Polo G is far from a household name, but the Chicago rapper’s single “Rapstar” is the second-most streamed release of 2021 and debuted at number one on the Billboard Hot 100 chart last week. It’s a breakout moment for a young artist who has been slowly gaining traction in the hip-hop world and calls attention to the massive commercial success and impact of rap: not pop-rap, nor pop songs with a rap feature — just rap.
The song is a showcase of what Polo G does best, mixing a melodic, Atlanta-influenced trap beat with lyrical clarity and weary heaviness reminiscent of Chicago drill. You would be wrong in assuming, based on the title of the track, that it’s purely a victory lap, a chance to flaunt newfound fame and wealth or a self-congratulatory boast about being a “rapstar.”
While there are moments of bragging, the somber quality of Polo G’s voice makes it sound like a chore to ride around in his new BMW counting money. He’s too haunted by memories of violence, addiction and poverty to enjoy his success wholeheartedly, and sounds defeated and reflective while trying to enjoy his material possessions.
The mental impact of surviving the struggles Polo G and so many other rappers have been through is well-documented in rap music. But instead of vague allusions to mental health, Polo G offers a compelling bluntness. He references anxiety, depression and PTSD by name and openly discusses crying while trying to process his emotions. “Every day a battle, I’m exhausted and I’m weary / Make sure I smile in public, when alone, my eyes teary / I fought through it all, but that shit hurt me severely,” he raps on “Rapstar.”
On “Relentless,” a standout track from his 2020 album “The Goat,” he raps, “I’m getting money but still hurting, that’s why I’m bipolar / I never gave up on my team, put ’em on my shoulders / Got PTSD from that battlefield, I’m a soldier.” When detailing his trauma, he refers to it as trauma, instead of substituting a less specific euphemism like “struggle” or “grind.” Polo G’s lyrics are simplistic, not because they are underdeveloped or hasty but because they simply don’t need adornments or metaphors to emphasize their weight. There’s no need to spend time deciphering complex wordplay; he lays his pain out so clearly and powerfully it’s impossible to look away.
While his music is an intoxicating blend of blunt and melodic, his lyrics are a key part of this balancing act as well; they often offer equal doses of agony and optimism, and for every harrowing story of violence or substance abuse, there is a declaration of hope and a dream for a better world. “I come from a dark place,” he raps on his 2019 debut album “Die a Legend.”“I’ll never be there again.” In “Relentless,” he says, “Ever since I made a play, been tryna educate my brothers / Heaven ain’t the only way we can escape up out the gutter,” before detailing his plans to “go from a gangster to an activist.”
The title of “Rapstar” and its play on the term pop star, combined with the song’s success, begs an examination of rap music’s colossal commercial power and impact on music as a whole. If we think of pop music as an abbreviation of popular music rather than a genre distinction, rap music is unequivocally pop music. In the face of historic underreporting of its influence due to racism, rap music has become the zeitgeist, making Polo G a pop star.
It’s impossible to overstate just how much rap music is being streamed in the United States. Billboard’s top 10 artists of 2020 included seven rappers in the top ten: Roddy Ricch, DaBaby, Drake, Juice WRLD, Lil Baby, Post Malone and Pop Smoke. Eight more rappers appear on the list if we expand it to the top 30 artists, meaning rappers occupy 15 of the top 30 slots.
But rap’s influence goes back much further than the past year or even the past few years. A 2015 study by researchers at Queen Mary University of London analyzed a multitude of audio features in popular music and found that the explosion of hip-hop in the early ’90s had the biggest impact on popular music of any music trend.
But just accepting and even enjoying rap music’s sonic and vocal influence on popular music isn’t enough, especially if listeners then go on to ignore or demean actual rap artists like Polo G. That attitude accepts rap only in a diluted and uncredited context, without interrogating the racism and stereotyping by white audiences that have led to rap music’s historic underestimation. That is why the idea of the pop star is important: It allows us to critique, from an optics standpoint, who is allowed to be recognized as a true force in the musical landscape.
When I think of the stereotypical pop star, I think of a white woman, who, due to an entirely different set of sometimes sexist assumptions, is unthreatening and palatable to mainstream white audiences. A quick Google search of “biggest pop stars” turns up articles referencing Ariana Grande, Taylor Swift, Lady Gaga, Dua Lipa and Billie Eilish — all white women. Surely the pop stars we hold up as cultural emblems should include the people making the most popular music in the country today: rappers.
By that definition, Polo G is a pop star as much as he is a “rapstar.” The song’s domination on the charts is yet another piece of evidence that rap music is a cultural and commercial behemoth that is long overdue for the respect and recognition it deserves. And rap music isn’t some abstract entity. It’s created and cultivated by living, breathing rappers. Viewing rappers as agents of cultural change by recognizing their starpower is just one small step towards remedying the historic trend of leaving Black musicians and their art uncredited and underappreciated.
Mirabella Miller SC ’23 is TSL’s music columnist and an English major from Portland, Oregon. She shows up to most events drinking a Yerba Mate.