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Polo G Saw All of This Coming

He overcame the violence and struggles in Chicago to become one of the biggest rappers alive at age 22 — just as he planned. Polo on making his smash “Rapstar,” what jail taught him and what it means to be a “black man winning"
Samuel Trotter for Rolling Stone

T his story is part of Rolling Stones second annual Grammy Preview issue, released ahead of the start of first-round Grammy voting on October 22nd. For the issue, we spoke to some of the year’s biggest artists about the albums and singles that could earn them a statue come January, delved into the challenges facing the Recording Academy, and more, providing a 360-degree view of what to watch for in the lead-up to the 2022 awards. 

Polo G is holding court with a trio of friends from his hometown of Chicago. We’re in a backyard pool house at the rapper’s palatial mansion in Granada Hills, in the San Fernando Valley, and the crew is in the middle of what feels like a roommates’ squabble. They’ve all identified a need to spruce up the place, but have conflicting visions for the room, which is basically empty at the moment. Two modern-looking leather sofas flank opposite corners of the space, and platinum-record plaques line the perimeter. That’s pretty much it, except for the bare-bones recording setup that greets you when you walk through the door. Naturally, it’s the most put-together part of the room, which doesn’t come as much of a surprise. It’s clear where Polo’s priorities are.

In just three years, the 22-year-old has racked up an astonishing list of achievements. He went platinum with his debut studio album, 2019’s Die a Legend, and followed up with 2020’s The Goat, which has garnered more than 4 billion streams. Then, earlier this year, he nabbed his first Number One album, with Hall of Fame, featuring the hit “Rapstar,” which became Polo’s first Number One single. Both the album and the smash hit are strong contenders for multiple Grammy nominations. Who would have the time to decorate?

A recent acquisition, Polo’s home overlooks a picturesque valley. When we meet, he has just closed a deal on another, even bigger house, in Chatsworth, a few miles away. “I’m big on real-estate shit, and big on being comfortable,” he tells me. “So, that’s the real reason why I even took the step of buying a big-ass crib, and I ain’t even living in it right now. That’s the crib that I’ll stay in until my son comes of age.”

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Polo G, photographed in Los Angeles on July 15th, 2021, by Samuel Trotter. Photograph by Samuel Trotter for Rolling Stone. Production by Anthony Carrillo/HSTL Productions. Styling by Taisha Suero, assisted by DeAndrea Sharda Green and Emmanuel. Grooming by Hee Soo Kwon for The Rex Agency. Jacket and boots by Alexander McQueen. Jeans by Amiri. Opening image: Jacket by Louis Vuitton. Sweater by Amiri.

Back at house number one, Polo’s son, Tremani, bursts into the room along with Polo’s younger brother, T Baby. Tremani is wearing an iced-out chain featuring the words “Baby Cap” in diamond-encrusted letters. Polo’s nickname is Capalot, and his heir seems destined to carry the torch. The cherub-faced two-year-old — “big head,” as everyone calls him — is almost offensively cute. Polo brings him up to the control booth, swaddling his progeny’s dome in a pair of headphones. “Everything that I do, I think about my son. Everything,” he tells me. “I wake up every day trying to be a better man than I was yesterday.”

Polo’s rise is directly tied to his commitment to personal growth. In 2018, Polo, who was born Taurus Tremani Bartlett, was released from jail after being arrested on theft and drug-related charges. At that point, he was already an up-and-coming star within Chicago’s drill scene, delivering gritty dispatches from violence-drenched neighborhoods in his hometown. But something flipped after his stint in jail. It was during that time that he wrote his breakout hit “Finer Things,” introducing a softer, melodic palette and vulnerable expressions of the pain and trauma endemic to the streets.

The track would certify Polo as one of the more essential artists of his generation, quickly racking up millions of streams and YouTube views. He wasn’t about to squander the opportunity. He made a commitment to never go back to jail, and he’s spent every year since his release grinding. Across a string of three albums, he’s carved his own lane within the confines of rap, at once staying true to the ground-level perspective of Chicago’s drill movement while making space for pain and grief.

