The Jack Harlow Problem Isn’t Black or White
In 2010, deep into his full-length debut Thank Me Later and teetering on the precipice of life-altering pop superstardom, the artist born Aubrey Drake Graham found himself in dire need of some good advice, or at least Jay-Z thought so.
Drake, here’s how they gon’ come at you
With silly rap feuds, tryin’ to distract you
In disguise, in the form of a favor
The Barzini meeting, watch for the traitors
This came amid the melancholy bombast of “Light Up,” in which Drake mused, “I keep thinkin’, how young can you die from old age?” before Jay added, “I once was / Cool as the Fonz was / But these bright lights turned me to a monster.” (Later in 2010, Jay-Z would helpfully list all the monsters those bright lights had turned him into, and everyone would love it.) Life-altering pop superstardom: Wow, it really sucks! Sometimes. Maybe. Not really. But it’s awfully fun to whine about, and if you’re good enough at whining about fame it’ll make you even more famous.
Drake’s first official album wasn’t even over yet, but he’d already mastered this sort of self-aggrandizing self-pity, even if he’d later prove less adept at avoiding silly rap feuds. But on first contact I still remember sitting up a little straighter at Drake, here’s how they gon’ come at you, which struck me then as a formal coronation of sorts, less a passing of the torch than the lighting of a new one. A rap god blessing the birth of another rap god. Jay-Z dabbing a little holy water onto Drake’s forehead. (You gotta admit, Jay enjoys being a godfather.) Was the downbeat pomposity of “Light Up” a little corny? Absolutely. But the bombast, for one fleeting but thrilling moment, overpowered the corniness, not to mention the self-pity.
On Friday, deep into his second full-length album Come Home the Kids Miss You and at least approaching the same area code as the precipice of life-altering pop superstardom, the artist born Jackman Thomas Harlow asked Drake for some good advice in the most explicit terms possible.
Before I met Drizzy, I knew he and I would get along
But it’s hard to crack jokes when you really want advice
I mean, what’s it like to touch gold every time you touch a mic
Touchin’ heights, no one gets a touch in life
This amid the slightly less bombastic melancholy of “Churchill Downs,” and first of all, Before I met Drizzy, I knew he and I would get along might be the most arrogant thing this guy’s ever said, even if he meant it, even if he was right. (Drake and Jack did indeed have a primo Dudes Rock experience together at the Kentucky Derby this past weekend; if this video’s gone by the time you get to it, please hunt it down elsewhere, if only for Drake’s delivery of “What’re you gonna cut to?”) Jack Harlow, the affable pride of Louisville, Kentucky, has spent the past half-year or so hitting the I Am The New Person You Have To Know About Now tier of rapper-turned-pop-star ubiquity: He guested on Lil Nas X’s No. 1 hit “Industry Baby,” hit No. 1 on the Hot 100 himself in April with the mellow early Come Home single “First Class,” graced the cover of Rolling Stone, and will most likely have the No. 1 album in America by this time next week. Come Home the Kids Miss You is better than his haters will suggest but not as good as his fans will insist, if you get my drift. “Churchill Downs” is a fraught but compelling highlight, even if our hero doesn’t exactly get the advice he asked for.
Jack Harlow sounds best over jaunty horns, suave pianos, and luxury suburban-trap beats that sound like they’re playing softly in the background even at full volume; his mild drawl is more Midwestern Kentucky than Southern Kentucky, but it helps sell even his groaniest sub-Big Sean sex boasts. (“Like a blade of grass wants sunlight, I just want that ass,” one song begins; “I’ma have you cream-filled on some donut shit,” another song effectively ends, as far as I’m concerned.)
