Y’all Shouldn’t Have Let The World Gas Jack Harlow

Urban Wyatt

Y’all Shouldn’t Have Let The World Gas Jack Harlow

Urban Wyatt

Imagine being Jack Harlow. It shouldn’t be too hard. Jack Harlow is not special. Fundamentally, Harlow is just some guy. He’s a reasonably talented, reasonably good-looking 23-year-old white guy from Kentucky. (He’ll be 24 next week. Happy early birthday, Jack Harlow!) Harlow is not a rap superhero or a larger-than-life figure, and to his credit, he’s never really tried to present himself as anything other than what he is. There are probably a million motherfuckers just like Jack Harlow, but those million motherfuckers are not stars, and Jack Harlow has quickly ascended to star status. How? Why?

This column last looked at Jack Harlow in the summer of 2020, when his first real hit, the all-star “What’s Poppin'” remix, had just slipped from its peak position at #2 on the Billboard Hot 100. A little while after that hit landed, Harlow released his major-label debut That’s What They All Say, which quietly went platinum but which didn’t launch any other big hits. That album comfortably established Jack Harlow as a part of the rap-celebrity ecosystem — the type of artist who could fit in just fine on a DJ Khaled posse cut or a Fast & Furious sequel soundtrack. If that had been Jack Harlow’s ceiling, then it still would’ve been a triumph for a white rapper who used to look like a visual punchline. But that was not Jack Harlow’s ceiling. Jack Harlow still had places to go.

Last year, Jack Harlow made some moves. He played Saturday Night Live. He showed up on an Eminem remix. He put out a pretty good song with Pooh Shiesty. Most importantly, Harlow rapped on Lil Nas X’s big single “Industry Baby.” This last move was more dumb luck than anything. Lil Nas X had been part of the Barbz, Nicki Minaj’s online stan army, before “Old Town Road” made him famous. He wanted to give Nicki the guest-verse spot on “Industry Baby,” to the point where he even namechecked her in the song’s lyrics: “Need a plaque on every song/ Need mе like one with Nicki now.” But Nicki evidently turned down “Industry Baby,” or at least never got back to Lil Nas X about it, and Jack Harlow was right there, waiting. Talking to GQ back in November, Lil Nas X said that it all worked out: “Jack Harlow ended up being, like, the best option. I’m not sure how comfortable Nicki would have felt with that video or whatnot.”

The “Industry Baby” video was an instant classic, an over-the-top shot at anyone who freaked out at the idea of an openly gay pop-rap star. Jack Harlow was comfortable with taking part in Lil Nas X’s whole queer prison-break fantasia, playing the Morgan Freeman to Nas’ Tim Robbins. In the video, Harlow got plenty of star moments of his own — rapping while hooking up with a lady guard, rapping while sitting in the electric chair, rapping while hanging out the window of a stolen cop car. His goofy persona shines through in that video, and it shines through in his verse, too.

I have a nine-year-old son who loves “Industry Baby” and who insists on playing the song whenever we’re in the car, so I’ve heard Jack Harlow’s “Industry Baby” verse countless times, and I can rap the whole thing at you this minute. I’m not mad about that. It’s a great verse. Jack Harlow recognized an opportunity when he saw one, and he came up with a verse that crystallized his sleepy, casual appeal. On the track, Harlow switches up flow-patterns a few times without ever sounding like he’s working hard, and he also comes up with a million slick little lines that continue to rattle around in my head: “OG so proud of me that he chokin’ up while he makin’ toasts,” “I’m done makin’ jokes ’cause they got old like baby boomers,” “I didn’t peak in high school, I’m still out here gettin’ cuter.”

There are a few clunkers in that “Industry Baby” verse, like the tortured line about his time coming sooner like Oklahoma. There are lines that are both good and bad, like the kicker about all these social networks and computers that got these pussies walking around like they ain’t losers. (This might be a fair point, and it might be a shot at online critics like me.) But that “Industry Baby” verse effectively made the argument that Jack Harlow could be a star, that he could pull off the Drake thing where even his tossed-off lines hit like hooks. A few months after its release, “Industry Baby” did what “What’s Poppin'” could not. In the week just before Adele’s “Easy On Me” came bulldozing in, “Industry Baby” took Jack Harlow to #1 on the Billboard Hot 100. Harlow has now joined the elite ranks of Vanilla Ice, Marky Mark, Eminem, Paul Wall, Macklemore, and Post Malone — the white guys who have rapped on #1 pop hits.