Outside, the air is crisp and the sun offers a mellow buzz that would inspire even the most ardent New Yorker to look up real-estate listings in the area. Polo and his friends can’t keep themselves away from the newly installed basketball court, another backyard amenity. With a sudden burst of energy, Polo jumps on the court for a quick game of 21, while his friends discuss everything from New York accents to the right way to approach a woman. (Hint: Play it cool.) Polo comes up on the losing end, then wipes sweat from his brow before contemplating running it back. He decides against it. “This thing is a distraction,” he says of the court. Polo is not one for distractions.

Polo was born on the North Side of Chicago. He’s the second of four kids. His older sister, Leilani, has been his tour manager for much of his career, and his younger brother is also a rapper and goes by the name Trench Baby. While the circumstances of Polo’s youth could be seen through the limiting lens of inner-city poverty — his parents had him young and had to be resourceful — his upbringing was central to where he is today. “I was raised God-fearing, so where I stand, I always know there’s a bigger picture to all this shit,” he tells me. “I keep shit like that in consideration. I just want to be remembered as a good person, not for any mistakes that I made.”

His sister was the first musician among his siblings, impressing their parents with her abilities. “She would sing. And they would always like her singing, and I just looked at it and paid attention,” he says. This made him want to explore what he could do with his own voice. “She wrote music. She had a notebook full of songs, and that inspired me,” he says. “It was damn near imposed on me from just my sister being able to do that, my mama taking a strong liking to music. And as parents, you always want to see your kids showcase their talent.”

Polo wrote his first song at age nine and remembers every word. “It was called ‘When I Spit,’ because in the intro to the song I sing: ‘When I spit, when I spit,’” he remembers. It comes as no surprise that Polo, ever dedicated to the craft, relentlessly practiced his verse, that work ethic on display even as an elementary schooler. “I practiced it all day long. I didn’t even play with my fucking toys, or play games, or go outside,” he says. “I could hear everybody outside from my window, and I’m just inside trying to recite my rhymes.”

Polo’s days of creative discovery came amid a backdrop of violence and struggle. He describes the challenges of a childhood defined by lack — trying to focus on school with an empty stomach and a heavy heart. By the time he was a teenager, Polo experienced harrowing loss as a matter of routine. A couple of years before Polo’s debut, his friend Gucci was killed in Chicago. This August, Polo’s childhood friend BMoney 1300, who had recently relocated to L.A., was shot and killed during a visit back home. It’s all right there in the music. “My friends got killed on the same block where we used to play,” he raps on 2019’s “Deep Wounds.” The cover art for his debut album, Die a Legend, features portraits of friends and family that he’s lost to violence.

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Polo G and his son, Tremani. “Everything that I do, I think about my son. Everything,” he says. Photograph by Samuel Trotter for Rolling Stone. Jacket by Louis Vuitton. Sweater and jeans by Amiri

Polo sees the potential in his music to inspire people who have lived through similar circumstances. “More often than not, I’ve been through the same exact shit as them. I was feeling the same type of pain as they have,” he says. “I got a platform to teach them shit that they ain’t never heard.”

The violence in Chicago is well documented and often misconstrued. In recent years, the city’s moniker “Chiraq” has served a political purpose, further criminalizing the lives of Black youth in America. The caricature of crime in Chicago tends to detach the humanity of those affected. The young people dying in the streets of the city are human beings who experience grief and loss. As Polo rose in the city’s rap scene, he confronted the demons that lurk beneath the inflammatory headlines. In a culture that treats Black men like “superpredators,” the means of coping tends to be drugs. In Chicago, the drugs of choice for the city’s youth are Ecstasy and Xanax, two poles of brain-chemistry manipulation that serve to offset the pain of day-to-day life.

Even at the precipice of success, a life of masking pain with substances can be hard to escape. It was a mixture of codeine and oxycodone that cut short the life of Polo’s close friend Jarad Anthony Higgins, also known as the rapper Juice WRLD. And addiction nearly ended Polo’s life only months prior. He was hospitalized in 2019 after a near-fatal drug overdose at a party. On “21,” from The Goat, he opens up about his challenges with addiction. “Can’t relapse off these drugs, man R.I.P. to Juice/We was tweakin’ off them Percs, I popped my last one with you,” he raps.

