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Jack Harlow wants to be legendary. His new album proves he's still finding his voice.

Jack Harlow is a rising star in the hip-hop world, someone that legends praise and peers envy.
Urban Wyatt
Jack Harlow is a rising star in the hip-hop world, someone that legends praise and peers envy.

For Jack Harlow, everything was pointing to this being his summer to conquer. The Louisville, Ky. rapper's sophomore album Come Home The Kids Miss You, released earlier this month, arrived in a moment when Harlow had reached a new level of cultural clout. After the one-two punch of his 2020 hit "Whats Poppin" and a knockout verse on Lil Nas X's "INDUSTRY BABY," which he performed on-stage at his first Grammys performance, the past few years have brought the rapper praise from the hip-hop community and a devout fanbase on social media. His second single from the new record, "First Class," became the first hip-hop song to hit No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 2022.

But even though Come Home The Kids Miss You was poised to launch Jack Harlow's worldwide takeover, the rapper's sophomore album misses the mark. The record simultaneously underutilizes his strengths and emphasizes his weaknesses, resulting in a middle-of-the-road body of work despite endorsements for his success and its potential.

Jack Harlow's story has been repeated ad nauseam in the wake of his celebrity: the 24-year-old is a suburban kid from Kentucky who started rapping in middle school, with his first mixtape released when he was in seventh grade. Several makeshift music videos from the "Mr. Harlow" era of his career are still online and watching them feels oddly personal, invoking a "boy next door" kind of sensibility. On his eighteenth birthday, he opened up for Vince Staples, and signed to DJ Drama's label in 2018.

The next few years positioned him as a rising star in the hip-hop world, someone that legends praise (he's been cosigned by artists including Kanye West and Sean "Diddy" Combs) and peers envy. But despite the puberty, fame and money, Harlow is, in essence, the same kid in his Mr. Harlow videos — walking around dimly lit school hallways with a goofy smile and accompanying swagger. His personality has always been a key part of his success, and part of his meteoric rise to the top of the pop-rap's collective consciousness is undoubtedly due to his charisma. There's something singular about his appeal; he has the charm of an underdog, someone you can't help but root for, able to woo an audience with a blue-eyed wink.

Harlow knows this. He's perfected the art of pandering, which has allowed him to cultivate a wide, diverse audience across demographics, as well as both gay fans and straight women through his casual, flippant flirtatiousness and assured comfort in his masculinity. Gen Z listeners love him because a song like "First Class," with its invocation of '00s nostalgia, is primed to start a million different TikTok trends. He's a cultural chameleon; someone that can simultaneously check every box he needs to gain attention.

But that box-checking is, maybe, also the problem. The singles to Come Home... are great pop songs; "Nail Tech" is a clever earworm with one of the best beats of the year thus far, and "First Class" is a similar, algorithm-perfected hip-hop song, founded on an extensive sample of Fergie's 2006 hit "Glamorous." With these two tracks alone, Harlow fashioned himself into a hitmaker, and managed to get inescapable press between early previews of his "First Class" snippets and claims that he was trying to get Dolly Parton "on some hard s***." These days, all you need to capture the public attention is a sustained hook on Gen-Z listeners, who in turn keep an artist's music trending through constant conversation and TikTok retooling; he's gamed the system to massive success.

Between the singles, Harlow's fanbase and palpable buzz, Come Home... was as well-positioned as it could be to become the most talked about pop-rap record of the year. But beyond those singles, the album is devoid of any discernible character; a blank slate of mediocre raps over instrumentals that could've been found by searching "Drake type beats" on YouTube. It becomes a missed opportunity, finding Harlow so focused on leaning into mass appeal that he seems to have forgotten that making a hit requires more than just jokey lyrics and impressive features.

Harlow wants to be in the same conversation as the artists he features on the album: Drake, Lil Wayne, an uncredited Snoop Dogg. In his cover story for Rolling Stone magazine he says things like "I'm in my well-oiled-machine era," and tells an anecdote about going over to Drake's house and asking him how he can improve as a rapper. The difference between Harlow and the artists he positions himself next to is that all of these people have a distinct, unique personality both in their music as well as outside it. In the case of Harlow, he doesn't have the ubiquity of Drake, the deftness of Lil Wayne, the personality of Snoop Dogg.

The whole album orbits around three central concepts: girls, Harlow's "come-up" and his rapping ability. But the repeated, passionless lines about women get old and boring, his come-up isn't very exciting (considering he's self-described himself as "start[ing] from the middle") and his rap prowess is often discounted by lines like, for example, one that references a sexual connection between pineapple juice and a certain bodily fluid. "Young Harleezy," the second track off Come Home..., is perhaps the most effective peek into the overall Jack Harlow ethos. "Y'all grew up shooting RPG's / I was in seventh grade selling hard CDs," he raps, over a beat that has seven different producers but still fails to excite. His whole life is about his grind, and addressing his position in a lineage of mainstream white rappers, he boldly states "this is not Vanilla Ice or Beastie Boys."

In a way, he's right. Harlow is someone that firmly wants to situate himself next to the Mac Millers of the world, to be a mainstream white rapper who sidesteps the trap of being a novelty one-hit wonder. But often he ends up being more of a Macklemore: someone that can't effectively find his footing on the careful wire of being goofy and sincere, and as a result is tossed between two radically different careers.

Even the silliness on this album is baked in self-importance; you would think a song called "Dua Lipa" would take the "just joshin'" energy of his previous hits and put it in a familiar context, but instead Harlow provides an unfocused trap ode that would be more fit on your local hometown rapper's Soundcloud page. "Like A Blade Of Grass" begins with a promising metaphor about photosynthesis and sex, but quickly devolves into a tedious conversation between Harlow and a made-up potential suitress.

If he wants to truly place himself next to the people he so clearly admires, Harlow needs to develop a career that combines these affectations, rather than teetering between both. He could be a rapper that winks to his lackluster upbringing, his whiteness and his goofiness while also being a technically impressive rapper and lyricist. There's inklings of that in his catalog: "Tyler Herro" for example, the lead single from his debut and a laid-back, suave ode to Kentucky that features the winking hook "five white boys, but they not NSYNC." But on Come Home..., Harlow has spent so much time thinking about his technical precision, he's lost the clever buoyancy that keeps his best raps afloat.

Come Home The Kids Miss You was Harlow staking his claim to be the best in the game. But in his pursuit to meet his own insurmountable expectations of quickly becoming legendary, he's left listeners with an album that demonstrates he still has more to learn than give. Harlow can continue to assemble all the separate parts of a successful modern day rap career — the streaming numbers, the Internet hype, the viral singles and the flashy features — but if he doesn't have a vision to tie it all together, he's not going to have an acclaimed career to call his own.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Reanna Cruz
Reanna Cruz is a news assistant for NPR Music's Alt.Latino.
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