From uploading songs and freestyles to his Soundcloud page in 2016 to catching a modest buzz on YouTube with his “Check Me Out” music video in 2017 to all of the accolades for his 2019 debut album, Die A Legend, Polo G became one of hip hop’s fastest-rising acts | Photos taken at The Metro in February 2020 by Carolina Sanchez [The TRiiBE]

In the words of a Pre-Trumpian Kanye West, it was all good just a week ago. Somehow, in this weird alternate pandemic reality where time ebbs and flows to an aberrant beat, NBA All-Star Weekend 2020 feels like it happened eons ago. But really, it was only three months ago that the NBA brought its marquee event — studded with league and celebrity superstars alike — to Chicago for the first time since 1988. 

Let’s go back to that moment. Before COVID-19 brought the music and entertainment worlds to an abrupt stop, there was Cabrini Green’s own Polo G, celebrating his homecoming after riding high from his hit single, “Pop Out,” going three times platinum, plus two gold singles with “Finer Things” and “Through Da Storm,” and another RIAA gold certification for the emotionally powerful debut that ties all these tracks together, Die A Legend

Born Taurus Tremani Bartlett, Polo G had dreamed about the moment NBA All-Star Weekend 2020 touched down in Chicago. Back in 2018, he heard about Chicago hosting the event while locked up behind bars at Cook County Jail for marijuana possession. That day, he swore up and down to the other inmates that he, in his own words, would be a rich man by the time NBA All-Star Weekend hit the city in February 2020. 

Through his relentless will, and the unconditional love and support from his mom-manager Stacia Mac, Polo G kept his word. Sure enough, hours before the NBA All-Star Game on Feb. 16, 2020, Polo G partnered with Audiomack streaming service to host and headline “Hometown Heroes,” a benefit concert at The Metro to support local youth-based basketball and mental health programs. 

By the afternoon of Feb. 16, fans had filled The Metro to capacity. After a few delays, the show started around 4 p.m., and featured a lineup of Chicago all-stars including G Herbo, Calboy, The Heavysteppers, Dreezy, Tink, Ann Marie, Happy Birthday Calvin and a surprise appearance by Jeremih — a rare occurrence in a city where homegrown hip-hop stars are never given an opportunity to appear on stage together due to heavy scrutiny by city officials and police officers against Chicago drill music and drill adjacent rappers. 

Polo G graced the stage a litany of times, while also donating more than $15,000 of his own money to youth organizations, including the Boys and Girls Club, Erika’s Lighthouse and the Chicago Grizzlies, the AAU basketball team that Polo G founded and sponsors. 

The night felt like the perfect climax to his incredible journey from the fallen Cabrini-Green projects to having his critically acclaimed first album, Die A Legend, debut at number six on the Billboard 200 chart. 

“It meant everything just to throw something to give back to the city when I had a lot of roadblocks trying to put the event together, as far as the Chicago Police [Department] trying to derail us, but we ended up persevering it all,” Polo G said.

The Metro marquee on the day of Polo G's "Hometown Heroes" show.
Calboy doing his thang.
A few fans showing some love.
G Herbo sending the crowd up.

As I interview him over the phone on Feb. 20 from his home in Los Angeles, where he now lives now with his nine-month-old son, Polo G, 21, recalls a happy childhood growing up in Cabrini Green, then the Hudson and Evergreen avenues in the Marshall Field Garden Apartments on Chicago’s North Side. (At age 12, his family moved there from Cabrini-Green after the projects were torn down). He played outside with his friends, he said, and everyone in the neighborhood knew each other like family. 

Before the fame, the hood knew Polo G as the funny kid who always cracked jokes and spit rhymes. Growing up, he listened to southern rappers like T.I., Lil Wayne and Ludacris, whose wordplay and outlandish videos influence the creative wordplay and highly animated visuals you seen in songs like his “Go Stupid.”

Stacia Mac raised Polo G and his five siblings by herself while working as a real estate professional and an attorney. Backstage at The Metro, while chatting with her son’s publicist Dominique Simpson, Mac said she knew early on that Polo G was bright for his age. He soaked in a lot of wisdom from his grandmother, who he spent time with as a child. He also did well in school, so she had more traditional plans for his future.

