When Jack Harlow’s ‘What’s Poppin’’ went platinum, it was the culmination of a ten year journey that made way for a new beginning. From handing out mixtapes at the age of twelve, to having a hit record at twenty two years old, there was less surprise and more relief from the standpoint of the Louisville rapper. Navigating the pitfalls, overcoming rejection, putting heart and soul into work that doesn’t receive the reaction that it merits, are just a few of the potential bumps in the road for an artist. The focus required is laser, and in the distraction age, where gratification is a daily drug, being committed to one’s craft takes a different level of dedication.
His decision therefore to post a selection of songs on his Instagram story that he believed would be his first hit, was necessary in showing his fans the near misses he encountered prior to having a breakthrough single. “By the time I made ‘What’s Poppin’’, I’d had enough let downs, that I was like ‘hmmm I don’t know what this is gonna be’, but I knew it was special. Because everyone that heard it was blown away by it on the first listen. A lot of songs grow on you by the second or third listen, but this had instant appeal. From the beat, to the tone of my voice, it all came together nicely. I knew it was special… I didn’t know it was going to do this, but I knew it was going to do something.”
Hammering on the door of recognition for years, ‘What’s Poppin’ allowed Harlow to walk through in the smoothest of manners, more Rich Homie Quan than Salim The Dream. The clinky keys and bruising bassline of the JetsonMade and Pooh Beatz instrumental, served as the ice rink for Harlow to glide over in his patented, mellifluous style. Cole Bennett’s video only furthered the song’s appeal, and with each scene cleverly capturing its lyrical content, Harlow’s fun loving, and humorous side was on display. However, like his endless discography portrays, his lyrics are the nucleus of his song creation. It’s what gives life to his music, despite the importance of all his other facets, whether that is his melodious manner or polyglottic versatility over varying instrumentals.
As Rap has evolved, the pursuit of the best bars has given more room to harmonizing and syrupy, auto-tuned delivery, but Harlow has always understood the importance of words. “For me, it’s an art of expression. When I was in middle school, I was never the most handsome kid, I was never a jock. But I was popular with people because of my mouth game and how I’d communicate. That’s how I became self-actualized to a degree. And that’s why with the best Rap you don’t have to use a million words, but you should care about what you’re saying and ask yourself, “how can I say it differently?” It’s why I like UK Rap, because your songs have such rich lyrics, and you can hear it in the way you speak. Even though the style is shifting, you see who’s at the top, and they care about lyrics. We have an echelon of rappers who are hot, but who is at the top? They can write… you have to be a writer in this game. Everybody else is… here today, gone tomorrow, because their music… didn’t touch souls. Writing is what touches souls.”
As we speak over the phone, both reflective in our respective states of COVID-19 quarantine, it’s clear that the independent train of thought he displays in his music is not just lip service. Despite his age, Harlow is ahead of his time, borne out of experience that has resulted in a questioning mind. “I think I’m skeptical of what people have to say… I question how much people love themselves. A lot of the time, people will tell you about themselves, about who they are and what they’re into, but I find that it’s never the truth about them. People will always show you the truth in their actions. I think that’s why people are so obsessed with zodiacs, it gives them a chance to feel like, ‘this is the key to what I am’, but you never truly figure out who you are, you just get closer and closer.”
The journey of self-discovery is arduous and fuelled by the existential crises that impact us all today. The desire to measure up to society’s lofty standards in the social media age can place serious pressure on those to present themselves as someone they aren’t. Paradoxically, the real confidence is in vulnerability. “Vulnerability is a strength… and I think that’s why we love the Kendricks, J Coles and Drakes. It’s why they go so far, because part of being human, is being everything. Nobody is a cartoon character, none of us are always confident. If we display confidence, and it’s real, it’s real. Take Drake for example, you believe him when he brings swag, but he has songs about his insecurities and doubts and that’s just as powerful. That’s what makes him human. I think there’s a lot of power in what makes you doubtful and when you tell people that you’re afraid… it’s powerful. We’re all afraid sometimes, we all feel amazing sometimes. It’s just real to give them both.”
