A generation removed from Chief Keef, the stunning transformation of street rap has revealed something much more than just the next iteration of Chicago drill.
Funk Flex’s fleeting DJ set last Tuesday night at Webster Hall revealed two things. One, that concert-goers tend to have little patience for incessant beat switching after waiting around for hours in near-arctic temperatures. And two, Chief Keef’s “Faneto” and “Love Sosa” remain incendiary party-starters, even as their revered architect has faded into a sort of celestial status in recent years. The crowd’s response to the musical cult classics, jumping up and down in excited unison, suggested that they sensed the impact of the Chicago godfather on the night’s proceedings. By the time that headliner Polo G emerged on stage, backed by souped-up displays of the Ralph Lauren rider toting a drum magazine, the crowd was frothing at the mouth.
Polo G attends the 2019 BET Awards - Frazer Harrison/Getty Images
In many respects, Polo G’s music is built on the foundation set by the drill music vanguards of the 2010s. The 20-year-old’s dungeon-dark lamentations are wrenching, derived from the coliseum-like intensity of a scene that spawned projects such as Welcome to Fazoland, Free Crack, and the Signed to the Streets trilogy. Platinum hit single “Pop Out” parlays this into hard-nosed threats, with Polo G warning those who would wish him harm to “tuck your chain” given his aptitude for mid-party robberies and headshots. “Dyin Breed” positions the retaliatory trading of lives as nothing more than a form of “reimbursement,” and leans into the imagery of childhood game “cops and robbers” to paint a portrait of the duality of the black experience in inner cities and suburbs. Elsewhere, the visuals are more overt: the “Gang With Me (Many Men Remix)” video starts off innocuous enough before Polo G is suddenly brandishing the military-grade weaponry you’d expect to see in Call of Duty. All of this unfolds before the 10-second mark.
“Pop Out” is the most prominent extension of Keef’s seminal “Love Sosa,” its infectious hook characterized by an animosity ready to spill over the brim of every faithfully sculpted lyric. Yet perhaps even more influential than drill music’s prodigal son is Lil Durk, another Chiraq veteran who made a name for himself through an auto-tuned, apocalyptic sweetness that pushed the subgenre’s vocal proclivities into uncharted territory. Though Durk never quite managed to achieve the ubiquity of Keef when he first electrified the mainstream back in 2012, the melodic forebear has maintained a heavy presence in Chicago, one that has reverberated throughout hip hop in the work of El Hitta, Lil Zay Osama, Quando Rondo, YNW Melly, and YoungBoy Never Broke Again. Indeed, the new wave sits squarely at the intersection of Durk’s spiny melodies, G Herbo and Meek Mill’s desperate street platitudes, and Young Thug’s drifting charisma.
What differentiates Polo G and his generational ilk is the striking sense of contrast that defines their music. Rather than attempting to mask or ignore the pain of loss and strife through tumbled visions of hearses and gang signs, such scars are chronicled through a careful consideration and raw fatalism. The aggression and flat grandiosity of peak Sosa is still present, yes, but it’s drastically more genial and emotive, spun with a hypnotic conviction that has connected with audiences everywhere. In an era where freestyling is the preferred method of song-dump distribution, Polo G puts pen to pad before entering the booth, choosing his words in a manner that is more even-keeled than that of his predecessors. His writing is honest and meticulous, bound together by rhythmic cadences that defy the generic “rose-that-grew-from-concrete drivel” descriptor that gets tossed around by critics. The simplistic rhyme scheme that he employs is remarkably eloquent and well-rendered in its gravitas, eerily reminiscent of Gucci Mane’s early work. He rides out 16-bar waves with ease, each line running directly to the next with the kind of malleable, mid-bar toggling that allows him to snap from breezy singing to agitated growling in the blink of an eye.
On immensely promising debut Die A Legend, whose title reads like a hopeful epitaph, the North Side rapper’s sumptuous R&B sensibilities penetrate the gritty prose. Tracks like “Through da Storm” forgo drill’s traditionally deadpan posturing in favor of sticky, post-Drake melodies. More street-oriented anthems “Battle Cry” and “Finer Things” find him reflecting on what “making it” means beyond the numbness of never being able to truly leave his past life behind, no matter the riches he chooses to surround himself with in his home in Calabasas. Though humbled by his newfound surroundings and the good fortune that plucked him from harm’s way, there’s a propulsive anxiety to every word, as if he’s terrified what wasted potential could portend. Even in new-moneyed boasts about having “come a long way from depression, all these riches keep my smiling,” he sounds like he’s still very much trapped in depression’s cruel clutches.