“When he was younger, our friends and family used to call him ‘rapper dude,’” Mac said during our interview backstage at The Metro in February. “So he used to walk around and rap, but we never took it seriously. We’d be like, ‘Oh. He’s little, but he got some heat,’ But we never thought anything of it because my goal for him was to be a state’s attorney or some type of attorney. That’s what I had set forth for him to do.”

On the day of his senior prom at Innovations High School, an arts school that pairs arts disciplines with academic subjects, Polo G made the decision to pursue music instead of going to Lincoln University in Philadelphia where he was accepted – and like his mother planned. 

That same day, he shot the visuals for “Check Me Out,” decked out in a clean grey and black-trimmed suit during his and his date’s prom send off. Today, it has more than 700,000 views on YouTube.

“My kids could say they want to be astronauts and I’ll buy their first helmet,” Mac said. 

When Polo G told his mom about his decision, she put all of her support behind him.

“I told him you have one year, and he did it in less than a year,” Mac said. “I supported him. So many people said, ‘Everyone wants to be a rapper.’ Everybody’s not my son.”

Backstage at The Metro: Polo G's mom-manager, Stacia Mac
Backstage at The Metro: Polo G's publicist, Dominique Simpson, and Audiomack's senior director of marketing and brand management, Jason Johnson

Polo G first stepped onto Chicago’s rap scene in 2016, a time when drill music had a heavy influence on mainstream rap, while also spawning similar scenes in the U.K. and across the U.S, more notably New York. Rappers such as Florida’s Kodak Black and XXXtentacion, Louisiana’s NBA Youngboy and Chicago’s own Famous Dex were making names for themselves. It was also right around the time Brooklyn’s Bobby Shmurda and the Crips faction, GS9, were given prison sentences.

As rappers adopted the gritty sound of Chicago drill and put their own regional spins and narratives on it, making it appeal to larger audiences, the genre began to change back at home. In Chicago, new rappers like Polo G took the fundamentals of drill and added melodies, along with more traditional lyricism and vulnerable storytelling, to lead a new wave of Chicago rap. 

“Coming up with my class of rappers [from Chicago], I was really the only person who was the first emerging artist since the whole 2012-2014 drill scene,” Polo G explained. 

His peers includes frequent collaborator, Calboy, alongside El Hitta, Valee, King Von, Queen Key, Memo 600, Ann Marie, and the late JuiceWRLD, who Polo G considers his fellow “Chicago all-star.”

“I was one of the first up-and-coming artists who brought notoriety back to Chicago again,” Polo G said. 

By the end of 2016, Chicago drill was going through growing pains. Some of the originators of the genre — such as Lil Bibby, Lil Durk, Katie Got Bandz and Lil Reese — started experiencing issues with their record deals. Chief Keef announced on Twitter that he was retiring from rap. The ongoing beefs between rival gang factions and affiliated rap cliques had resulted in deaths and jail time. RondoNumbaNine, a mover and shaker in the scene, was sentenced to 39 years on murder charges. And on the music front, there weren’t any national hits coming out of the drill genre and no new stars.

Meanwhile, an alternative, indie rapper movement in Chicago started to dominate the mainstream and underground raps scenes between 2016 and 2018, with Chance the Rapper, Saba, adopted son Smino, Vic Mensa, Noname, Mick Jenkins and Joey Purp leading the way. 

Then it seemed that Chicago drill was regaining its footing in rap. G Herbo dropped his much-anticipated debut studio album, Humble Beast, in 2017 to sweeping critical acclaim. As an independent artist, Lil Durk released a string of popular street mixtapes that year, including Bloodas with Tee Grizzley, that would breathe new life into his career. Still, this wasn’t enough to push Chicago rap forward nationally. The scene needed new stars and a fresh sound — and Polo G was an answer.

“I can distinctly remember as a rap artist in Chicago, I was getting compared to the better rappers in the city early in my career when I had a few songs in my catalog,” Polo G continued. “I was one of the few being talked about.”

As a long-time fan of hometown heros like Chief Keef and G Herbo, Polo G spent time studying their careers. He listened to their songs, and watched their shows and interviews, taking notes on how each evolved as rappers over the years. When factoring in Polo G’s academic and street smarts, and the years he spent as a student of the rap game before developing his own sound as an artist, a point can be made that he is one of the most astute rappers of his era. 

With the guidance of his business-minded mother, Polo G had a unique leg up on the music business. He is playing the long game, rather than chasing instant social media fame and quick money. 

