polo is playing his own game more than one for pop stardom. Two records “Party Lyfe” and “For the Love of New York,” featuring DaBaby and Nicki Minaj, respectively, are pointed toward mass appeal, though with his own distinct DNA. Instead, he’s doubled down on his vision, sharing the stories of those he loved and lost. 
It worked when Polo G only had to record and release. Now when the demand will be more, we’ll see if he can sell product the same. One thing is for certain, the supply is going to stay the same.
Music, reads, podcasts and videos (music and more) I’m checking for. [From the past two weeks…]
Polo G’s Hall of Fame is another dose of his ghetto gospel. [Listen]
The MigosCulture III doesn’t keep pace with the first two albums, but gimme a group project over their solo material. Although I enjoyed Takeoff’s go alone and thought Offset had the best moments on his solo outing, there’s just magic in the way the trio compliment one another together. Related: I used to love doing pieces like this for MTV News, here’s the Migos’ 10 tracks that define the Culture series. [Listen] [Read]
Don Toliver, Latto and Lil Durk lifted “Still Fly” from the Big Tymers for this “F9” soundtrack treat. I don’t need another “Fast & Furious’‘ movie. But gimme all the Latto. [Listen]
Speaking of Don Toliver, he has a collaboration that I didn’t see coming (I know they’re supposedly dating) but in principle it’s an easy match to make as the H-Town rap crooner connects with Kali Uchis for the aptly-titled “Drugs N Hella Melodies.” [Listen]
“Shiesty that’s my Kobe Bryant, ain’t no way I’m trading that man.” Gucci Mane’s first verse on “Like 34 & 8” is fire. And this banger with Pooh Shiesty is all net. His new album Ice Daddy might be my Father’s Day weekend ride out music. [Listen] [Listen
Wale needs a girl, so on his Chris Brown-featured “Angles” he flipped a Diddy and Loon joint to spit game to the honies. [Listen]
This Isaiah Rashad record, “Headshots (4r Da Locals)” is my jam and a country cousin remix with anyone from the Dungeon Family would make me happy. Gimme Cool Breeze and Gipp on this. I bet it’d set off a DJ Wally Sparks party. [Listen]
Whoa, The Cool Kids are lining up a triple album for that ass. The first offering, “Hibachi,” harkens back to their familiar sound with some traces of new nostalgia, which makes sense for them. [Listen]
It was his birthday last week, but Kodak Black gifted his fans a new EP to celebrate another lap around the sun. I like this trend (and “Gleerious”). And I like this Happy Birthday Kodak project. [Listen]
XXL’s Freshman class is revealed. [Read]
Vikki Tobak went long for OkayPlayer on the history of the Shirt Kings. Shouts to Phade. [Read]
Sony’s Rob Stringer wiped the balance sheet clean for legacy artists with unrecouped monies due to the label. Historic is an understatement. Lucian Grainge and Stephen Cooper are on the clock. [Read]
Saweetie covers Complex and Ariah Hughes pairs the beautiful visuals with a stellar narrative. Related: Complex’s Andre Gee goes deep on the history of Chicago drill: the rise, infamy and resurgence. [Read] [Read]
Lots of chatter in the press that “In The Heights” is Latinos Box-Office moment similar to what we’ve seen with the successes of “Black Panther” and “Crazy Rich Asians.” A musical on that perch makes me dubious because the story construct requires such unique things (and especially considering this same story did the same heavy lifting already regarding Broadway representation and years later it needs updating to account for an even broader Latine experience), but I’m cheering nonetheless and enjoyed the film despite its shortcomings. Here, three LA Times writers weigh in.Related: Why that pressure is unfair. [Read] [Read]
Dr. Dre and Jimmy Iovine to launch the “coolest high school in America.” This is also the interview where Dre spoke for the first time about his brain aneurysm. [Read]
Next season of Mogul will tell the story of DJ Screw. [Read]
To mark what would have been 2Pac’s 50th birthday, Jada Pinkett posted one of his previously unreleased poems. [Read]