For a couple of years, Jack Harlow has been making the case that he could be a star, and fortuitous moments like that “Industry Baby” guest-shot have made it practically inevitable. Harlow doesn’t have a new album or anything, but he continues to level up. Two years after the “What’s Poppin'” remix, Tory Lanez and DaBaby, two of the song’s three guests, have stepped on their dicks and imperiled their careers. Harlow, meanwhile, continues to rack up corporate sponsorships and upper-card festival bookings. A couple of weeks ago, Harlow showed up on the field at Kanye West’s big Donda 2 event in Miami. Kanye, who co-produced “Industry Baby,” had already said on Instagram that Harlow is a top-five rapper right now.

Despite everything, a Kanye West co-sign is a big deal. A hit song is a bigger deal. Harlow just got one of those, too. Last month, Harlow released “Nail Tech,” a smooth and unhurried victory-lap of a song. Harlow delivers his “Nail Tech” lines with a sense of calm assurance, floating over the simple horn-laced beat. People invested serious resources into making “Nail Tech” work. The track sounds simple enough, but it has six credited producers, including Boi-1da. (It’s also got “additional production” from John Mayer, which is weird to think about.) The glossy video is full of little vignettes — the Steve Jobs impression, the backyard football game, the cameo from City Girl Yung Miami — that feel downright Drake-esque. Last week, “Nail Tech” debuted at #18 on the Hot 100. It’s falling fast this week, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it rebounds, especially if Harlow puts out another all-star remix.

This week, we got another weird little piece of news about Harlow’s come-up. We’re apparently getting a White Men Can’t Jump reboot, with Harlow as Woody Harrelson’s Billy Hoyle character. On paper, this casting makes a certain kind of sense. Jack Harlow, like Woody Harrelson, is a polite and charismatic Southern gentleman who is currently doing well in a primarily Black field. He also played in the NBA All-Star celebrity game and managed not to embarrass himself. According to Deadline, Harlow, who has never acted in a non-music video capacity, landed that spot by nailing his first-ever screen audition.

This seems patently insane. White Men Can’t Jump is a great movie that could’ve only come from a specific early-’90s moment, and it gets all of its juice from the alchemical dynamic between Harrelson and Wesley Snipes. Harrelson is one of the best, most distinctive actors of his generation, and Harlow has exactly none of his strange, squinty appeal. Thus far, all of the reactions that I’ve seen have been negative as fuck. (I like this Defector piece that describes Harlow as both “a boring drip” and “a dopey rapper who always talks like he just woke up from a seven-hour nap.”) I have a hard time imagining that a White Men Can’t Jump reboot will be any good, whether or not it’s got Jack Harlow in the Woody Harrelson role. At this point, though, I wouldn’t necessarily bet against it being successful.

Two years ago, Jack Harlow was a doofy white rapper with nerd glasses and a deeply unfortunate hair situation. Today, he’s carrying himself like a baby Drake. (Drake himself once came off like an unctuous dork, too.) Among all of the art forms in the world, rap music is the one that depends the most on swagger, on simple confidence. In rap, if you can say that you’re the best and believe it, then you will convince a whole lot of people that you’re right. Jack Harlow has unlocked that confidence. He’s a pretty good rapper who believes he’s a great one. He’s convinced a lot of other people of his greatness, too. One day, maybe he’ll even convince the rest of us.

FURIOUS FIVE

1. Your Old Droog – “.500”
Droog’s whole new YOD Wave project is pretty great, but this song, with its strings and its drums and its quietly ruminative grace, stands out. Droog has always been a character, but with every new record, he lets us hear more and more of his humanity.

2. Defcee & Kipp Stone – “Ragnarok”
I’m ready for a whole new Def Jux renaissance. I’m ready to hit the club with an army cap and a messenger bag. I’m ready for rap concept albums about walking out of your office job to realize that the apocalypse is here. Let’s bring it back.

3. Affiliat3d & Sada Baby – “Ballin’ In The League”
I clicked play on this, and before I realized what had happened, I’d dragged a loaded semi half a block with my teeth. Don’t ask me how I did it. I don’t know. Sometimes, things just happen.

4. Mavi – “Sorry”
Mavi has started rapping over Jay Versace beats. The whole searching, insular lo-fi rap game might be over already.

5. Blade Brown & K Trap – “6 Figures”
Those horns. Those accents. Bruv.

IT WAS ALL GOOD JUST A WEEK AGO

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