Jack Harlow Knows What He Wants. And Where He Stands.
ATLANTA — Last June, on the red carpet at the BET Awards, Jack Harlow finished up an interview and noticed that the rapper Saweetie was nearby. He had appeared on a remix of her hit “Tap In,” but the two hadn’t yet met in person. And so he strolled up, tilted his body slightly in her direction, smoothly extended his hand and said hello.What unfolded for the next 20 seconds was a rather epic tug-of-flirt, his charm bumping up against her arched eyebrow.“I was like, that wasn’t the interaction I was hoping it would be,” Harlow said on a Thursday evening late last month at the unflashily sleek Generation Now Studios. “At the time, though, I was like, I hope that don’t go on the internet.”It very much did. The playful face-off had been captured by a camera from the gossip site The Shade Room, and the video spread quickly. It’s prominently included in a fan-assembled YouTube compilation titled “jack harlow being a natural flirt for 5 mins straight” that currently has over 6.6 million views. “My compilations used to be ‘Jack Harlow being sus,’” he said with a big smile, using a slang term for awkward or lame. “It’s crazy how the narrative has changed.”Whether or not Harlow, now 24, was flirting (“Sometimes I’ll just be talking to people and people think I’m flirting,” he said. “I think I carry a warmth”), the frisky moment ended up becoming one of the defining documents of his rapid ascent.“Everything shifted after that,” he said. “I tell people that was like a hit song.”Harlow has had a few of those as well: the effervescent “Whats Poppin,” which became a hugely trafficked meme on TikTok in 2020; a cheeky guest turn on Lil Nas X’s “Industry Baby,” which went to No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 last year; and the Fergie-sampling “First Class,” which recently became Harlow’s first solo No. 1.On Friday he released “Come Home the Kids Miss You,” his second major-label album (Harlow is signed to Generation Now’s joint venture with Atlantic). It’s full of sumptuous thumpers about the disorienting spin of new stardom, becoming an object of craving and good old-fashioned throne-taking ambition. Harlow is a notably adept technical rapper, cocksure and also sometimes witty; some of his earliest breakout moments were punch-line-packed radio freestyles. But Harlow — a commercially successful white rapper, still a rare thing in hip-hop — is craving centrist hip-hop acclaim, not a connoisseur’s classic.“I’m looking to get away from rapping in a way where people can marvel at it and more something we can all enjoy together,” he said.He has also become an object of fascination for more than his music, as the Saweetie clip encapsulated. To watch Harlow’s climb is to see the many ways, most of them not on record, in which a white rapper can demonstrate comfort in — and ultimately be embraced by — a Black genre.Drake posted casual footage of a Turks and Caicos vacation with Harlow on his Instagram, crowing, “Shorty, don’t try and hit my phone now ’cause you see I’m chilling with Jack.” When Harlow posted an awkward video of himself rapping as an 11-year-old, Kendrick Lamar, who hadn’t clicked to favorite a tweet in two years, emerged to smash the like button. The Louisville rapper EST Gee told a story on the No Jumper podcast about how the local police had attempted to dissuade Harlow from working with him, but Harlow disregarded them.These informal interactions have been crucial to Harlow’s fluid path to hip-hop’s top tier, and are an implicit rejoinder to earlier generations of white rappers who drew incessant attention to their whiteness, often in ways that felt compensatory, or penitent.“I’m not preoccupied with my whiteness,” Harlow said. “I am aware of it, but it’s not something that I’m battling against or lifting up. I just let it be.” Over the years, he observed white rappers — whether Eminem, or Asher Roth, or Mac Miller, or Macklemore — and decided what approaches made sense to him.“I feel like any respect I’m earning is because people can see I love this,” Harlow said. “I love this like a kid that really grew up on hip-hop, that isn’t looking at this as like the cool trend.”Luisa Opalesky for The New York Times“Even though I haven’t lived through all those generations, I’m aware of and I’ve been able to reflect on them,” he added.More broadly, skilled white rap stars aren’t as novel as they were in the Eminem era, which automatically dims the spotlight on Harlow slightly. And also the genre is as broad and as street-immediate as it’s ever been in the mainstream — Black innovation remains at the forefront.Harlow, who was born and raised in Louisville, Ky., has been studying for this moment for more than a decade. A 2017 profile in Louisville Magazine relates a story of how, at 12, he asked his mother how to become the best rapper in the world. She told him he’d need 10,000 hours of practice, after the rule popularized by Malcolm Gladwell. He began self-releasing music in short order.Local success led to meetings with management companies and record labels when he was still a high school freshman, though nothing came to fruition. Instead, he steadily released albums that were sharp-tongued and self-awarely nerdy. He grew up in the Highlands — a neighborhood that was “very accepting, diverse, a place that you can walk around and not have to look over your shoulder.” But he was also in contact with artists and producers from other neighborhoods, and sought to cultivate audiences in both white and Black Louisville.Even though the city is not a nationally acknowledged musical hotbed, Harlow hears a through line of smooth-talking between him, EST Gee and the R&B star Bryson Tiller. The city’s music, he said, “has this silk to it.”He remains connected to his hometown. He recently bought an apartment there, in a part of town better known for residents in their golden years: “I want the same thing as them — peace and quiet.”In the wake of the success of “Whats Poppin,” Harlow has had a whirlwind couple of years. He’s starred in a Tommy Hilfiger campaign. Been slimed at the Kids’ Choice Awards. Gobbled a biscuit in a KFC promotional spot. Attended the Met Gala, twice. Scored the role of Billy Hoyle in the remake of “White Men Can’t Jump” despite having no acting experience. Sat courtside during the N.B.A. playoffs, baffling two referees, who were caught on microphone