Polo doesn’t talk about those struggles much these days; instead, he’s turned to music as an outlet for confronting those feelings. “Whenever I got anything going on in my life, it’s easy for me to take whatever I’m going through and just spit it at the mic,” he says.

He’s approached his career with the same kind of perseverance he observed in his family as a child. A major source of strength for Polo is his mother, Stacia Mac, who now serves as his manager. “She was always going to make sure we had something, whether it was food, whether it was clothes,” he says. “My mama was awesome, she always made sure we was straight, and I always paid attention to that. I want to be able to do the same.”

A former residential-property manager, Mac identified his talent and determination and made it a point to steer him toward success. “I wanted to see him being an attorney or an architect or something of that nature,” she tells me over the phone. “But it was like, anything my children do, I support. So when he said that’s what he was going to do, I supported him.”

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Polo G is committed to the BMW brand, “thinking that it stands for ‘Black men winning,’ no matter whatever I do.” Photograph by Samuel Trotter for Rolling Stone

Even as a kid, her son was preternaturally determined. “If he says it, he’s gonna do it,” she says. “He had so many books filled with raps that by the time we actually signed, we were like a week or two away, and we’re like, ‘We have the album.’” At that point, for Mac, the transition to manager came naturally. “I was always a business-savvy person, and to invest in my child and to work with him it was literally transferring skills and applying them,” she says. “I realized what he needed and read up on it day and night. And I’m like, ‘OK, let’s go, let’s do it.’ And that’s just how it happened.”

She remembers the moments before the deal, too. “He was always in trouble in school. He would jump on the desk, and he always screamed out that he was the Ghetto Godzilla,” she recalls. “I always had to get him when he got suspended from school.”

Mac first learned of her son’s career intentions at a pre-prom party — where he also shot a video for “Check Me Out.” “I guess he felt like it was a better situation [to tell me] because he wasn’t alone and wouldn’t get yelled at,” she says. “He told me then that he wanted to be a professional artist. And I’m like, ‘OK.’

There were other adults in Polo’s life who recognized a unique talent. A high school English teacher named Mr. Chrisman saved him from flunking out of school. “I was going through a lot of shit. I was going through a deep depression,” Polo explains. “So, I was pretty much over that shit when it came to school. One day I came in and they’re in the middle of class rapping. I get to saying some shit and he’s like, ‘Man, you gotta stay after this class and rap.’” His teacher gave him an offer he couldn’t pass up: Compete in the Chicago slam poetry contest Louder Than a Bomb, and at least make an attempt to come to class. In exchange, he’ll pass English and graduate. “He was really looking out for me because he knew I had talent,” Polo remembers.

In another life, Polo G might have become a scholar. After high school, he had every intention of enrolling in college. He was accepted into the HBCU Lincoln University in Pennsylvania. He was all set to begin classes and had even picked a major: broadcasting. It wasn’t until the eleventh hour that he decided to choose music full time.

“On the first day I was supposed to go to college, I remember going to the studio. Because I really started thinking about it, leading up to that day I’m like, ‘Damn, I got to go to this school. And it’s all the way out of town,’” he remembers. “I’m like, ‘Man, I ain’t got no money, I ain’t bought an outfit or shit.’ Me coming from being in high school, you got your first few weeks of outfits at least. I ain’t had shit. I’m like, ‘Man, fuck school.’

While you could say he made the right decision, Polo doesn’t take that moment as lightly these days. He’d still like to finish school. “I still be trying to think what type of low-key college I can go to and just get that experience,” he says.

As the afternoon wears on, Polo and his friends start to wind down. They’ve got a busy few days ahead. Tomorrow, Polo is set to play a small concert for a radio station, then immediately fly down to Miami for the Rolling Loud Festival. It’ll be his first performance since lockdown put a halt to live music. “I got these big stadiums coming up,” he says, “so it’s some shit that really makes me a little bit nervous because I ain’t hit the stage in so long. I ain’t got my set list down. I don’t even remember all them songs at this point.”

