Rapper Polo G on 'Distraction,' Album With Southside & Taking Fashion Risks - Upsmag - Magazine News

Rapper Polo G on ‘Distraction,’ Album With Southside & Taking Fashion Risks

Polo G’s favorite place to record music is a small studio in Los Angeles. On a recent cool spring evening, the 23-year-old rapper, who has experienced a meteoric rise in the past three years, pulls up to the studio in a black Chevy Suburban, alone. The building’s facade is unmarked, and looks more like an abandoned storefront than a place where chart-topping music is made—but this is where Polo, born Taurus Tremani Bartlett, made most of his latest album, Hall of Fame, which soared to No. 1 on the Billboard 200 when it was released, in 2021. It is also where he has been working on his upcoming album, together with the producer Southside. (On June 3, the new project’s lead single, titled “Distraction,” will come out—his first new music release since dropping Hall of Fame.) Polo settles into a cramped, silent room bathed in purple and yellow light. He says this place is his comfort zone; he prefers it over somewhere with lots of foot traffic, which increases the risk of him running into a popular rapper or two; he’d rather be left alone with his thoughts, writing in peace. He flops onto the black leather couch in the back of the room, laughing at Instagram and TikTok videos on his phone.

The sound of Polo’s laughter comes as something of a surprise, given how reticent he is. Hours before heading to the studio, he had arrived on his own at the photo shoot for this story: no friends, family, or team in tow. Without announcing himself or saying hello, he walked in, a Louis Vuitton side bag slung across his shoulder. I’d heard he was a man of few words, and on set, he lived up to that reputation. While the camera flashes popped, he clenched his fists and then released them, as though he were squeezing an invisible stress ball. He barely spoke unless addressed, and even then he delivered the shortest of answers. When told he’d be changing into his last outfit of the day, he responded, “Bet.” Was he hungry? Did he want a slice of pizza or a couple of hot wings? “No.” How about soda? He shook his head. But his one-word answers belied an incredible intelligence, wiseness, and depth—qualities he pours into his music rather than sharing with strangers during a fashion photo shoot.

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The fact that Polo was even participating in a shoot like this one was unusual. Just two weeks prior, he had posted a photo on Instagram of himself wearing an outfit that, his stylist Taisha Suero tells me, he would never even have tried on a year ago: a black leather ensemble with red tiger stripes. “Ok I’ll switch my swagg up dis year,” the caption read. Polo, who says his core mission is to stay true to himself and never compromise with the “slimy” and “weird” music industry, is nonetheless opening himself up: taking an interest in fashion, experimenting with new instrumentation and different sounds, traveling, and even leaning into acting. Suero, who has worked with Polo since 2020, says she’s watched this evolution happen in real time. “When we filmed the video for ‘Martin & Gina,’ in 2020, the directors really wanted him to act,” she says. “But he was struggling. And in this video we did last weekend, for ‘Distraction’ there was a lot of acting involved. So I’m watching him, and he was so passionate. He was giving it his all.”

Salvatore Ferragamo jacket; Banana Republic shirts; Dior Men shorts, socks, and shoes.

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Fendi Men’s jacket and pants; Banana Republic turtleneck; Falke socks; Dior Men’s sandals.

That growth has not come without pain. Polo has experienced enough grief in 23 years to inspire a lifetime of music. His lyrics tell the story of growing up in the Cabrini-Green housing projects, on the Near North Side of Chicago. He began losing friends and family to street violence early on; watching people die or become addicted to drugs became the norm for him at a young age. Polo was close with his tight-knit family of six (he’s the second of four children), and stayed focused on his interests—music and basketball—for most of his childhood, but eventually he began “hustling,” as he describes it. He was sent to juvenile detention multiple times before he turned 18. The album art for die a legendhis first record, depicts eight friends and family members who were killed.

That carnage left him depressed and anxious, but also made him look at his world with a critical eye. He points to the first tattoo he ever got, a black and red screed on his right arm that reads, black = intimidation factor. “I was into some deeper shit, on the woke side,” he says. “Just having a close ear or view to everything that was going on in the world: stigmas against young Black people getting gunned down by police officers. I used to look at that as, they fear us, whether that’s physically or even mentally. they can feel your knowledge; they can feel your potential.” He lets out a small smile, intrigued by the thought of someone being afraid of untapped greatness. Political and socioeconomic issues are central to Polo’s musical messaging. He refers to music as “therapy,” a way to understand his experiences. During a stint in jail in 2018, Polo, who has struggled with addiction himself, mulled over the events of his life and came up with the lyrics for his track “Finer Things.” “I ain’t sacrifice the shit I lost, it was took from me,” he raps on the song. “Almost went insane, went insane, went insane. From all this pain, all this pain, all this pain. Turned that pain into passion and made it happen. Shout-out to the ones who doubted me, they keep me laughing.”