wondering who he was. Rapped on a remix of one of Eminem’s songs. Been nominated for three Grammys, and performed at this year’s ceremony, though forced to censor a particularly bawdy lyric.Harlow and Lil Nas X performing at the Grammys in April.Emma Mcintyre/Getty Images For The Recording AcademyHe was also bleeped on the Grammys preshow for expressing support for gay participation in hip-hop while using emphatic cursing. Harlow wants to be an ally for inclusion: “I wouldn’t have cussed if I knew it was on television,” he said. “I want people to hear me.”Like many emerging pop stars, he has a devoted online fan base. One particularly devoted account, @jackharlowmemes, captures many of Harlow’s high points and also some of his awkward ones. It also sometimes catalogs one of the more well-documented and obsessed-over parts of Harlow’s fame: his appeal to Black women, captured in umpteen passionate TikTok videos and tweets over the last two years. (Sample caption: “Why Does Jack Harlow Have a Hold on BW?”)“I’ve loved Black women since I was young, so it doesn’t feel foreign to me,” said Harlow, who often casts Black women as romantic interests in his videos. “And it doesn’t feel like this weird phenomenon. It just feels like something that’s now happening on a mass scale.”“I’ve had relationships with Black women. So it would feel strange to me if it wasn’t the case a little bit,” he added. “Nobody in my inner circle is like, ‘Damn, Black girls like you, bro’ — you know what I’m saying? Because my whole inner circle loves Black women, and are constantly around Black women.”In the summer of 2020, Harlow participated in the protests following the police killing of Breonna Taylor in Louisville. His attendance garnered significant attention online. His growing profile, along with the public embrace of his Black female audience, he said, “has heightened my awareness of my responsibility to protect them, and just being thoughtful for the position they might be in versus white women.”There is also the matter of becoming a heartthrob. Harlow is tall — 6-foot-3 — and telegraphs bodily ease. He steps lightly, smoothly. On this day he was dressed in all black — tight mock-neck T-shirt, leather pants — with white New Balance 550s. (He is a brand ambassador for the sneaker company.) On display in the lounge nearby were some boxes of promotional popcorn in the style of Orville Redenbacher, but instead with photos of Harlow, back in his pre-dreamboat ringlet-hair era.Navigating this aspect of fame is still new to Harlow. “It’s made me a lot more vain,” he said. “It’s probably made me a little more insecure just because, people could tell, I didn’t used to care how I looked. I think it’s what beautiful girls go through, you know what I’m saying? When they know the world thinks they’re beautiful, they see what isn’t beautiful. They want to be perfect. I wouldn’t say I’m there, but I’m conscious.”Suavity is the primary lens through which Harlow thinks about how his music should sound: “I always think about if I was in the car and the girl I had a crush on was in the shotgun and I had to play a song, would I be proud to play the song?”“Come Home,” primarily produced by Harlow with Angel (BabeTruth) Lopez and Rogét Chahayed, deliberately straddles constituencies — fans who clamor for his intricate rapping and clever punch lines, and fans who clamor for his beard and smile. Emblematic of this approach is “Dua Lipa” — essentially an up-tempo arena trap song. It’s not a song about Dua Lipa (nor does she appear on it), but one that uses her name as a way of catching the attention of curious pop listeners.“I’m looking to get away from rapping in a way where people can marvel at it and more something we can all enjoy together,” Harlow said.Luisa Opalesky for The New York Times“And those people are going to make it so big that the rap fan is going to be embarrassed to say he snapped on that,” Harlow said, laughing. “Even though I objectively snapped on that.”“First Class,” which set the tempo for this album’s release, can be read multiple ways. On the one hand, the beginning is essentially a hyperengineered TikTok trend, a sample of Fergie’s “Glamorous” that lends itself to phone-screen-friendly choreography. But get past that and the song’s verses are packed with internal rhymes and tensions. And “Nail Tech,” which takes its name from the modern parlance for a manicurist, is among the tougher songs on the album, dexterous enough to make Kanye West post that Harlow was among the “Top 5 out right now.”In many ways, West’s “808s & Heartbreak” and the Drake innovations that followed set a template for Harlow. But when he worked with Drake on a song for this album, “Churchill Downs,” he opted not for a melodic, pop-oriented song, but rather an intense rapfest: “I thought that restraint would be refreshing. Just us showing our love for the craft.”Harlow remains close to Private Garden, a crew of rappers and producers from Louisville that he’s been around for years. (Some members contributed production to the new album.) But he is the breakout star, and with that attention comes accountability and influence. On “Baxter Avenue,” the contemplative closing track from Harlow’s 2020 major-label album “Thats What They All Say,” he addresses the circumstance with an earnest humility and a light dash of anxiety, describing his awareness of what he has — and doesn’t have — access to as a white man in rap, as well as what responsibilities that role comes with.“Especially where I’m from, you know, Black people haven’t had a lot of chances,” Harlow said. “I think people have waited for me to, like, garner all this and just take off and be larger than life and come back and be like, ‘Y’all, look how massive I am! Ain’t you proud?’”But Harlow doesn’t want to separate from the community that raised him: “What people really need and want to see is like, ‘Come with me.’ It’s how many opportunities can you create? How many people can you put in position?”With that as his goal, Harlow long ago decided that being musically bashful wouldn’t serve his ultimate ends. “My competitive spirit is what is so hip-hop about me,” he said.“I feel like any respect I’m earning is because people can see I love this. I love this like a kid that really grew up on hip-hop, that isn’t looking at this as like the cool trend, like this is a cool way to get famous,” he said. “I really want to play.”