The more nuanced sonic decisions are just as telling in their juxtaposition. Die a Legend details the impact of Chicago’s streets on its creator’s psyche through instrumentals that float on melodramatic piano keys and muted music box chimes. Jittery hi-hats and otherwise minimal percussion contribute to this ambient doom and gloom, augmenting Polo G’s hardened yet fragile consciousness. Take “Deep Wounds,” a church hymnal layered with guilt about making it out while watching loved ones lose their lives on the “same blocks where we used to play,” or the shell-shocked “Hollywood,” an overwhelmingly sad piece of music that is both parts aspirational and depressive in its mourning of a youth that was ripped away. There is a subtle (if unsettling) elegance to such presentation that makes the defiant self-reflection that much more poignant.
Lil Tjay poses at the HNHH office in NYC
This dissolute crooning of rags to riches through the lens of past trauma is not unique to Polo G, although he’s certainly leading the charge from the Windy City. Lil Tjay, who complements the tone and tension of his counterpart (“bodies drop all the time, I don’t feel nothing”) on the mantra-like earworm that is “Pop Out,” grew up in the Bronx on 183rd street, not far from the birthplace of hip hop. While his autobiographical tales are indebted to the genre’s history, his personal ties are more minimal. In fact, he grew up singing along to Usher and Michael Jackson, and one of his most popular songs flips Justin’s Bieber’s “Baby” (he revealed to Pitchfork that he wants to sample “One Less Lonely Girl” for a future track). Tjay honed his animated chirps, considerably less anodyne than those of fellow New York singer-rapper A Boogie Wit Da Hoodie, while locked up in a youth detention center for a “little over a year” on a robbery charge. The time behind bars was a reality check, and he began to envision a new direction for himself through music. After being granted his freedom in 2017, he stuck to the straight and narrow and recorded his first song “Resume,” a dour trap-pop tune that now sits at roughly 26 million streams on SoundCloud. Since then, the youngster has evolved into a sympathetic voice for those struggling to escape the hypercriminalized communities of black America, with tracks like “Brothers,” “Goat,” and “F.N” standing as a testament to this mission. “The only experiences I talk about are mine and nobody else’s,” said Tjay of his authenticity, an oft-harped upon cardinal rule of hip hop. “People listen to it knowing that Lil Tjay is real.”
Calboy, who collaborated with fellow Chicago-native Polo G on “Caroline,” is another pain-stricken crooner whose songcraft marries despair and abrupt optimism. His hit single “Envy Me” showcases the acute perspective of someone who’s beat incredibly long odds to cash in on a winning lottery ticket in a world where such victories are all too bittersweet. Over the JTK-produced beat (who constructed 9 of the 14 tracks on Die a Legend with fellow producer Ayo), Calboy’s pitched arc fires off in triplets to create a sound steeped in the struggle against demons and being “raised in the deep end.” He revealed to Billboard that the inspiration behind the song’s lyrics was derived from the horror of Academy Award-winning film Get Out and its portrayal of the sunken place. “It’s a story of Chicago’s youth,” locally-known Chicago DJ Finesse Fest said of “Envy Me.” “It’s about overcoming the poverty, the drugs, the gang violence, and somehow being able to feed your family and friends.”
Calboy at the HNHH office in NYC
Atlanta’s trap megalith has colonized the rap scene, its immense gravitational pull sucking in everything that comes within reach. Still, there is a palpable sense of excitement surrounding the new crop of talent and the sights and sounds they bring with them. Freshly minted storytellers like Polo G, Lil Tjay, and Calboy are case studies in hip hop’s unrelenting speed: rap generations now cycle in and out every 18 months. For a genre born out of variety and the search for a voice that speaks to the times, this constant innovation represents a seismic shift in hip hop’s forward-thinking pursuit of “what’s next.” When Polo G gets called back on stage for an encore performance of the idiom-driven “BST,” it’s more than just spirited affirmation of his ascending star, but a reflection of hip hop’s youth, many of whom have been forced to mature faster than is typically expected of people their age. They sing like there’s nothing exceptional about such circumstances, thrusting their melodies every which way while traversing a range of styles through bouts of grief bathed in an emotional complexity well beyond their years. In taking stock of settings where death wanders haphazardly, such artists are pushing the envelope through a dichotomous pairing of smooth vocal textures and grave subject matter. Their music is an acknowledgement of the bleak statistics and high stakes of their respective cities, a humanization of the streets that is haunted by the past and a need to keep one’s head above water for the sake of the future.