“I watched them come up as artists. I just peep everything that I really learned from them. [It’s] almost the blueprint to making it in the rap game, seeing what steps they had to take, seeing what they go through [with], like, XXL [2013 and 2016 Freshman Covers] and things like that. That inspired me to want to get those same accolades,” he said.

Initially, Polo G started off making traditional-sounding drill tunes with songs like “O.D.A” and freestyles like the viral one he did over G Herbo’s “Neva Cared” beat. Unlike his drill predecessors, Polo G built a fan base without hyper-specific references to gang conflict most of drill’s notorious cult hits.

Merk Murphy, a veteran hip-hop marketing guru who was part of Chief Keef’s management team for Glory Boyz Entertainment and was the show’s event coordinator/promoter, recognized Polo G’s strategic music and business savvy early on. 

“The unique thing he learned was to learn how to be yourself. I think that’s the part that gets overlooked,” said Murphy, who also grew up in Cabrini-Green. 

“Polo is just being himself, just as Keef was being himself,” Murphy explained. “I think that’s why you’re going to see longevity from him because he’s very honest about who he is in a way that an outsider wouldn’t understand. And I think that Keef was very unique to the space, as if someone was speaking another language.”

Despite the flashiness of the designer clothes he wears and his fearless bravado on records such as “Pop Out” and “DND,” Polo G has a laser-focused attitude and doesn’t shy away from humility and honest vulnerability. He remains true to his Cabrini-Green roots, not allowing for his new-found celebrity to dim his desire to inspire change in his community. For these reasons, Murphy said, Polo G is able to attract a massive and diverse audience similarly to Chief Keef, but on a bigger scale. 

“With Polo, he’s going to be able to take it further. I love the fact that he knows that the important ingredient for change is his honesty. A lot of people say that he’s gotta handle [the music business] differently,” Murphy said.

Murphy is referencing GBE’s notoriously reckless approach to the music business after they blew up from the success of “Don’t Like” and it’s monumental remix in 2012. Chief Keef started missing scheduled video shoots such as “Hate Bein Sober,” a video of Lil Reese physically assaulting a woman went viral online. (Chief Keef later revealed that he acted that way on purpose to force Interscope Records to drop him).

“No, he’s handling it how he feels he should handle it,” Murphy said about Polo G. “It just happens to be different than the way the other guys handled it.”

Event coordinator and concert promoter Merk Murphy

Living with the abrupt changes of a COVID-19 world, where major music festivals and concerts have been canceled in an effort to stop the spread of the virus, Polo G is still living up to his nickname, “Mr. Do Too Much.” His own tour was canceled due to COVID-19, but the rapper isn’t letting that stop his shine. 

In April, he dropped the track and video for “DND,” short for “do not disturb. That same month, he appeared alongside Florida rapper Lil Poppa in California rapper Mozzy’s music video for “Pricetag.” 

Lately, Polo G has been on Twitter and Instagram, gearing his fans up for his second album, The Goat, while airing out his quarantine thoughts, since the stay-at-home orders and industry wide tour cancellations has grounded him. On an April 30 episode of the “Everyday Struggle” podcast with hosts DJ Akademiks, Wayno, Nadeska

On May 5, via social media, Polo G announced that he’s dropping the highly anticipated album on May 15, despite struggling to be inspired to create while being quarantined at home, even though he has a home recording studio. 

“It’s really hard for me to get into my creative process again because I’m at the crib, cuz I know I’m at home. Even though the studio is probably an extra room or two down from my crib, I gotta feel like I’m driving somewhere, I gotta feel like I’m actually doing something,” Polo told the Everyday Struggle” YouTube show

“For some strange reason, I don’t even feel the beats the same, I gotta be hearing that shit from a studio speaker. Going through that process, it just don’t feel the same,” he continued.

Thankfully, Polo already came into 2020 fully loaded. He revealed that he began recording his new album immediately after Die A Legend debuted in 2019. “As soon as Die A Legend dropped, I instantly got into working on my new project, so now I’m completely done with it,” he said.

Polo G’s music is picking up the emotional residue that drill left behind. That’s what attracts the more than 10 million Spotify listeners to his sound. His heart-wrenching storytelling on wax humanizes the people behind the trigger. His 2019 track, “Dyin’ Breed,” boldly explores the psychological, socio-economic and emotional reasons behind the ongoing homicides in Chicago. He forces the listener to empathize with him and his characters through the somber, melancholic drawl of his voice that carries the tear-jerking melodies of “Through Da Storm” and his feature on G Herbo’s “Lawyer Fees.”

