The People’s Choice: Rapper Polo G Is 2021’s Rising Star

When Polo G began planning the rollout of what would become his breakout single, “Rapstar,” the song didn’t even exist — at least not in its current form.

Instead, both the creation and promotion of the song evolved in a masterfully drawn­out tease cam­paign, engaging fans over the course of nearly an entire year. Upon its release on April 9, as the first official single from Polo G’s third album, “Hall of Fame,” “Rapstar” would go to the top at Spotify and Apple Music in its first day, then enter the charts at No. 1, fending off Lil Nas X’s “Mon­tero (Call Me by Your Name)” in pole position for two weeks straight.

“Nothing can beat that first No. 1!” the 22­-year-­old Chicago native (real name: Taurus Tremani Bartlett) exclaims. “That was a great moment, seeing myself at the top spot, up there with so many great music creators.”

That outcome wasn’t on anyone’s radar when Polo posted a short, raw video on YouTube on May 12, 2020, fea­turing him spontaneously dropping bars over viral star­-producer Einer Bankz jamming on a ukulele, which caused a virtual uprising among fans on social media for him to release the full song. He did just that — but in increments, over almost 12 months.

Polo says the song’s potential hit him when TikTok videos incorpo­rating “Rapstar” soared to more than 40,000 posts on the platform. “Knowing the numbers, I was going with my gut,” he explains. “My fam­ily was telling me to put it out; fans were even spamming my com­ments, telling me to drop the song. And then this lyric I said in a Twitter freestyle became a meme. For a year straight, fans were tweeting the line, ‘The only bitch I give a conversation to is Siri’ from that freestyle, so I had to use it. All that was my green light telling me that I should lead with ‘Rapstar’ as the album’s first single.”

At first, his team at Columbia Records took some convincing. The label had been prepping the track “No Return,” featuring fellow rising stars the Kid Laroi and Lil Durk, as the first salvo fired in the launch strategy for “Hall of Fame.” But, as Polo explains, “I knew how bad my fan base wanted ‘Rapstar’ and how much support it would have. The numbers helped them make sense of the situation, so we changed it up.”

Polo continued to refine the track (then called “Amiri,” after the den­im brand shouted out in the second verse). He then brought in producer Synco to lace Bankz’s uke groove with trap beats and put songwriter Alexander Wu on hook patrol — all while manifesting the song’s even­tual success in the lyric. “My dad al­ ways said BMW stood for ‘Black man winning,’ so I had that in mind,” he explains. “Visually, I was just think­ ing about what my life really con­sisted of. I was transitioning from living in Chicago to Calabasas [out­ side Los Angeles], actually picking up deposits from the bank in my first car, a Beemer X7 truck, so I put that in the lyrics.

“I knew it was going to be huge after I finished the second verse,” he continues. “I came out of the booth into the studio, and from the reac­tion there, I was like, ‘Oh, this is going to be one of those.’ I know I’m due for another one pretty soon!”

Indeed, Polo has followed up with a big boss move: a deluxe edition of “Hall of Fame” featuring “Bad Man (Smooth Criminal)” — his 2021 flex on Michael Jackson’s ’80s electro­ funk classic. “I finally got clearance on that!” he laughs of the song, which dropped only recently. “I know that’s going to be a big one — another ‘Rapstar’ ­type moment.”

Here, Polo G breaks down the “Rapstar”phenomenon and what it took for his team to get it to live up to its title.

Variety: What was your inspiration behind”Rapstar” and its unique evolution in finally reaching its audience?

Polo G: The inspiration was conveying what it’s like to be me, in my position. I wanted the listener to experience what it feels like to be a rapper – the upsides and the downsides.

When the public first got a taste of “Rapstar” on YouTube, it wasn’t even really a song at that point, right?

Einer was freestyling on the ukulele, and I had some lyrics from a song I’d already started when I was in, like, Canada somewhere. Einer went crazy on the strings, I dropped the bars I had, we caught it on video, and the rest is history.

“Rapstar” basically evolved for the fans in real time as you leaked bits online to document its progress. How did the song change as you gradually teased it to the fans? 

I had to do the second verse completely over, and then Einer cooked up a new beat. Synco came in with the production to bring it home.

What is it about the song that you think grabbed listeners? 

I pride myself on speaking on the emotional and mental battles I go through every day, knowing other people are going through the same thing. I purposely put those type of lyrics in “Rapstar” to let people know they’re not alone in what they’re going through. Singing out that lyric “Anxiety killing me/I just want to leave Earth” made me feel better about everything going on. I just keep that stuff in mind when I speak to the fans.

In your opinion, where does music discovery happen today? Where do you find music? Where are your fans finding music right now? 

I’ll YouTube surf and check my friends posting about artists that are unknown. There’s a lot of dope underground talent and up-and-coming artists. For finding new artists and sounds, I’m always tuned into the raw talent on the streets and the hunger there.

Where are you finding artists like Scorey to sign to your label, ODA [Polo’s label partnership with Columbia]?

I just have an A&R ear; I always seem to know who’s next to blow. I found Scorey on Instagram: I DM’d him and we stayed tapped in. He’s got a story, talking about what goes down on a side of town you don’t always hear about.

Did you work with any new songwriters or producers this year who really impressed you?

Scorey, of course, and all the artists on my label. We got a lot of dope shit on the way! And I’ve been heavily rocking with Leilani.

Is there anyone else you’d like to shout out for helping make “Rapstar” the success it was? 

There’s a lot of components that made that song what it was – the video and the team behind it was major. My mom really believed it was a good idea to shoot the video – that’s when I knew it was a go. It really brought the whole journey of “Rapstar” together. Specifically, though, it was the fans: they put a song I’d forgotten about back on my radar, and made it come to life.

With your mother, Stacia Mac, serving as your “momager” from jump, how do you balance the personal and the professional? 

She’s still my mother, so I call her about everything to do with my life. She always has my best interests at heart and would never steer me wrong – I can trust her. We do a great job at flipping the switch, turning business off and just being family.

You’ve come a long way in 2021. Going back to the origin story, outside of the recording studio, where was the first time you heard “Rapstar”? What did that feel like? 

The only other time outside of the studio was in the car. When you hear a song in a car — that’s when you can tell if it’s really a hit.

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