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Jack Harlow That’s What They All Say
courtesy of Atlantic

Jack Harlow has the world at his feet

As he releases his debut album, That’s What They All Say, the artist assesses the changing dynamics of the white rapper, vulnerability in music, and identifying as an ‘attention whore’

Jack Harlow remembers feeling frustrated when he first started playing live shows. “I didn’t like it as I felt like there weren’t enough people in the crowd,” the naturally competitive 22-year-old rapper from Louisville, Kentucky reflects. “I wasn’t quite there yet (as an artist) so I had to take those hits to my ego and stay humble. But the journey was worth it as I really like who I’ve become. I think I’m ready for arenas now.”  

With nonchalant vocals so laid-back it’s as if he’s receiving a deep tissue massage in the booth, the rapper gained a cult fanbase in the second half of the 2010s thanks to the way he mixed audacious boasts (“I’m at the pool party looking like Pete Sampras”) with soul-cleansing admissions (“Ain’t been happy since I was 13,” he conceded on the dread-inducing “Dark Knight”). Even when he was referencing popping champagne bottles across nocturnal trap beats on solid early mixtapes such as 18, Gazebo and Loose, it still felt like Harlow was just a chord-change away from talking about his anxiety. It’s no surprise to learn that Drake is his favourite rapper. 

The carefree, baller lifestyle Harlow projects is clearly out of reach for his fans, many of whom – much like their hero – are white and from the suburbs. Yet, for them, the way Harlow balances his brags with genuine displays of vulnerability is endearing. For his day ones, Harlow comes across like a normal kid (the cover of 18 shows him in his underpants, playing up to the dorky stereotypes that come with being a white rapper, while he has repeatedly credited his mum with inspiring him to become a rapper in interviews) who somehow ended up as a contender for future rap superstar. He’s a TikTok fairytale. 

“I think it’s liberating to show the totality of who I am,” Harlow says of his approach. “It feels good to do that. I think when you show that vulnerability and you show your weaknesses, it makes that strength and those superman qualities feel more believable. By showing both sides, each side then becomes more compelling.”

That superstar future no longer feels like it is on the horizon – it has arrived. Harlow’s slick major-label debut, Thats What They All Say, amps up the guests (Lil Wayne, DaBaby, Big Sean, Adam Levine and, more problematically, Chris Brown and Tory Lanez all feature) and adds more sheen to the sound he made his name off of. The album, which debuted at no. 5 on the US charts this week, is proof Harlow is capable of creating even more arena-ready anthems following summer smash What’s Poppin, the euphoric if slightly silly Grammy-nominated single that consolidated Harlow’s pop credentials and created a remix that peaked at no. 2 on the US Billboard 100. 

Although there are moments of powerful self-reflection (“Keep It Light”, “Baxter Avenue”), the project is a lot less rooted in insecurities than his previous work, feeling sonically like a soundtrack to a spring break party where everyone is dressed in Bape. When I ask Harlow if he feels a bit like a butterfly that’s finally hatched when it comes to his confidence on this project, he replies: “That’s it, exactly.”   

On the new album, Harlow primarily opts to play the role of the shit-talking lothario, at one point tempting a female admirer to “come step into my world like Narnia”. It’s a line that you don’t know whether to smile along to or cringe so hard your face ends up looking like a fingerprint, a dilemma that seems to be shared by many of Harlow’s critics. In an interview with the rapper from this year, DJBooth’s Donna Claire-Chesman notes approvingly: “Jack Harlow’s obsession with his craft cannot be understated.” Yet Pitchfork’s Alphonse Pierre was far less convinced, writing: “He seems like the type of guy you would find around a college campus, maybe at the basketball court or pumping a keg. An abundance of white rappers before him have emerged in similar fashion, skating by on brighter and less complicated versions of better music.” 

Arguably, there are echoes of Mac Miller to Harlow’s story. Following his death by a drug overdose in 2018, Miller has rightly been eulogised as a boundary-breaking legend, but he wasn’t always the critical darling he ended up as. When he entered the rap game as a horny slacker with 2011’s Blue Slide Park, the love wasn’t instant – Pitchfork gave it a 1/10. Harlow shares Miller’s natural ability to turn his insecurities into catchy pop songs. And, just like Miller, the artist says it’s only a matter of time until the doubters start to come around. “All the greatest received all of the most hate, man,” he says, when I bring up a lyric on “Keep It Light”, where Harlow muses that all the rappers he idolised were at one point “called a fake”.

“That gives me comfort when I’m dealing with the hate myself,” Harlow continues. “Jay-Z, Eminem, Drake, Lil Wayne – they all had to battle through skepticism. Even Mac (Miller), rest in peace, when he first came out – oh my God! People forget how much hate he caught. You know, I’m patient about this stuff. I’ve slowly seen other people’s perceptions (of me) shift over and over, ever since high school. The respect will come. I mean, in a year I’ll be rapping differently than I am now. I want to keep pushing myself forward into new places musically, just like Mac did. I want to keep people on their toes.”

Talk me through how Kentucky impacted the way you sound as a rapper? 

Jack Harlow: Kentucky is unique because it borders so many states and cultures, so it’s kind of in this interesting, ambiguous space, you know? Some people say we’re the midwest, some people say we’re south-east, some people say we’re just plain south, but we’re really smack-dab in this middle space. It means we’re influenced by so many different parts of the country. The city I’m from, Louisville, is pretty urbanised. It’s a laid-back, smooth place and a real melting pot of cultures. If you come to our parties, if you come to our shows, if you come to our kickbacks, then there’s a diversity and a unity to things. It’s a cool space to exist in because it gave me the perspective, the range and the breadth. The reason I do what I do is because I’ve had a chance to connect with so many different types of people. When it comes to Louisville, I want to build it into a hub that’s respected nationally. I’ve got a lot of plans to give back and to build other people up. 