Big Boi partnered with AirBnB to celebrate the 25th anniversary of ATLiens by offering fans a chance to crash for the night at the house that, well, houses the original Dungeon studio. I remember after watching the Organized Noize doc a few years ago, I called Shaheem (Reid) to chat about it and he told me about writing an early Dungeon Family-related piece and he had to use a map to find the Dungeon. What a time! [Read]
Tech roundup: Spotify launches live-audio platform Greenroom, Facebook partners with Tunecore and DistroKid, and what you need to know about Apple Music’s Spatial Audio. Related: Tobe Nwigwe and his Music Breakr team powered a culture conversation with my brother Tuma Basa. [Read] [Read] [Read] [Watch]
Billboard recently rolled out their Indie Power Players list and while I wanna shout out everyone that made it, the trade pub played fast and loose with the word indie. There’s no doubting Jonny Shipes’ indie cred, though. Catch this Trapital pod with the Cinematic boss. [Listen]
Hands down, the podcast you want to listen to this week is “Brooklyn’s Finest:The Making of Reasonable Doubt by Jay-Z” via the Breaking Atoms podcast team. One of the co-hosts, Sumit, used to operate and when he hung up his blog shingle, I hoped he would return in some capacity, which he has with his weekly BA pod. But this limited series is emblematic of what he’s about: curious about the culture, enthusiastic about the job at hand and passionate in execution. Hats off to Sumit and Chris. Related: Jay is suing Jonathan Mannion; I hate the precedent of the suit even if I also dislike Mannion’s aggressive use of the photos. [Listen] [Read]
Megan Thee Stallion revisiting her Tina Snow persona is grabbing a lot of folks attention, but I’m all for her using her “Thot Shit” video and verses to call out hypocrisy, whether it’s over women’s sexuality or fans’ conditional love. She got something to say. [Watch]
Bells and whistles are nice, but sometimes a music vid just centered on the artist works beautifully. That’s the case with EST Gee’s “Bigger Than Life or Death.” [Watch]
The hardest working man in hip-hop is DaBaby, right? He’s back with “Ball If I Want To” and doing double duty by directing the visuals too. I appreciate how he coordinates his body movements to the dancers choreography. [Watch]
New Vince Staples? He has an album dropping next month and if it’s anything like this “Law of Averages” video and sound, I’m all the way in. [Watch]
If this newsletter feels like a Jim Jones stan account at times it’s because there aren’t as many rappers that are as locked in as Capo is with his Fraud Department project. From the sound to the visuals, there’s a tight vision and Jimmy maxes out his ability by leaning into introspection and nostalgia to produce a sharp product. Here, he unleashes yet another video, this time for “Say A Prayer” featuring Curren$y. [Watch]
J Balvin, Nicky Jam and Karol G supercharged the remix to “Poblado.” [Watch]
Tyler, The Creator’s “Lumberjack” jack track goes and the video reminds me of an Aimé Leon Dore ad. [Watch]
Speaking of doing everything right, Mach-Hommy. There’s his video for “Folie Á Deux’‘ and an on-camera interview with Complex. In the latter, he says “couple times” in reference to more music coming this year, plus a good bit on his perception of Jay-Z’s subtleties in conversation. [Watch] [Watch
You say Tyga has a formula, I say he has a recipe. I don’t even need to type out the name of the song; it’s irrelevant. We both know what it’s gonna sound like and what the video is gonna look like. *chef’s kiss* [Watch]
Backseat Freestyle is written and produced by Jayson Rodriguez for Smarty Art LLC. If you have any comments, questions or want to discuss sponsoring a newsletter issue, feel free to email me: And follow me elsewhere:
Twitter: @jaysonrodriguez
Instagram: @jaysonrodriguez
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Tips/coffee/beer via Venmo: @jaysonrodriguez
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Jayson Rodriguez

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