Polo G owning the stage.

Today, Polo G is among a special class of hip-hop artists, nationally and locally, who achieved an unprecedented amount of commercial success even quicker than the ones who preceded him. From uploading songs and freestyles to his Soundcloud page in 2016 to catching a modest buzz on YouTube with his “Check Me Out” music video in 2017 to all of the accolades for his 2019 debut album, Die A Legend, he became one of hip hop’s fastest-rising acts. 

Still, Polo G stumbled often. Within a seven-month period between August 2017 and March 2018, Polo G spent seven stints in jail, according to his arrest history from the Chicago Police Department database. 

Polo G spent the early part of 2018 battling court cases for the three back-to-back charges — criminal trespass – remain on land, reckless conduct, and criminal trespass to vehicles — between December 2017 and January 2018. With his future on the line, Mac did what any mother, especially a mother who is also an attorney, would do. She did everything in her power to assure the judge that he will never see her son in his courtroom again.

“I just couldn’t leave him there,” Mac said. “I spoke to the judge, spoke to the attorney, did everything inside my power to say, ‘Once he leaves here, I promise you, lesson learned. This will be the last time.’’”

In May 2018, when Polo G was released from Cook County Jail, Mac flew her son out to Los Angeles. He needed a reality check, she said.

“I said, we’re going to take a trip to see where you’re going to live and that you’re so much bigger than your circumstance and so you can soak it in and manifest those things,” Mac explained. 

Although the change of scenery kept Polo G out of jail, another roadblock presented itself: Mac recalls Polo G being constantly low-balled when record labels tried to sign him. (She declined to give specific names). 

“One label — it’s insulting — literally offered him $5,000 to sign. He got sad and I told him, ‘You don’t realize there’s other people looking at you. This is just the beginning,’” Mac said. “And the floodgates of offers started right after that.”

In November 2018, he signed with Columbia Records. After that, he dropped his hit single, “Pop Out,” with Bronx’s own Lil Tjay and it became a hit record. As popularity increased around Polo G’s songs, he began headlining shows at small local venues, performing at the 2019 WGCI Summer Jam at the Wintrust Arena, and eventually opening up for the Justin Bieber “Big Tour” with Young Thug and Machine Gun Kelly at the UIC Pavilion. 

However, while planning for the “Hometown Heroes” show for NBA All-Star Weekend 2020, Polo G came face-to-face with one particular roadblock that his drill predecessors face to this day when trying to bring the city’s most beloved rap artists together in concert: the Chicago Police Department. 

While it’s possible that he might not have faced as much scrutiny had he hosted the show with less-controversial rappers, the fact that Polo G’s lineup included so many artists from Chicago’s most dangerous neighborhoods is what, according to Polo and his team, drew the ire of the city, the police, and some major venues.

“They were saying a lot of wild stuff to make people not want to allow us to have concerts or any business ventures in the city,” Polo G said about a particular government entity that he did not want to specify.

When I asked exactly what the unnamed entity said to him, all he could do was laugh. Instead, his publicist, Dominique Simpson, took the question head-on. 

“CPD is known for targeting hip-hop artists in Chicago,” Simpson said. “They feel like that crowd incites violence but we showed them otherwise, producing an all hip hop lineup. No fights. No violence. No issues. Money was donated to three different charity organizations. So we showed them we can get together and put on this successful event and everybody can act right.” 

As I quarantine in the house during the COVID-19 pandemic, I remember watching the sold-out “Hometown Heroes” show at The Metro in February. It was the last show I’d seen before the pandemic engulfed the world. “Hometown Heroes” solidified how much Polo G means to Chicago. From start to finish, everyone rapped along loudly, making him feel like the hometown hero he is for putting together such a monumental moment for Chicago rap.

COVID-19 may have slowed down most of the music industry as we know it, but it doesn’t mean that Polo G’s show is over. With more new music on the way, it’s possible that Polo G may release another masterpiece and solidify his status as one of the best superstars from Chicago. However, with the effect COVID-19 may have on the music industry, that’s entirely up in the air.

“He’s confident. He’s got the courage, and the music didn’t give it to him either,” Murphy said. “I think that’s something that separates him from a lot of people.”