When a rapper has a year like Jack Harlow did in 2020, the question now remains whether they can capitalize and do it all over again in the following year. There’s a chance the artist can’t repeat for several reasons like a lack of artistic direction, or the music is just not hitting with fans the same way. For Harlow, it’s something he thinks about a lot.
Harlow has a lot of expectations placed on him for 2021. Within a year, he was nominated for Rookie of the Year and Best Collab at HipHopDX’s 2020 Hip Hop Awards, grabbed the No. 2 spot on the Billboard Hot 100 chart with the “WHATS POPPIN” remix, and earned a Grammy nomination for Best Rap Performance.
The Kentucky-born rap star also snagged endorsement deals with places like New Balance and Papa John’s, and he just put out his long-awaited debut album, That’s What They All Say. To top it all off, the 22-year-old is a Caucasian rapper coming into a cutthroat industry that looks at his kind as culture vultures.
People already have their opinions on the curly-haired rapper, but he tells HipHopDX it doesn’t bother him at all. According to Harlow, his music speaks for itself, and all the critics have to do is listen. That’s why on his debut album, That’s What They All Say, Harlow stepped out of his box and gave listeners a taste of what’s to come with a different sound than the usual music he put out before.
The Grammy-nominated rapper would have a rich party song or a smooth jam ready for the ladies in the past, and although he still has those kinds of records, he did things differently for the album. To express himself fully, Harlow had an assortment of instruments and soul samples peppered throughout it to show his musicality. Tracks like “Keep It Light,” “Same Guy” featuring Adam Levine, “Funny Seeing You Here” and more show the range that Harlow went to in delivering an album that fully tells his story.
“I like to keep people engaged,” Harlow told HipHopDX over the phone. “All these people are listening so I don’t want to just say nonsense or just say something that I halfway mean. I want everything I say to have conviction and be compelling. I see myself as a great and a future great. So I just treat the music that way.”
What a year. Life changed for me completely.
— Jack Harlow (@jackharlow) January 1, 2021
There’s a saying that art is the highest form of expression and what better way for Harlow to do that than through his music? As he tells HipHopDX, he felt like people were trying to pigeonhole him, and the only way for him to combat that is to dig into his music bag.
Harlow continued, “That’s why you get such a range and depth to the styles and production. I wanted to show people I wasn’t just my one hit record, and I wanted to show people that they didn’t have me right.”
HipHopDX spoke more with Jack Harlow about his massive 2020, the debut album, being accepted by the Hip Hop community, discussing race issues in his music for the first time and more.
HipHopDX: You had a monster year in 2020. Did you predict things would happen this fast?
Jack Harlow: It didn’t feel fast to me. I’ve been doing this for a while, as you know. To me, it was a great year and it’s unraveling all right. But I’m just keeping a cool head and I’m not getting too high on it because I won’t get too low when it gets low. So I’m chilling and I’m just taking it as it’s coming. I think being inside has helped it to be a little easier to digest, it hasn’t been overwhelming. I haven’t been out and about getting touched by people. It’s just the internet right now. So it’s easy.
HipHopDX: What was your favorite moment of 2020?
Jack Harlow: There’s so many bro, I can’t identify one. This year was such a blessing for me. I went four times platinum and the Grammy nomination was huge for me. It’s a distant memory now, but just going on Jimmy Fallon for the first time and doing “WHATS POPPIN” a couple of weeks after it came out. It wasn’t even hot like that yet. There was so much to be thankful for and I can’t even identify a favorite moment right now.
HipHopDX: Do you feel pressure to have your 2021 top the last year and if so how do you plan on doing that?
Jack Harlow: Hell yeah I feel the pressure. But I’ll do what I’ve always done, which is taking a good look at what I dropped and what I did and see how I could take it further, how I could make it better. That’s how I made this album. And I’m ingesting a lot of music I’ve never listened to before. Making sure I stay inspired. That’s important, especially as a writer, stay inspired, make sure you’re actually telling a story. Just studying, studying music.
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HipHopDX: You entered 2021 weeks after releasing your debut album That’s What They All Say. Last time we spoke, you told me after every project there’s an evolution that you go through. How have you evolved this time?
Jack Harlow: My songwriting got better and that’s the truth. I really put an emphasis on telling the truth and talking about how I feel and telling the story, making sure there are no words being wasted. I think it just feels better writing this time around and it wasn’t always just about me and my life. That’s the main way I would say.
HipHopDX: There are a lot of ways for an artist to improve their writing. How did you do it?
Jack Harlow: I think COVID made my writing better. I was forced to be in my room and stare at the wall and look inwards. A lot of the best songs I wrote were a month into COVID and being in quarantined kind of made me get introspective as opposed to being at the party. There was a lot of party music on Sweet Action because that was my life. All of 2019, I was partying and I was outside feeling the vibes being an up and coming, buzzing artist. Then, they made us go inside. So I was forced to just tell the truth and be reflective because that was what my reality was.
HipHopDX: What was the inspiration behind That’s What They All Say?
Jack Harlow: I think my mission was to prove that I couldn’t really be pigeonholed and put in a box. That’s why you get such a range and depth to the styles and production because I wanted to show people I wasn’t just my one hit record and I wanted to show people that they didn’t have me right. They really got me fucked up. They really don’t know who I am or what I can do. You can’t pigeonhole me. You can’t put me in a box.
