When Jack Harlow was 12 years old, he decided that he wanted to become the best rapper in the world. He didn’t know how he’d do it, so he went the natural route: He asked his mom what to do. Harlow’s mother had just read Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers, so she told Harlow that he needed to rap for 10,000 hours — four or five hours per day until he turned 18. Harlow was still in middle school when he released his first mixtape. That sounded good to Jack Harlow.
That anecdote about Harlow and his mom comes from a massive Harlow profile that ran in Louisville Magazine shortly after Harlow graduated from high school. (The best Harlow line in the piece is after he notices a No Crowd Surfing sign at one of his shows: “Can I crowd surf? Wait, why the fuck am I asking? This is a rebellious-ass genre. Are cuss words allowed in Louisville Magazine?”)
In that Louisville piece, we learn that Harlow’s mother played Eminem for him when he was in the womb and the Black Eye Peas for him when he was a toddler. As a kid, Harlow learned all the words to “Weird Al” Yankovic’s “White And Nerdy,” and he’d rap it whenever people would make fun of him for being a nerd. Harlow released his first mixtape in middle school, and it was called Extra Credit. The title wasn’t strictly literal; at least as far as I can tell, Harlow did not record the mixtape as a class project. But he is exactly the type of rapper who would’ve tried to get school credit for a damn mixtape.
About a year after the Louisville piece ran, when I first started seeing Harlow’s face on rap websites, I assumed it was some kind of Lonely Island-ass joke: A gawky White rapper with chunky black nerd glasses and New Balances and hair that managed to be floppy and curly at the same time. But it wasn’t a joke. This kid was really trying. He was getting traction, too. Harlow kept cranking out music and eventually signed with Generation Now, the DJ Drama/Don Cannon imprint that Lil Uzi Vert disparages at every available opportunity. (It’s very weird hearing Drama’s “gangsta grizz-ills” drop on the music of a kid who looks like he could still have braces on his teeth.) Harlow played festivals. He hit the tour circuit hard. He built up an audience. And now he’s got one of the biggest songs in the country.
Last week, Harlow’s single “Whats Poppin” reached #2 on the Billboard Hot 100. It’s a pretty good song — precise and energetic but nonchalant and conversational. It apparently took a lot of work for Harlow to sound that effortless. Harlow’s older records suffered from try-hard White-rapper syndrome — the apparently-unkillable urge that drives virtually every Caucasian rapper to prove technical dexterity by cramming as many words as possible into every line. In interviews before he released his Sweet Action EP in March, Harlow talked about how he he’d already shown he could rap, how he wanted to embrace the idea of “ear candy.” Smart choice.
Harlow made “Whats Poppin” with JetsonMade, the North Carolina producer partially responsible for DaBaby’s rise last year. There are parallels between Harlow and DaBaby. Like DaBaby, Harlow comes from a major southeastern city that isn’t exactly known for producing national-stage rappers. (The last Louisville rap entity to attain any sort of outside fame was Nappy Roots, who had to adapt a cowboy-hayseed gimmick back when they emerged in the early ’00s.) Like DaBaby, Harlow has a fast, coherent, bouncy fast-rap style, a technical precision that stands out in a mumble-trap era. Like DaBaby, Harlow promises a good time. But there are crucial differences. DaBaby is both a tireless showman and, from all appearances, an unstable and possibly dangerous person. DaBaby is also Black. Harlow is none of those things. Harlow is a nice and unthreatening White kid. The pop charts have historically been kind to kids like Harlow.
For the “Whats Poppin” video, Harlow worked with director Cole Bennett, another nice and unthreatening White kid who’s come to dominate his field recently. The clip shows Harlow looking warm and affable, hanging out at a diner with friends. It’s an itchy, catchy song, with a hook that sticks with you the more you hear it: “What’s poppin’/ Brand-new whip, just hopped in/ I got options/ I could pass that bitch like Stockton.” (John Stockton is another White guy who had great success in a predominantly Black arena, though I don’t know if I’d call Stockton unthreatening.) Slowly, over months, “Whats Poppin” became TikTok bait, and it inched its way up the charts the way TikTok-bait songs so often do.
“Whats Poppin” had already made it into the top 20 last month, when Harlow released the remix. There’s something almost charmingly old-school about the “Whats Poppin” remix. Putting stars on a remix is an easy, time-honored way to push a song up the charts, but Harlow didn’t just lazily attach a new verse from a big star. Instead, he went the posse-cut route, and everyone on the remix goes off.
