A year ago, rapper Polo G released the track “Finer Things” like he always did — posting it on YouTube where he had built a steady following and describing himself in the caption as an “unsigned unmanaged 19yrs old North side of Chicago artist.”
Today, the video has over 65 million views, and the local artist — born Taurus Bartlett —boasts a major recording contract with Columbia Records, earned his first platinum song with the Top 40 Lil TJay collaboration “Pop Out,” and had the No. 1 Billboard rap album for his debut “Die a Legend,” which dropped in June.
“The past year changed everything drastically, and it all started with that song [‘Finer Things’],” says Bartlett of the pensive track that features a solemn piano ballad weaving through heart-heavy verses that are stepped in personal narratives. He decries the racial inequities and gentrification in Chicago, and, in the next verse bares the psychological effects of the constant violence spilling out into neighborhood streets like those near the Marshall Field Garden Apartments where he grew up.
“Yeah my friends died, too. I know that feeling, I’m popping ecstasy to help me with the healing,” he sings on the track, the video rotating between a regular city streetscape and an idyllic beach scene as he vocally ponders a new life.
The song’s more melodic style was a steep departure for Bartlett, who had previously honed a frenetic drill rap sound akin to some of his local idols like G Herbo. It was intentional, he says. “I wanted a change-up in style that could reach more people because I think listeners of my music are down-to-earth and really in tune with their emotional side, and they use my music as an outlet to get in touch with that side.”
The strategy paid off. Early reviews for “Die a Legend” (with cover art featuring photos of friends and family, most of them who died from gunfire) called Bartlett “a writer in a world of freestylers.” The rapper takes it to heart.
“I’m really intentional with the music that I make. I know I want to give it a storyteller feel rather than hopping and jumping in verses and going from one thing to the next,” he says, adding he is always most inspired by “the topic of real life and everyday struggles. …As a person coming from where I come from and talking to people that look like me, or even people that don’t look like me but are just going through the same things emotionally, I try to connect whenever I sit down to write a song. I just want everyone to feel where I’m coming from.”
Bartlett remembers always being interested in writing: “I wrote my first song when I was 8 or 9 years old. I was a big Lil Wayne fan, and so I was trying to always go for the hardest metaphors and punchlines,” he says, laughing.
Just a few years ago, when the now 20-year-old was in high school — transferring from Wendell Phillips Academy High School in Bronzeville to the arts-minded Innovations High School in the Loop — he started to take his craft more seriously.
“I could see people grasping to what I had going on,” he says, referring in particular to his Innovations English teacher Keith Chrisman, who encouraged Bartlett to take up poetry. “He was one of the people that pushed me towards rapping and taking the path I did.” Chrisman pushed for the rapper to participate in the Chicago slam poetry tradition Louder Than a Bomb, where a number of other talents like Chance the Rapper and Noname had their moments, too.
“I feel like Chicago it’s so different, we have a different story to tell, we are seeing these things happen in this city every day, and whether you participate in them or not, you see it and get influenced by it. There’s so much going on and so much to talk about,” he says of what he thinks is fueling the local hip-hop scene, which he fully champions.
Earlier this year, the rapper and his growing family — including a newborn son — relocated to Southern California, partly for business enterprises and partly for that new life he was begging for in “Finer Things.”
“I just wanted to be able to say that I raised my kids and my family around a better environment than I was brought up in,” he says. “I didn’t want my son to see the same things I had seen growing up or have to go through the same things I went through.”
Bartlett openly discusses his own challenges, including serving time in Cook County Jail for theft and drug-related charges, as a cautionary tale.
“I was writing a lot while I was in there, and I really think that influenced my career on the bright side,” he says, admitting he wrote “Finer Things” during this time, ultimately vowing to never return to jail after his release in 2018. “It made me settle down, slow down and focus more on the rapping than all the other stuff I was getting into.”
While Bartlett still travels back to Chicago when business necessitates it — including a bit in the WGCI Summer Jam on Aug. 24, his “Die a Legend” hometown show on Aug. 29 and another date opening up for Machine Gun Kelly and Young Thug on Oct. 25 — he is always apt to rep the city in his material.
“Being from a place like Chicago you have so much pride in it, there’s so many great things that come out of there, but to me not enough people from the city shine a spotlight on the good things that go on with us or the fact that we are innovative and set trends. I like to throw the city out there in my music and keep the focus on the good.”
Selena Fragassi is a local freelance writer.