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But he’s careful not to dwell on it. More than anything, he says, it feels good to be back. Inside the main house, which is as sparsely decorated as the pool house, Polo lounges around as a slew of guests arrive: more friends from Chicago and his videographer, who immediately gets to work capturing everything that happens, no matter how mundane. It feels like being around an athlete in the off-season. The energy in the air is calm, but you can feel the remnants of a wildly productive few years.

Polo plans to head to the studio tonight, as he does most nights, but first, he’s got to eat. For a while, the restaurant of choice appears to be an establishment owned by the rapper Blueface. That idea is eventually shot down before everyone settles on a nearby soul-food joint. Polo takes his health seriously and maintains a slightly athletic build — like a lanky basketball star. Yet he orders, and eats, an astonishing amount of food: barbecue chicken, a corn muffin, a side of black-eyed peas, a side of collard greens, candied yams, mac-and-cheese, potatoes, and shallots. Would he like to add bacon? “Hell, nah, I don’t fuck with bacon.”

I take a seat in the dining room, as everyone washes up and gets ready. Tremani trundles in and puts a newly opened reusable juice bottle in my lap. Understanding the subtle language of toddlers, I go and get him some juice.

Shortly after the release of Die a Legend, Polo returned to his old elementary school to create an AAU basketball team as a means of steering a generation of young people away from the streets. “I can speak on things that are not just about me, or my music, and a lot more on social issues,” he tells me of his philanthropic side. He’s careful to add that he only feels compelled to speak on things that he actually knows about. In other words, to the experiences that have shaped him personally.

Following his arrest in 2018, Polo made a commitment to his music. His debut gave him runaway success; two years later, The Goat solidified Polo as one of his generation’s greats. It’s a record as rich in emotional turbulence as it is in heartfelt optimism. On “Martin & Gina,” delicate guitar twangs loop as Polo describes a kind of rags-to-riches love story. The nostalgia-laced video takes cues from the iconic sitcom Martin.The Goat, I feel like that was the greatest time period out of all of my projects,” Polo tells me. “It was like I was just diving in headfirst. I didn’t know anything about how the fans or anything might respond. In both my first projects it felt like shit was just all organic.”

YouTube was central to Polo’s rise. Early on, the rapper used the platform to tease new music and to provide a healthy flow of new visual content for fans. It introduced Polo’s music to a wider audience than traditional rap listeners. “Rapstar” was particularly popular in Middle America, its aspirational ethos sung over producer Einer Bankz’s now-iconic ukulele strumming, making for a certifiable hit in even the whitest of American towns.

Polo has had to adjust to this broader demographic. He tells me about his first time on tour. “I’m used to seeing a bunch of motherfuckers that look like me, and everybody in that bitch was white,” he recalls, laughing. “And it threw me for a loop. Actually going out and seeing it is like, ‘Oh, this shit is bigger than I thought it was.’

In early 2021, “Rapstar” — a song he’d recorded a year prior — made its way to the top of the charts. “Shit happened so fast for me,” he says. “A lot of times I still didn’t understand where I was at. And then moments like ‘Rapstar,’ that’s what really made me think about it, like, ‘Oh, you did some shit.’

And yet, for Polo, it wasn’t a surprise in the slightest. “That shit is fucking intuition,” he says. “That’s a talent, a skill that not a lot of people have. And I’m big on just doing shit like that, just trying to pay attention to the signs of how shit be going right now. ‘Rapstar’ was definitely one of those moments where I just trusted my gut feeling. Everything was just telling me to do this song.”

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Bankz remembers Polo’s first trip to L.A. That’s when they made their first video together, at a plucky jam session with Polo rapping over Bankz’s uke. “That video ended up going viral,” Bankz says. “A lot of my followers kept asking me, ‘Who is this guy? You need to link with him more. You need to do more music with him.’

So, of course, they gave the people what they wanted. “With a lot of these artists, it’s just like a one-and-done kind of thing,” Bankz says. “But as the months went on, I’d get a call from Polo: ‘Hey, got a new song. I want to do a video with you. Let’s keep this going.’

