Across his two blockbuster albums, Jack Harlow had all the elements of pop-rap superstardom on full display — the chameleonic swagger, the everydude sincerity evidenced by his affinity for namechecking chain restaurants, the puppydog hearththrob confessions, and the phone numbers of the most famous guest rappers in existence. He had enough skills to get the co-sign from Kanye West and Drake, and the pop acumen to land a Number One Billboard single. However, if you could level one criticism of the Jack Harlow catalog, it is that, conceptually, he could occasionally be a juicy Kentucky nothingburger. Harlow’s songs were, for the most part, variations on PG-13 horniness, Drake-ian suffering from success and Ted Talk hustle mentality made for the age of grindset memes: I started from the bottom, did my Malcolm Gladwell-mandated 10,000 hours, now we’re here.
That all changes on third album Jackman, a lean, 24-minute burst of mixtape-style energy that probably makes the best case to date for Harlow as “rapper” rather than “sensation.” These 10 SoundCloud-sized rap nuggets — there’s no features and only one song passes the three-minute mark — have the personable feel of those first two Kanye West albums, a place where introspection meets boasts, where politics are touched on but mostly viewed through what our narrator personally sees, hears and feels. If Kool Moe Dee was still issuing his rapper report cards, