Music

All Polo G’s “Rapstar” Needed to Reach No. 1 Was One Great Hook

The song’s riff alone threatened to eclipse the rapper’s entire last album.

Polo G in the "Rapstar" video.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Polo G/YouTube.

Imagine if TikTok had existed in the late ’60s: Maybe Led Zeppelin’s “Whole Lotta Love” would’ve been a hit sooner. Zep bassist John Paul Jones has claimed that the band’s guitar god Jimmy Page had the immortal riff for their biggest-ever pop hit (No. 4, 1970) as far back as 1968, and that fans heard Page playing the riff onstage before it became a fully written song on 1969’s Led Zeppelin II (thanks to the addition of some raunchy lyrics that Robert Plant nicked from bluesman Willie Dixon). An even better example of transforming a fragment into a hit came two years later: Jerry Wallace, a pop-turned-country singer, was hired by the showrunners for TV’s Night Gallery, an early-’70s supernatural-tales series from Twilight Zone creator Rod Serling, to record a piece of a faux country record. It was just a snippet of a track, penned expressly by the show’s script editor and music director to play on repeat from a haunted jukebox. In January 1972, after the episode aired, NBC was flooded with so many requests for the nonexistent record, “If You Leave Me Tonight I’ll Cry,” that the song was completed by its moonlighting songwriters and recorded and released by Wallace, becoming his only country No. 1 hit eight months later.

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Sending snail mail to a television network was the best a music lover could do to make an unrecorded song go viral in 1972. In the 2020s, we have far more tools at our disposals. This week, a former song fragment that’s nearly a year old—belatedly expanded into a full-blown single, after months of relentless fan importuning, especially on TikTok—is sitting atop Billboard’s Hot 100. And it all started with a rapper freestyling over a ukulele.

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That would be Taurus Tremani Bartlett, a 22-year-old Chicagoan better known as Polo G—and I might be selling him a bit short by calling him a mere rapper. As I say so often in this No. 1 hits series, nowadays, syncopated singing is rapping, and Polo possesses a placid, unfancy but mellifluous singing voice. He shows off this plaintive croon very effectively on “Rapstar,” America’s top song for the second straight week.

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Hang on … yet another song about a “R[xxx]star”? Haven’t we been here before—like, really recently? There have been no less than four Top 10 hits in the past 15 years about wanting to be a “Rockstar”—from Nickelback, the Shop Boyz (they wanted to “Party Like” one), Post Malone featuring 21 Savage and, just last year, DaBaby featuring Roddy Ricch. These last two “Rockstar”s were No. 1 hits in 2017 and 2020, respectively. And even if we toss out Nickelback’s straight-up rock song, the other three hits are essentially brooding trap-pop songs, each more sing-songy than the last. Malone’s and DaBaby’s chart-toppers were especially downbeat, pairing a seemingly party-hearty title with morose melodies and burnt-out lyrics. DaBaby and Ricch’s “Rockstar,” Billboard’s official 2020 Song of Summer, was the most bewitching of the bunch, built out of a moody guitar arpeggio gentle enough for a country record. It’s the closest thing to a template for Polo G’s “Rapstar” (at last, someone finally changed the R genre in the title). Polo replicates DaBaby’s whole syncopated-singing-over-acoustic-plucking trip. But Polo doubles down on the approach: It doesn’t get much gentler than a ukulele.

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That uke is pivotal to “Rapstar’s” origin story. It’s played by Swiss-born, San Francisco–based Einer Bankz, a multi-instrumentalist and rap superfan. Bankz was a childhood violinist and high school heavy metal guitarist before he settled on the instrument that’s made him famous. Sometime in the mid-’10s, while living at a friend’s house, Bankz picked up a ukulele lying in the garage and found he had a knack for it. On his very first day as a ukuleleist, he shot a video of himself playing a Snoop Dogg song, posted it online, and got an approving repost from Snoop himself. Bankz then spent the next five years becoming the uke-playing Zelig figure of hip-hop—shredding with scores of rappers, from Choppa to Chance the Rapper, and doing for his instrument what the self-proclaimed “hip-hop violinist” Miri Ben-Ari had done for the fiddle a decade earlier. Bankz’s delicately plucked style was ideal for the moody era of trap and SoundCloud rap, but he was equally at home jamming behind old-school rappity-rap dudes like Fat Joe. Three decades after LL Cool J knocked ’em out rustic-style on MTV Unplugged, the very phrase “acoustic hip-hop” no longer seems like a novelty or an oxymoron.