One of those songs became “Rapstar.” The track is a perfect crossover between rap and pop, a distillation of the current generation’s listening habits. Several months before the full song was released, a short loop of that one verse had already become a sensation on social media.

“The song started going crazy on TikTok. When I posted the video on my YouTube account, it did a couple of million views, but all of a sudden, months later, I’m looking at it and it’s going up more than any of my other videos. Months after the fact,” Bankz explains. “I’m like, ‘Yo, this is going crazy.’ I mentioned this to Polo, and he’s like, ‘Oh, yeah, I get messaged about it all the time.’

“Rapstar” was an inflection point. Polo was already a star by any standard, but now he was sharing space with superstars. On Hall of Fame, he’s as assured as ever, confidently dispensing a style of rap that he now can say he owns. He sees his first three albums almost like a trilogy. There was a mission at the core of those projects to get Polo to exactly the point where he is. It goes back to 2018, when he was sitting in jail, vowing to change the direction of his life.

Of course, you can’t control everything. At his album-release party in Miami, Polo was arrested on charges including battery of a police officer, resisting arrest, and criminal mischief. According to the police report, an officer pulled over a black Cadillac that Polo and some friends were in. Polo refused to lower his windows for the officers and tensions escalated. After his release, Polo tweeted, “1 of the officers told us they was on us since we got Off our Jet.”

“There ain’t really no feelings towards the situation for me. I ain’t really dwell on that,” Polo says of the setback. “The craziest thing is, before that situation, I was able to probably say for three years I hadn’t been incarcerated. That’s literally the only part about that that fucked with me, because to be able to say I ain’t seen handcuffs in three years, and then it’s some stupid shit like that.”

The arrest didn’t slow him down. He tells me about a project he’s been working on with the Atlanta producer Southside. “I ain’t never had a nigga like Southside around that’s going to make beats like that. And shit like that really makes a big difference,” he says. “I was still always too stuck in my ways and doing what I’m accustomed to doing. I’m going to come with the talent, I’m coming with the lyrics, and hearing that level of production makes it 10 times better.” (In September, Polo was reportedly arrested in Los Angeles on a concealed-weapons charge.)

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Polo has a reverence for hip-hop in that way. He doesn’t see the path to fame as contorting into the mold of pop music, but the inverse, bending pop to his will. Like plenty of rappers out right now, he’d entertain the idea of jumping on a pop star’s track, but it’s not a priority. “I’ll do that shit as a one-off, but I don’t ever think I’m going full throttle,” he says. “I feel like hip-hop, that’s the genre of music right now.”

It’s dark outside, and the plans to go to the studio start to crumble. A small party has developed inside, and Kanye West’s first Donda livestream just wrapped, inspiring a lively discussion among the group. We make our way back to the pool house. In the still darkness of night, stars blanket the sky above the backyard. I ask Polo about the type of career he imagines for himself, and it’s clear that it’s a topic he’s given a lot of thought to: “I always think about one day having full rights, owning my music. Just being able to say I’m doing this completely independently.”

A few weeks prior, at the photo shoot for this story, Polo arrived at his second home with a BMW featuring a decal of the phrase “Black man winning.” It’s one of those passed-down idioms where nobody knows the origin but everyone understands what inspired it. “My pops ended up just telling me one day that that’s what that means, and that’s what made me take an even more liking to the car,” Polo explains. “I’m sticking to that brand of car and thinking that it stands for ‘Black men winning’ no matter whatever I do. Just showing the greatness that comes with being a Black man.”

It’s only been a few years since, at age 20, he moved his family out of Chicago, released a Number One album, and now may win his first Grammy, or several of them. It’s a profound break for anyone, and Polo is nothing if not grateful. “Where we come from, this shit ain’t common. And I broke the fucking curse of my family, generations that are just fuck-ups, never amounted to shit,” Polo says. “That’s a great feeling.”

We make our way from the pool house back to the rest of the now-growing crew. Polo stops at his basketball court and starts to shoot around. He isn’t one for distractions, sure, but everyone deserves a night off from time to time.

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