As an artist, Harlow has consistently flitted between this dichotomy of unwavering self confidence and fragility. The cover art of one of his earlier mixtapes, ‘18’, shows Harlow stripped down to his boxer shorts, posing comically, assured yet laying himself bare. A humble bravado that translates into the first song, ‘Chosen One’, a befitting title for his magnanimous aspirations, tracks like ‘Got Me Thinking’ live in a less comforting space, as he articulates the potential regret of breakup. The difficult desire to be open is endearing, but that openness has to be enabled by wisdom, rare for someone of his age. He credits this maturity to keeping a circle of people that maintain a similar mindset, many of whom form his ‘Private Garden’ collective. One key member is producer 2forWoyne.
“A lot of my growth has to do with him. Immediately when I started working with him, I could see he was just so incredible production wise and vocally.”
“He gave me a lot of game. He taught me pockets… where to land on the beat, different melodies… he refined my pallette a bit. He’s very good at making timeless stuff… he can create those textures that last forever. And that’s what I’ve always been attracted to in some form or fashion. I like doing the Trap stuff, but I want to make the music that lasts forever… in the right type of genres, with the right chords, in the right moods.”
The urge for the timeless means looking at inspiration from different corners of the Rap game, those not as luminescent as others. Digging through the vaults can lead to a discovery of gems, and the production for ‘Sundown’, one of Harlow’s biggest singles to date was 2ForWoyne’s reincarnation of Clipse’s, “We Got It For Cheap”. Crisp delivery, punching every syllable with emphasis, the soundscape was a Neptunes samsara, going as far to recreate the classic Pharrell adlibs. Having signed with DJ Drama’s ‘Generation Now’ imprint (Atlantic Records) at the time, the requirement of sample clearance led to a dream studio session with his most desired collaborator, Pharrell Williams himself. Meeting heroes can be a nerve wracking experience, and so I was curious as to how Harlow handled himself when coming face to face with one of the greatest musicians in the modern era.
“I was nervous, but I wasn’t nervous to the point where I think it was handicapping me socially. I could be myself but the strange thing about me is, I’m serious with people when I first meet them as I feel it establishes a nice understanding. When I meet people and they’re just silly, off the rip, I can’t get a feel for trusting them all the way. I don’t think that’s necessarily the right thing, but it’s a me thing so … we were both quite serious when we met, but regardless it was special. Just being able to be in the room with him, and pick his brain was more for me than even making the music. We started some great ideas, but picking his brain, getting his energy was special. He’s an icon, so I’m hoping to get some more time in with him…”
A blend of gravitas for the artistry, and lightheartedness in demeanour has led to Harlow working with artists he looks up to. He recently worked with G-Eazy on ‘Moana’, and recruited Dababy, Tory Lanez and Lil Wayne for the ‘What’s Poppin’’ Remix, evidence that the elite company Harlow has worked with view him as a peer in Hip-hop. Most notably, he collaborated with his idol, fellow Louisville native, Bryson Tiller, on ‘Thru The Night’, the lead single from his penultimate mixtape ‘Confetti’. Tiller, who is notoriously private, was drawn out of the shadows back in 2019 for the video shoot, which Harlow describes as “one of the best days of my life”.
As he fondly recalls the moment, it strikes me that Harlow’s pride in his friendship with Tiller is deeply rooted in his love for his city. As brilliant as Bryson Tiller is as an artist, Louisville isn’t considered a Mecca for musicians, like LA or Atlanta – it takes something special to break through. It makes Tiller’s achievements that much greater and served as a blueprint for Harlow of what could be achieved. The achievements however are not singular. They provide opportunities to give a voice to people that are not often heard. Having seen Tiller’s ascension, knowing that he can, and will, reach the same heights, Harlow wants to be that mouthpiece for the city he represents.
“A lot of times, people from Louisville are misunderstood. Kentucky is a very rural, countryside state, but Louisville is a city that has issues with segregation, crime and poverty. People from there want that identity, and to be understood on a nationwide level. I’m embraced across the city because of my talent, but still, more people want to be seen, and I want to make sure that happens. I want to put Louisville on the map, so their stories can be told. I want Louisville to be considered a major hub and for people to think “wow there’s a big culture there.” I think about it a lot… right now the mission is just to think big, and we’ll worry about details when we get there.”
Jack Harlow’s new EP, Sweet Action is out now and available to stream here