Every week we tell you about an album we think you need to spend time with. This week’s album is Die A Legend, the debut album from Chicago rapper Polo G.
As Chicago’s spent the past decade seizing the spotlight en masse, the rise and proliferation of drill music remains one of the city’s most potent and pervasive innovations. Drill’s also served as an unending cultural battleground for critics, creators, and culture vultures alike; the violence in the music remains rarely detached from the violence of the neighborhoods it comes from. The same baseline perpetual chicken-egg argument ensues — is the music to blame for the continued hardship, or does the continued hardship merely influence the music? — and the laundry list of seminal stars fluctuate somewhere between major label limbo, cult status, or death. As this decade fades, Chicago’s sonic and thematic influence remains cemented in the noise, but the future’s unclear as ever on who can continue to locate new magic in such worn, grisly truths.
Polo G emerged from Marshall Field Gardens in the Old Town neighborhood on Chicago’s North Side, spending his schoolyard days in the Low End. At age 20, his debut album, Die a Legend, chronicles his ongoing struggles while building on the thematic drill traditions: survivor’s guilt, atonement, reformation. His rap-sung hybrid breathes fresh new life into these ideas by the way he captivates and swings for the fences every time he steps; what he’s still building in technicality, his earnestness drives every street tale further home. The latter renders it deceptively easy to forget Polo’s youthful stature once he conjures up his revelations like sage advice from a well-weathered OG. It’s not an unfamiliar concept, but the attention to detail is what makes listeners gravitate toward him; he’s paces away from motivational speaker, even bordering youth pastor in the right light.
As Polo’s starpower only becomes more undeniable, Die a Legend makes a strong first showing to justify why. He doesn’t lean too far into any lane or shtick on the drill rap spectrum, his composure far more collected than cutthroat; he does engage in gun talk, but spends far more time dwelling on the consequences. These 41 minutes feel brisk, Polo defaulting to storyteller mode, drizzled in survival flexes once he reminds us of what he’s survived. The beats sprint along, never sparing a breath; they often resemble lullabies or church hymnals with a demented underbelly. Polo’s more reliant on storytelling than many MCs in his cohort, whether he’s first-person detailing a song to a friend-turned-enemy or popping drugs in an attempt to escape the depression that’s haunted his teenage years. As his earnestness makes the record tick, there’s a notable absence of glory when Polo describes how the opps grieve or how Xanax makes him feel; the MC we hear on Die a Legend moves with intention, hellbent on relaying his pain without relying on an exaggerated id to insert joy or reckless fun where it does not live. There’s no character; merely a man, laying himself before us.
Many challenges await Polo G, Billboard breakthroughs aside: an improvement in his lyrical dexterity may serve in furthering his artistic mission without compromising his accessibility. While most of the production does just fine, some choices don’t do enough justice to the gravity of Polo’s material. Thankfully, Polo runs the show just fine on his own, save for Lil Tjay on “Pop Out” and its streamable, inessential remix with Lil Baby & Gunna; the future will prove how Polo fares in more collaborative contexts. And while the drill ethos may serve as the predictable pigeonhole for Polo’s efforts, the still-untapped potential brimming in Die a Legend remains one of the best things about it. And that takes nothing from the stunning, effective feats he’s accomplished with this moving debut; still, we only want this Legend to live on.
Michael Penn II (aka CRASHprez) is a rapper and a former VMP staff writer. He's known for his Twitter fingers.