To open 2018’s appropriately titled Kamikaze, Eminem embraced the wrath he felt from a critic class that didn’t understand him, and a Hip Hop fan base who had lost appreciation for his legacy. “I feel like I wanna punch the world in the fuckin’ face right now,” he balks to preface a goosebumps inducing torrent of bars on “The Ringer.” Inadvertently, the critics and fans provoked from the rapper what they’d complained about missing on 2017’s Revival — they just had to piss him off enough first.
Jack Harlow hoped to create a similar dynamic with the follow up to his widely-panned sophomore effort Come Home The Kids Miss You. Critics and fans agreed Harlow’s big production budget was wasted on an album full of flippant rhymes about faceless women, ill-used samples, and empty marketing ploys. And so he returns a year later with what was clearly intended to be his rebuttal album; his Kamikaze. Unfortunately, despite referencing Eminem in a line promising to be the “hardest” white rapper since Slim Shady, Harlow fails to land any significant strikes on Jackman.
it’s clear Harlow heard the critique of last year’s effort and attempted to address each and every point used against him. People said he delivered a bloated album that relied too much on his mentor Drake and big flashy samples? No problem, now Harlow drops off a featureless, stripped down LP of 10 cuts featuring soulful loops and boom bap production to prove he’s a “real” artist. Critics said his lyrics weren’t substantial enough? This time he pens conceptual tracks tackling challenging topics like holding friends accountable for sexual violence, white privilege, and cultural appropriation. The effort to improve was there.
And yet, with no blockbuster features or nostalgic pop interpolations to distract, Harlow is reliant on his streaky rapping, weak pen, and uneven singing chops. The result is 24 minutes of a one-time suburban kid defending himself against other suburban kids, and it’s not easy on the ears.
Lyrically, Jackman. is Harlow at his worst. There’s none of the self-assured charm from previous work like he exhibited during his feature on Lil Nas X’s Grammy-nominated “INDUSTRY BABY.” Left in its place — mush and insecurity. Lowlights include: “Scuffed up kicks, Old Navy my apparel/ And I’m cumming in my girl like I’m sterile,” from “Ambitious”; and “It can’t be some understanding of branding/ Or maybe that I’m outstanding” from the noxious “It Can’t Be.”
In terms of content, Jackman. sounds disjointed and dull. Opener “Common Ground” is a stern talking down about white-suburban kids co-opting Hip Hop culture, when Harlow is just as complicit, delivering the equivalent of “I’m one of the good ones.” Coming from an album that features comments on white kids using Ebonics, with track titles like “Is That Ight?” and “Gang Gang Gang,” it reads well-intentioned, but ultimately oblivious. In attempting to push back against the critiques of being vacuous and hollow on his last album, he’s blind to the irony of what he’s about. His social compass also seems wildly inconsistent. At the top of the record, Harlow appears to be calling out white privilege. But on the back end on “It Can’t Be” he bitterly resists the idea that white privilege has contributed to his success in any way. Again, Jack wants to convince you he’s “one of the good ones.”
Missing irony aside, there’s glimpses of Harlow’s bid for social commentary featuring some self awareness. For instance, “Gang Gang Gang” calls out men to hold their friends accountable for their abuse towards women, and “Blame On Me” touches on difficult family dynamics. If that sounds like a vague description it’s because Harlow’s verses are just so empty that none of the punches land: well-intentioned, but obvious critiques that ring hollow.
Eminem’s Kamikaze worked because he used Revival’s criticism to make a follow-up that was not just appreciated but widely recognized as some of his best work in years, accomplished by sounding true to Marshall Mathers’ identity as a punchline rapper who was known for using criticism to fuel his best work back in his prime. But that’s not Harlow. Sure, at one point he was the underdog playing shows to 15 fans in small makeshift dive bars in Kentucky, but now he’s the charismatic heartthrob set to star in movies. Popstar fits, backpack rapper doesn’t.
It’s not a total loss though. Harlow fixes one major problem from his last record by livening up the production. Soul samples chopped by Angel “Babe Truth” Lopez, Hollywood Cole, and DJ Dahi keep the project from becoming irredeemable. A groovy Coop The Troop and DJ Dahi beat on “No Enhancers” stands out, as does a sample from Toronto songwriter Gray Hawken as the connective tissue to “Blame On Me.” And clear highlight “Denver” features intimate acoustic guitar-driven production from FNZ and Angel “Babe Truth” Lopez, serving as a worthy foundation for Harlow’s best writing on the album, as he pulls back the curtain on dealing with how quickly his star has risen, and how his vulnerabilities can so easily be used against him now that he’s exposed to the world. It’s honest and thoughtful without sounding bitter or grating.
Alas, despite the attempts of introspection, there’s not enough to redeem this record. Jackman. is the album version of listening to the kid in class deliver a book report about a novel he didn’t read, but wants the class to think he’s an expert on. When Harlow isn’t being condescending, he’s contradicting something he said earlier in the album. None of that would be fatal if the project featured a few songs that were fun, insightful, or lived up to the emcees he aspires to be compared to.
So much for the “hardest white boy” since Eminem.