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Bankz’s collaboration with Polo G wound up being his most fruitful, because he caught the rapper near the ground floor. Raised in Chicago’s rough Old Town neighborhood on the North Side, Polo was on the come-up when he met Bankz in 2018, well after the latter had done a slew of ukulele joints with much more famous rappers. Polo was only just about to be signed to Columbia Records and hadn’t even dropped an official single yet—only viral videos like “Gang With Me”—but an A&R scout convinced Bankz to meet with Polo. The ukulele player took to the 19-year-old instantly, sensing a kindred spirit with a vocal tone suited to his hypnotic, cycling acoustic melodies.

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In December 2018, the pair dropped an acoustic mini-version of Polo G’s future studio track “Battle Cry” on YouTube that went viral and set up his major-label debut Die a Legend. By the time the album arrived in June 2019, Polo had already scored a serious pop and rap radio hit, “Pop Out” featuring Lil Tjay (No. 11 Hot 100, No. 7 R&B/HH Airplay). That hit established Polo’s singable flow, but over more traditional, radio-friendly trap beats. Still, Polo and Bankz didn’t stop their extracurricular collaborations. They followed the uke-powered “Battle Cry” with acoustic takes on the Polo tracks “Inspiration” in 2019 and “Heartless” and “33” in 2020. All of these uke versions were as compact as the instrument Bankz plays—each one clocked in around a minute and a half, sometimes less. And while most were alternate takes of songs that would wind up on a future Polo G album—both “Heartless” and “33” would turn up on his 2020 follow-up The GOAT—some of these tracks, like “Inspiration,” were loosies, essentially bonus tracks. And one of those loosies, the one that would eventually take the duo to the top of the charts, didn’t even have a name.

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Though this one-minute, 34-second clip has been retroactively tagged “Rapstar” on YouTube, when it first appeared online 11 months ago, it was untitled. Einer Bankz claims it was a one-take recording, Polo G freestyling over an entrancing melody Banks was plucking out, just for fun, after a long day of shooting promotional clips. (Other chart-topping hits have emerged from such humble beginnings; Guns n’ Roses guitarist Slash recounts that their monster hit “Sweet Child o’ Mine” grew out of a “stupid little riff” he played only to warm up his guitar.) Polo had a remarkable amount of the future song’s lyrics down pat, right off the dome—its most quotable line, “Only bitch I give a conversation to is Siri,” was already part of that first draft. Released on YouTube on May 25, a couple of weeks after The GOAT dropped, the clip threatened to eclipse the new album. Fans not only ate it up, they began demanding Polo turn it into a full-blown song. Again, all of his and Bankz’s collaborations to date had been this short and stark, but this one was a fragment, a doodle—a really catchy doodle.

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Turning up when it did last spring—right when DaBaby and Roddy Ricch’s “Rockstar” was climbing the charts in the pandemic’s early months—one can imagine Polo drawing inspiration from the prior hit. Even though “Rapstar’s” melody and cadence are very different from “Rockstar,” the songs are thematically similar: DaBaby’s refrain, “Brand-new Lamborghini, fuck a cop car/With the pistol on my hip like I’m a cop” sets up Polo G’s “Copped a BMW, new deposit, I picked up another bag/Like, fuck it—I’ma count while I’m in it.” Or maybe Polo G had been saving up the German luxury auto brand since childhood? In a Genius interview about “Rapstar’s” lyrics, a charming Polo explains, “My pops had told me one time that BMW stands for ‘Black man winning.’ ” And indeed, like both DaBaby’s “Rockstar” and Post Malone’s “Rockstar,” Polo’s “Rapstar” lyrics are both a flex by a rising celebrity and a therapy session. In the initial verse, Polo is all boast: “I hear planes flyin’, crowds screamin’, money counters, chains clangin’/ Shit, I guess that’s how it sound when you winnin’.” But by the third verse, he’s owning up to his emotional fragility: “Anxiety killin’ me, I just want to leave Earth/ When they ask if I’m OK, it just make everything seem worse/ Try and explain your feelings, sound like something you rehearsed.”

