It’s a cruel fact of life that success begets scrutiny. In hip-hop, this often results in those who were previously touted by audiences as future stars suddenly being derided for reaching that very goal. For Chicago’s Polo G, this has manifested in accusations that his music has grown formulaic, that its sentimentality has become trite or redundant. Described by Capalot as an opportunity “to show my diversity as an artist”, his third album Hall Of Fame is quietly mindful of the surrounding chatter -- both positive and negative.
Like any artist with aspirations of gradually growing into a first-ballot inductee, Polo doesn’t attempt to appease his critics or overly pander to pre-existing fans. Providing a slow descent into his world through plaintive piano and warped vocal runs, “Painting Pictures” is an achingly soulful way to open proceedings. Amid authoritative claims that he is “built different,” Polo’s reflections on losing his friend Lil Wooski and the sorrow of feeling as though “your voice is slowly fading out” are vivid in a way that befits the track’s title. Encapsulating everything that makes Capalot such a compelling writer, his illustrations of these snapshots are both colorful and confrontational.
Never one to trivialize the pain he’s felt, much of Hall Of Fame sees Polo drawing from a tragic familiarity with trauma. But rather than spend too much time lamenting without any shred of light, tracks such as megahit “RAPSTAR” and The Kid LAROI and Lil Durk-assisted “No Return” see the agony repurposed as fuel. As LAROI drops in to declare that “I can’t ever go back to the way shit was” on the hook, Polo unloads a fiery performance that invokes the rabid delivery of the Die A Legend days. Far from the only time that he will stand shoulder to shoulder with one of his city’s leading lights, Durk and Herbo’s presence on “Go Part 1” is a reminder of how Polo has turned his inspirations to contemporaries.
Staying true to the melodic flow that elevated his game, Polo deals in poetic paradoxes for much of the runtime. Said to be “so sick of farewells” before pledging to avenge his fallen brothers on the forlorn “Epidemic”, this inner turmoil is finally allowed to take center stage on “Toxic.” The standout among several tracks in which he trades the emotional pull of keys for atmospheric, alt-rock guitar-- provided on this occasion by Spanish producer JKEI, Polo admits to being anything but infallible as he reveals how the internal scars of his upbringing register in his life. Taking direct aim at the endless online discourse that surrounds him -- “lil white boy from the ‘burbs had the nerve to tell me I ain’t going hard enough, like he ever really had it hard enough” -- Polo’s confessional style recedes, revealing a man who no longer wishes to be understood, but respected and feared.
Make no mistake, risks are taken on HOF. But due to its expansive length, they are simply interspersed with offerings that listeners are attuned to hearing from the Chicagoan. For example, the sentiment-laced sonics of “Blackhearted” delivers precisely what you’d anticipate from Polo in terms of delivery and production; familiarity aside, it’s actually among the most riveting lyrical outings of the entire project.
By making good on listener expectation, he then has free rein to explore long-forgotten or even previously uncharted outposts of his artistry. “Gang Gang” is an avenue for both he and Tunechi to prove that they can glide over the sort of celestial textures that are usually the purview of Lil Uzi and co; on the subject of Wayne, the ancestry of the Scorey-backed “Broken Guitars” could probably be traced back to the much-maligned Rebirth. In the case of the unsurprisingly boisterous “Boom”, Polo actually yields the record’s most self-assured moment by directly moving out of his comfort zone.
In other instances, Polo sets his sights on becoming a frequent visitor to the top of the Billboard singles chart. Although it’s sure to be a smash, the DaBaby-assisted “Party Lyfe” feels somewhat incongruous on a record where so much of the runtime is focused on introspection. The balladry of “So Real” or the CashmoneyAP-helmed, steel drum-inflected “For The Love Of New York” register as smoother transitions into unadulterated hitmaking. Featuring a razor-sharp verse from Nicki Minaj evocative of the Pink Friday days, her performance is one of several instances in which Capalot’s guests appear aware of the project's potential magnitude.
Hall Of Fame concludes on another beautifully reflective note with “Bloody Canvas.” Invoking hip-hop’s proud storytelling tradition like never before, this closer serves as a potted autobiography of Polo’s journey, a view into the life of a young man who was involuntarily hardened by anguish and had no choice but to grow up fast. Recalling how his late friend Jacob “ain't even get to graduate 'cause he was only seventeen, shorty cried all night, wishin' that shit was just a dream,” Polo is on pugnacious form and delivers what is undoubtedly one of the most fully realised compositions in his entire discography. Its narrative style and use of newscasts ingeniously escorts his rhymes away from the abstract realm where hip-hop fans feel comfortable and into cold, unglamorized reality.
If the intention behind Hall Of Fame was to show Polo’s artistic range and prove that he’s a bonafide star, it’s safe to say that he excelled on both counts. Adept at standing on his own two or coalescing with artists of varying calibres, Polo not only showcases well-roundedness, but depth, daringness and clarity of vision. While the status he’s aiming for is ultimately awarded by time and influence, he’s certainly put his best foot forward.