On ‘Baxter Avenue’ you make reference to getting ‘high enough to know it isn’t what I want’. We've seen so many high-profile deaths in rap culture around drugs over recent years. So, was this a moment to push back against all of that?

Jack Harlow: I guess even though I’m young, I’ve experienced some things. I rap that I’ve ‘smoked a few blunts, cookies and runtz / gotten high enough to know it isn’t what I want’ because I’ve done enough of those things to realise it isn’t for me. It’s a good feeling to reach that place. I have a desire to be alive. I don’t want to die yet, but sadly I think death definitely gives you a boost (in hip hop). But that boost is never worth dying for.

It must feel weird being famous. As someone unafraid to tell filthy jokes on your Instagram feed, how do you cope with the cancel culture that makes others afraid to tell them?

Jack Harlow: It’s always on my mind, you know? I’m too aware, so I’m thinking about everything; it’s less in my verses and more just in how I operate online. I guess it makes you not want to tweet at all. But then that also makes it liberating to just be silly. Any time I am comedic on my songs, I almost always end up regretting it. I don’t think comedy ages that well in rap. I’m a person that has a sense of humour, so every once in a while I want to say some funny shit in my music. But I always seem to wish I hadn’t. That’s why it’s been nice to be funny online, because it lets me separate the two worlds. 

On past projects, you seemed to be uncomfortable with the idea of fame, but that’s clearly flipped with this one. Are you doing a better job of savouring it?

Jack Harlow: Yeah, this year I think I’ve done a little bit better of a job. There’s been so many ‘I made it’ moments in 2020. I had the XXL Freshman cover, I went platinum, I had the Grammy nomination, and then this debut album. All of it forced me to look in the mirror and say: ‘OK, we really did some things.’ I don’t mind being famous. I’m an attention whore. Recently, I’ve been talking to my therapist about why I need praise and validation. I don't know what my problem is. (laughs

“I don’t think comedy ages that well in rap. I’m a person that has a sense of humour, so every once in a while I want to say some funny shit in my music. But I always seem to wish I hadn’t. That’s why it’s been nice to be funny online, because it lets me separate the two worlds” – Jack Harlow 

Even when Drake makes a club anthem, he still feels like a bit of an emo, too. I know you are a big fan of his, so would you say that’s the kind of artist you are naturally emulating?  

Jack Harlow: Yeah. I mean, his vulnerability is just something I’ve always admired. I think what cemented him in a lot of ways is his honesty as so many people aren’t honest in that way. I think it goes a long way. I mean, he’s number one right now; to me he’s the greatest. There’s no telling (if I will release a song with Drake). We’re on Champagne Papi’s time. Another artist I want to work with is Natasha Bedingfield. She’s dope and we’ve definitely been talking. 

It feels like the idea of the white rapper is changing. White artists are realising there’s no shame in owning their goofiness or suburban backgrounds. White artists are realising the importance of being who they really are. Is that a fair assessment? 

Jack Harlow: Hmm. Yeah, I guess so. I talked about this with my homeboy, you know. It’s an interesting shift, culturally. I think at least in America, the counterculture kind of hit in the late 2000s and it opened its door for that backpack 90s energy to come back. I think Kanye fuelled that a lot; just that everyman kind of energy where you didn’t have to be street. And then I think we got so much of that that it’s now back to a street energy, where even artists that aren’t street are incorporating some street energy and they’re rapping on trap beats, myself included. So I think it’s been a shift and part of me wonders if it’s been driven by the racial issues in America. Around 2009/2010 there’s, I guess, a counterculture where Black and white people were coming together, partying together and making music together. I think a lot of the racial issues throughout the 2010s might’ve slowed that down a little bit and (turned) it the other way.

“I don’t think I'm ever going to be a middling artist that can just make a living and have a little fanbase. I think I’m going to be one of the biggest in the world, if not the biggest, because there’s not enough people in my class who can write like I write” – Jack Harlow

But you want to unite all the sides, don’t you? You want to be the merger in the middle.  

Jack Harlow: Yeah. I mean, I enjoy just bringing people together in general. I enjoy unity, I enjoy that feeling because where I’m from, that’s normal, you know? There’s not even a second thought. People don’t even comment on (race) because that’s how we are. So yeah, I’d like to represent that. I love how movies take you to another world, and you’re sad when it’s over. I want people to feel like that when the last song plays on this album.

You’ve been positioned as this strange sort of sex symbol. It’s something you sort of play up to with the album cover, where you look like a swagged-out John F Kennedy sitting with a beautiful actress in the back of a limo. Having been on the other side, is it weird to now experience all of this?

Jack Harlow: I always could get girls, even when I was in elementary school. I mean, I'm not saying it was nothing crazy, but I always had success in the end. No doubt my career has added a boost, but I’ve never felt like somebody likes me (romantically) just because of what I do. It definitely didn’t go from zero to 100. 

How do you see all of this ending?

Jack Harlow: I feel like I’m going to be at the top, you know? I don’t think I'm ever going to be a middling artist that... can just make a living and have a little fanbase. I think I’m going to be one of the biggest in the world, if not the biggest, because there’s not enough people in my class who can write like I write. I can really write and I think it's just going to set me up for success. There’s always a delay in being seen how you want to be seen, but it comes eventually if you put the work in. I just want people to absorb my honesty, you know? I gave people a real chance to get to know me with this record and not a lot of artists do that. I told the truth on here. I could’ve just given y’all 15 records of me talking shit, but the bulk of this project is me telling the truth. It’s me being vulnerable and real. I hope I can inspire other people to do the same, because there’s not enough of that going on right now. 

Jack Harlow’s debut album, That’s What They All Say, is out now via Atlantic