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Few of these heavy lyrics were part of the minute-and-a-half sketch released last May. But the song’s balance of flossing and soul-baring was already there, anchored by Einer Bankz’s magnetic guitar filigree. As Polo G and Columbia worked singles from The GOAT for the rest of 2020, the interwebs took matters into their own hands. One YouTuber threw a beat behind what was now becoming known as “Polo G’s Unreleased Acoustic Song.” More impressive, thousands of TikTok users began shooting videos scored by “Unreleased Acoustic”—again, an incomplete track recorded unprofessionally in an echoey room—as part of the fan campaign to turn it into a song.

Bankz says when the TikTok videos reached the neighborhood of 40,000, Polo finally relented and decided to build “Unreleased Acoustic” into “Rapstar.” He finished the lyrics, reconnected with Bankz, who rerecorded his ukulele, and brought in Bay Area producer Synco to flesh out the studio version. The producer worked a bit of a miracle, thickening up the track and throwing a beat behind it without destroying the original’s wisp of a hook. Polo was so pleased with the result that in early 2021, he held up the release of his third album Hall of Fame to make “Rapstar” his next single. Leaning into fans’ anticipation, he even dropped a short animated preview of the studio version on Instagram.

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Say this for giving the people what they want: There’s nothing like pent-up demand to deliver a smash hit. Prior to this year, Polo G had never cracked the Hot 100’s Top 10 on his own. “Pop Out” had topped out at No. 11; and last summer, Polo took a guest verse on a posthumous track by the late Juice WRLD, “Hate the Other Side,” alongside EDM producer Marshmello and fellow sing-rapper the Kid Laroi, which spent a single week at No. 10. “Rapstar” blew all of that chart history out of the water.

Last week, Billboard announced that the song had debuted on the Hot 100 at No. 1, fueled by an enormous 53.6 million streams—the third largest streaming week of the year, after the first two weeks of Olivia Rodrigo’s “Drivers License.” As I’ve been reporting a lot in this series lately, No. 1 debuts on the Hot 100 are becoming commonplace as radio audiences have declined during the pandemic (leaving streams as the chart’s overwhelming factor). So it’s become less special to debut on top; what’s much harder is holding on top for a second week, and “Rapstar” did just that. With its streams falling only 25 percent in Week 2, to a still-massive 40.3 million, and its radio airplay increasing almost threefold (the broadcast biz wasn’t prepared for this fan-driven track and is now playing catch-up), there’s a chance Polo G’s emo boast may stick at or close to the top of the chart for a while.

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So many aspects of the rise of “Rapstar” are very now: the arc of Polo G’s YouTube-driven career; the parallel, peripatetic rise of Einar Bankz’s career, in a hip-hop world where sonic novelty (I mean … ukulele beats?!) is coin of the realm; and of course, the online feedback loop between fan and artist that willed the full song into being. Or maybe this is all just an accelerated version of what turned Jerry Wallace’s own song fragment into a country chart-topper five decades ago. A recent Billboard feature pointed out that what ties together “Rapstar” and other recent No. 1s like BTS’s “Dynamite,” Lil Nas X’s “Montero” and the blockbuster arrival of Taylor Swift’s rerecorded album Fearless is the teaser preview—letting fans hear just a few seconds of a song in advance to whet appetites and stoke clicks at Spotify. But those other examples were all very premeditated, with coy, artful mini-previews of the new music deployed on a label or artist-sanctioned schedule. Whereas the sneak preview of “Rapstar” nearly a year ago wasn’t supposed to be a preview at all. There’s something wonderfully random and old-school about that—more odds-and-sods than Tiks and Toks.

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