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HipHopDX: Some people feel that your story isn’t unique. How do you feel about that when you hear people say that?
Jack Harlow: One, I disagree. I think I have a unique story. It’s actually not conventional. It’s not cliche. It’s mine, completely. I don’t know anyone else with it. So I guess that would be my response to that.
HipHopDX: There were a lot of different instruments on this album. You had wood instruments, percussion instruments and more. Where did that come from other than you wanting to branch out?
Jack Harlow: I think another mission I had was to bring some of that musicality out. I wanted it to feel like music. I didn’t want it to feel too digital and microwaveable. A lot of this stuff that’s going on inside of Fruity Loop’s programs right now can get really monotonous and it’s like one texture almost like it’s 2D. For me, adding real instruments, adding that musicality and that touch, one, I feel like it’s going to make it age well, but two, it just gives it a soul. It gives us some humanity.
HipHopDX: Like the “Same Guy” record with Adam Levine. How did that song come together since it’s such a huge contrast from what you and Jetson previously did together on “WHATS POPPIN” and the Sweet Action EP?
Jack Harlow: I remember I was playing some loops and me and Justin always push each other. He pushed me to do certain things in the booth and I pushed him out of his comfort zone production-wise. So when we started working together, “WHATS POPPIN” came about because that beat was too crazy to pass up on. But in reality, when we’re in the studio, I was asking him to change tempos on different things and I was having him make beats he’d never made. So, “Same Guy” was just another version of that and I was looking for that musicality I was telling you about. A guy named Bernie Watts sent me this bass loop that had all those organs and piano keys and bass, and it just was musical.
It was unique. It didn’t feel like a loop that I was getting from just a random loop maker. It felt strong. It felt like it had some life to it. When I played it in front of Justin he was like, “Wow.” He just felt it and he flipped it and I did the song right in front of him when he made the beat. It was one of those things that we were being invested with. You can’t really control when you make something elite. All you can do is keep going in the studio and opening yourself up and trying to get lost in it and we got lost in that one.
HipHopDX: Whose idea was it to have the choir go in the way that they did at the end of the track?
Jack Harlow: It was kind of a group decision. Don Cannon suggested it as soon as I sent him the idea and then Nemo wanted to do it, Nemo Achida, which is my right-hand man. He helped produce a lot of the album and make sure it was right. He had a relationship with Jason Clayborne and the choir so he kind of put it together and made sure it sounded right. He was in the room. I wasn’t there when they did it. It was a Kentucky vibe.
HipHopDX: On “Keep It Light” you have a verse where you say, “Truthfully, I’m not comfortable with getting all the praise.” Do you ever think you’ll be comfortable with it and how do you think you’ll have to adjust so that you can be comfy with it?
Jack Harlow: I was raised to be humble and somewhat modest. I’m confident, I have some showmanship to me. I love attention. I’ve always loved attention, but I think it’s just part of how I was raised. What I was talking about on that song might be something I’ll never grow out of just because you can be uncomfortable in a room full of people, especially when it’s some people you grew up with that just see you as what you are. It’s an uncomfortable combination and it’s appreciated, but yeah. Who knows if I’ll grow out of that? But, as they tell you, it’s not a big problem. I feel like it’s keeping me grounded.
HipHopDX: You have a line on “Baxter Avenue” where you say you think about being the leader of a group of brown-skinned boys and you’re not brown-skinned. That group is your collective Private Garden. I know that Private Garden, that’s your bloodline. With you being a White rapper, how important is that group to you when you’re coming into an industry that’s led by Black people?
Jack Harlow: It’s huge. It’s like you said, a bloodline, we’re family. Even though it’s something we don’t really think about that often, it is still real and present. The fact that we’re different in that way. We’re genetically different. We’re different in general and everyone notices race and it’s real and it’s touchy and it’s something I never really talked about in my songs. Everyone sees it. Everyone sees that I have a collective of guys that are mostly black and now they’re in my videos and they support me and stand next to me and we’re family. We’ve contributed to this together, but it’s never been something I’ve discussed. It’s almost been something that I let other people comment but I never talked about.
That was a unique opportunity to say, “Yeah, I see what y’all see. I know this is going on. I notice what it looks like.” And just be honest about how it feels sometimes. In terms of importance to me, shit, there’s nothing more important. I love my guys and I’ve learned so much from them. Most of them are older than me and most of them have a perspective I don’t have like I talked about on the song. I’ve been privileged to be able to grow with them and let them teach me things.
HipHopDX: Do you think the Hip Hop community will fully accept you as just a rapper and not off you being the White rapper?
Jack Harlow: Me being White is never going to disappear from the discussion because race is just all too relevant and it’s real. I already think I’m being accepted as a good rapper without the asterisk already. I can feel it and I think people feel my authenticity. But me being White will always be a discussion. That’s just how it is. But I’m at peace with it. That’s not some burden or scourge that I have to live with. It just is what it is. I think every day I’m getting closer to being seen how I see myself and that’s a good feeling and I see myself as real, authentic and genuine.