He blew up with the jaunty / suave / luxuriously suburban-trap single “Whats Poppin,” which eventually anchored his 2020 debut album Thats What They All Say and peaks, as far as I’m concerned, with the early line “I got options / I could pass that bitch like Stockton.” (I prefer that my white rappers limit their NBA references to white players, as indeed Harlow did with his other 2020 breakout hit “Tyler Herro”; I hope his rap career at least lasts long enough for him to dedicate songs to Rik Smits, Matthew Dellavedova, and Gheorghe Muresan.) But Harlow has been plugging away at that rap career for a decade, as he observes on the early Come Home track called (oh, Jesus) “Young Harleezy”:
But I’m 10 years in
Took me eight to start eating
Six to start drinking
Nine to give it up
Great line. Lotta useful information. I’m serious. The man who can now credibly rap, “But they call me Young Pitino ‘cause I’m good in both towns” is no overnight success. Harlow’s slow evolutionary grind from goofy-looking rap nerd—his string of late-’10s mixtapes is worth exploring for the emotional arc of his haircut alone, and yes that includes the one called Gazebo—to A-list goofball heartthrob is as fascinating as it is vexing, and as white rappers go he’s got more raw skill than, say, G-Eazy and provokes less raw irritation than, say, Logic. Come Home is no pop blockbuster: The Fergie-sampling and TikTok-baiting “First Class” is easily its catchiest moment, and Harlow lacks the hook-savvy melodicism of, well, Drake. (Though the lovely and ornery Lil Wayne team-up “Poison” comes closest.) There is something slightly grating but overwhelmingly winsome about this person, even when he is rhyming Margot Robbie with Abu Dhabi on a song called “Side Piece”; even when he is rapping, “I need that peanut butter / Yeah, that Jif shit”; even when he announces, “I’ma fuck the earrings off of you” and then tweets it, also.
Imma fuck the earrings offa you
— Jack Harlow (@jackharlow) May 6, 2022
Winsome. Grating. Harlow is ambitious (“I want to be the face of my shit, like the face of my generation, for the next 10 years,” he informed Rolling Stone) but charmingly low-key, even if that also makes him maddeningly laser-focused on his own dizzying rise to stardom to the exclusion of any other topic roiling hip-hop or society at large. If this guy has anything more compelling to say than, Wow, I used to not be famous, but now I’m famous: weird, huh? then I strongly suspect I don’t want to hear him say it. The closest he gets to social commentary here is when he rhymes Aéropostale with coke in they nostrils, which is plenty close enough; his ceiling as a full-blown loverman type is pretty low, based on boner-annihilating japes like
“You know I like to dictate things, Kim Jong / I know that drink strong / You know we get that bourbon out the barrel, Diddy Kong.” The only thing that can sustain, let alone increase, Jack Harlow’s current level of fame is his adroitness at rapping about his current + former + hypothetical-future level of fame. I am slightly concerned that he’ll never rap about anything else, and even more concerned that he might try.
Which brings us back to “Churchill Downs,” which begins with Young Harleezy marveling at the view:
Sometimes when I sit back and really let it register
I did everything I said I would, and said it first
I mean the world’s in denial, but they all know what I’m headed for
And then he says he always knew Drake would really like him, and then he asks Drake for advice, and then Drake shows up and raps excellently for several minutes but barely mentions or acknowledges Jack Harlow at all. “Therapy sessions, I’m in the waiting room, readin’ Forbes,” raps Drake. And: “How much water can I fit under the bridge before it overflows?” And: “I got my realtor out here playin’ Monopoly.” And: “I’m gettin’ so rich, my music’s not even relatable.” And, finally, almost grudgingly: “And shorty like, ‘You know that boy Jack is goin’ places.’ / I know.” So much for that advice. Or maybe, as deftly as Drake’s verse is rapped, the neverending desultory solipsism with which he now deftly raps everything is the advice, a cautionary tale for Jack about a superstar rapper so obsessed with avoiding traitors and Barzini meetings that he won’t really meet with anybody anymore.
The fact that Jack (sober) and Drake (not sober) nonetheless had a splendid time at the Kentucky Derby this weekend suggests that Harlow’s got the charisma to break the get-famous-rapping-about-fame cycle, eventually. The fact that there’s also video of two bodyguards carrying him around so his shoes didn’t get dirty suggests that he’s not unsusceptible to clueless-white-rapper pitfalls. The fact that Come Home the Kids Miss You is about to be a pretty big deal means that Jack Harlow is, de facto, about to be a pretty big deal. The fact that it’s a half-decent mainstream rap album at best means he’s either another sign of the apocalypse or a young star with room for improvement, depending on your mood. The fact that the nicest thing he can think of to say to a lady is, “You the type of girl I wanna bring to Thanksgiving” is truly very sweet. The fact that I’m probably only going to remember the donut line two weeks from now is my problem, OK, sure. But this guy’s about to be everyone’s.