The last time 20-year-old Chicago rapper Polo G, born Taurus Bartlett, stepped outside the walls of Cook County Jail, he resolved never to return. “I just knew I could never go back to that place because, at the time, I was doing worse than the things I was getting caught for,” he told Pitchfork in a June interview.
For Bartlett, that decision meant cultivating a soundscape capable of relaying the gravity of his feelings, from bouts of grief to confessions of addiction, to artfully detailed flashbacks.
When he first reemerged from jail last May, after serving two months for cannabis possession after being arrested the previous October, Bartlett immediately captured how Chicago’s music scene changed around him. Polo G, the rapper, sprouted from the seeds planted by drill vanguards Chief Keef and Lil Durk, and along with fellow Chicagoan and RCA Records signee Calboy, he infused the grit expected of a Chicago rapper into stunted deliveries carried out over piano-driven melodies.
In August 2018, Bartlett officially marked his return with “Finer Things.” In 10 months, the video has racked up 57 million views and counting. The record, like most of his debut album on Columbia Records, Die a Legend, released on June 7, 2019, bathes the sense of entrapment stalking the artist's neighborhood in unexpected hope.
Bartlett raps with a mysterious gift of emotional honesty and self-reflection, but, in spite of clamoring for wealth and success, he never leaves. To be sure, “Finer Things” is about making it, but to make it means “feeding the whole gang” and “buying the whole hood.”
There’s gravitas to Bartlett's presence on a track. While “Pop Out” with Lil Tjay—or its unnecessary but understandable remix with Gunna and Lil Baby—skews towards anthemic party track, two tracks later he's openly rapping about his addictions on “Battle Cry,” with the immeasurable weight of experience. Acknowledging his reality on “BST,” in his usual hurried flow, he raps, “Went through a lot and I’m only 20, it’s a lot of things that I saw.”
Twenty years. That is how long it took Bartlett to collect more than an album’s worth of tragedy. On “Effortless,” with the reflective tone of a veteran, he raps, “My homie died at 16 / I remember I was up all night / Kept seeing death in my dreams.” Artists often manipulate this authenticity into a marketing tool, one that is fed into a vicious cycle of capitalist greed as described last year by Aaron Smarter for Uproxx, and on the surface, Polo G’s violent themes fall in line with this trend. Only when rainbow-haired fiends seize microphones, and our attention does the line of demarcation between exaggeration and reality begin to thicken.
Polo G, regrettably, appears to be truthful. In this case, authenticity means surviving and witnessing death; bearing the scars of loss and pain every day; recounting a life where childhood was too short, and every breath is earned.
Die a Legend is a story of endurance and gravely paced reflection, as much a memoir for a man looking to escape the “trouble of the hood” as it is a measurement of the tendrils of his surroundings on his psyche. The album cover even postures Polo G as a somber survivor, whose life is defined by death. On “A King’s Nightmare,” a standout selection on Die a Legend, Bartlett considers all of this in hindsight—the slavery of a record deal, the requisite emotional numbness, and the insolubility of help—before ending the record with a harrowing question: “I wonder one day will we wake up? Is the cycle gon’ end?”
Polo G’s Chicago is a place I’ll never live. At some point, I might find myself reading the same street signs, or bracing myself against the same winds, but never will I hold the memory of loss and strife that emanates from the sidewalks that line the streets that raised this young man. From hundreds or thousands of miles away, through the comfort of a screen, it’s easier to press play and move on.
The purpose of Die a Legend is to remind us, through routinely astounding lyricism, that its creator can never leave. Even after moving from his native Chicago to Calabasas, home to the stars, the sweat and blood-stained concrete of home will continue to weigh immeasurably on his outlook on the world.
It’s easy to list societal ills like poverty and violence as products of systemic failure that requires a policy to fix—look no further than the symbolism of segregation and violence entangled in the city’s decision to tear down Cabrini Green in 2011. But it is difficult for those of us who were privileged enough to never stand on hot corners to face systemic breakdowns as more than a series of collected news stories.
For a people often overlooked—whether due to age, geography, or income level—Polo G’s Die a Legend serves as a lesson in the careful consideration of life. In much the same way Chief Keef electrified and spoke for a generation of Chicago teenagers in the early 2010s, to listen to Polo G is to listen to a broken young adult making sense of himself in public in a way few can, and in a way that fewer have, but that all try to.