Polo wrote his first song, “When I Spit,” at the age of 9, after watching his older sister, Leilani, develop an interest in music. “She was the first music-driven person in our family,” Polo tells me. “That was something that inspired me, because just her being in the middle of the living room, singing for everybody—everybody gave her applause and love.” (His sister still makes music, and Polo’s brother is also a rapper, known as Trench Baby.) Polo would rap battle at school, in the back of the classroom or during lunchtime. His sister would listen to Aaliyah and Beyoncé, and played “I’m Goin ‘Down,” by Mary J. Blige, on repeat. Polo preferred Lil Wayne, whom he calls his idol, and local drill rappers like Chief Keef and G Herbo, two artists who Polo says showed him it was possible to pursue a music career outside of Chicago while still staying true to his roots.

He started getting recognition at the age of 17, when he recorded a track called “ODA” Like any Gen Zer, he harnessed the power of the Internet, signing onto Facebook Live to freestyle and perform rap songs he’d been toying with, posting snippets of his new tracks on Snapchat, and putting guerrilla-style music videos on YouTube. At 18, he was accepted to the historically Black college Lincoln University for a major in broadcasting, but the day he was due to start, he told his mother he wanted to pursue music instead. After the success of “Finer Things,” Polo’s name began circulating in the rap community. He released a catchy tune called “Pop Out,” featuring Lil Tjay, which peaked at No. 11 on the Billboard Hot 100; Columbia Records signed him soon after that. Polo’s full-length debut, die a legend, which he put out in 2019, went platinum. A year later, he released The Goat, a project that racked up 4 billion streams and counting. Singles like “Martin & Gina” and “Go Stupid” caught the attention of artists like Nicki Minaj and Lil Wayne, who tapped Polo for features on the songs “For the Love of New York” and “Gang Gang,” respectively.

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Celine Homme by Hedi Slimane jacket and sweater; Alexander McQueen pants; Falke socks; Prada shoes.

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Once he’d made it big, Polo decided to move his entire family (including his newborn son, Tremani, who is now 2 years old) to the quiet, celebrity-filled gated community of Calabasas. Going from his hometown to the chichi and ultrasafe streets of the Los Angeles suburb was “a shock for him,” says Polo’s recording engineer, Todd Hurtt, who describes him as an old soul. “He’s been separated from his previous life, and he’s been in this life for three years,” Hurtt says. “But he’s always thinking about other people. At first, he’d only come to the studio, nonstop. I was like, bro, you need a hobby. He’d sit out in front of Harold’s Chicken Shack [a Chicago restaurant with a franchise in L.A.] because it felt like home to him.”

“I don’t really go clubbing and shit like that,” Polo tells me, sliding his entire body down the black leather couch in the studio. Hurtt has since arrived, sitting in a cushy rolling chair at the massive mixing console, which resembles a spaceship’s control center. “I mostly keep to myself, and I stay home.” But this past summer, he and his friends started spending time outside the house, hanging on Rodeo Drive and Hollywood Boulevard. All of a sudden, Polo realized he wanted to enjoy the fruits of his labor, he says. “I was really letting my hair down for once. Because I’m such a closed-off person, I ain’t really social.” He keeps a very tight group of friends around him, and only those who have gained his absolute trust are welcomed into the inner circle: homies from back in Chicago; his videographer, Miguel; Hurt. So when Polo got a call from Balenciaga to go to Paris—the rapper’s first time traveling to Europe—he asked Hurtt to accompany him. “He invited me the day before,” Hurtt says, chuckling. “He texted me: ‘Are you trying to slide to Paris?’ He talks to me like we’re going to the liquor store. I said yes, and all I get back is ‘All right.’ And 30 hours later, I’m on a flight.”

Polo attended the Balenciaga show wearing a black oversize jacket—a look far outside the realm of his usual uniform of “hoodies and painted-on jeans,” Suero says. “I always tell him, ‘Your music’s growing; the brand should grow. You don’t have to step out of who you are, but you have to keep evolving.’ ” He has also tested new silhouettes by Bottega Veneta, Rick Owens, and Raf Simons. “He wore a tight Bottega turtleneck, and his friends tried to make fun of him,” Suero says. “I was like, No, he looks great. And he didn’t listen to them!” Soon after his trip to Paris, Polo went on a string of vacations, traveling to the Dominican Republic, Jamaica, and Australia. “I’ve been making it my business to abuse my passport,” he says with a smirk.

In the quiet of the studio, we’ve spent the past two hours or so waiting for Southside. At this point, Polo is the picture of exhaustion; prior to the photo shoot, he’d gotten off a plane following a run of back-to-back-to-back shows in West Palm Beach, Florida; Atlanta; and Buffalo, New York. He decides to head home and sleep. Before our conversation ends, I ask him what his hopes are for his new album, which he plans to release later in the year. He grows bashful and looks away from me, clearly uncomfortable at the prospect of having to hype himself up. But then he levels his eyes at me. The shyness in his face has vanished. “I ain’t got hopes for the album; I got guarantees,” he said. “Guarantee this shit gonna be the hottest in the streets. I guarantee it’s gonna be major numbers. I guarantee I’m gonna have a strong impact on the world. And I’m going to evoke a lot of emotions for a lot of people.” As he leaves, he gives me a hug.

Grooming by Hee Soo Kwon for Dior at the Rex Agency. Set design by Spencer Vrooman. Photo Assistants: Austin Perrotta, Nick Marrone; Fashion Assistant: DeAndrea Green; Tailor: Yelena Travkina.

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