Tory Lanez has a hard, athletic, head-spinning verse. Lil Wayne brings an easy, commanding charisma that I’d be tempted to call “gravitas” if he wasn’t mostly just talking about blowjobs. DaBaby, who knows how to handle a JetsonMade beat, absolutely floats; I love the way he delivers the phrases “Batmobile” and “raps ain’t real.” And Harlow comes with a fairly impressive new verse of his own, the way rappers used to do on their own remixes. Harlow still gets shown up by his co-stars, but he works hard enough that he doesn’t get shown up too badly.
The “Whats Poppin” remix is a big moment for Harlow. “Whats Poppin” was already his first (and, to date, only) Hot 100 hit, and it was also the best song he’d ever made. The remix is Harlow’s big chance to prove that he can hang with the big dogs. He pulls it off. I’ve found every other Harlow song to be anodyne and forgettable, but “Whats Poppin” is a legit earworm that I’m never really sorry to encounter. The remix adds a bunch of rappers who are better than Harlow, and that makes the song better.
Time will tell if Harlow has any real star quality, if he can follow his hit with anything else that I’d want to hear more than once. Maybe Harlow is just hitting his stride now. Maybe he just needed more than 10,000 hours. Harlow will definitely get more chances to prove whether he has star quality. Kids like Harlow always get more chances.
The first two rap songs that hit #1 on the Hot 100 both came from White rappers: Vanilla Ice’s “Ice Ice Baby” and Marky Mark And The Funky Bunch’s “Good Vibrations.” Over the years, plenty more white rappers have made their way to #1. Fergie has two #1 hits, though she only raps on one of them. Iggy Azalea has one. Paul Wall has one, too, though only as a guest-rapper. Eminem has five. Macklemore has two. Post Malone has four. Rap music, miraculously, has remained a predominantly Black art form even as it’s become the most popular kind of music on the planet. It’s been 40 years since “Rapper’s Delight,” and rap’s Elvis figure hasn’t shown up yet. But pop radio is still a whole lot more likely to play a rapper who’s White than one who isn’t.
Jack Harlow has always been humble and well-meaning about his place in the world. In his hometown, he’s been out to at least one of the Black Lives Matter protests that sprang up after police murdered Breonna Taylor. And Harlow says the right things: “I’m just a guest inside the house of a culture that ain’t mine, and I’m just blessed to be around.” (That’s a song lyric, not an interview quote.) But Harlow will almost certainly benefit from a fucked-up culture that’s set up to help people like him succeed. I hope he continues to get better as a rapper. But it might not matter whether he does or not.
For now, though, Jack Harlow has not joined the ranks of white rappers with #1 singles. Even after DaBaby showed up on the remix, “Whats Poppin” could not dethrone DaBaby’s own Roddy Ricch collab “Rockstar” at #1. After hitting #2 last week, the “Whats Poppin” remix has already started its descent, sliding down to #3 this week. It would take something truly crazy to push “Whats Poppin” to #1 now — something like a Justin Bieber remix.
1. Los, WB Nutty, Rio Da Yung OG, RMC Mike, BabyFace Ray, GT, & AllStar JR – “No Love For Em (Remix)”
There are seven rappers on this song, and not one single one of them has a bad verse. Michigan is just absurd right now. Every other state should be embarrassed.
2. Problem – “Don’t Be Mad At Me (Remix)” (Feat. Freddie Gibbs & Snoop Dogg)
I could listen to middle-aged West Coast rappers talk breezy, charming shit all day. (For the purposes of this exercise, we’re accepting Freddie Gibbs as an honorary middle-aged West Coast rapper, even though he’s from Indiana.)
3. Boldy James & The Alchemist – “Belvedere”
The crazy thing about the deluxe edition of The Price Of Tea In China is that there were still great Boldy James/Alchemist songs just sitting there, unused. This one might be the only ambient song ever to include a line about “open cases in Tuscaloosa.”
4. Duke Deuce – “Kirk” (Feat. Mulatto)
I would like to see Kirk Franklin’s reaction when someone tells him that there’s a Memphis strip-club banger that bears his name. It might look something like my reaction when Duke Deuce does the robot in the video.
5. Sahbabii – “Ready To Eat”
Sahbabii’s entire new album Barnacles is some great spaced-out melodic insular weirdness. The cloud-rap revival continues.
IT WAS ALL GOOD JUST A WEEK AGO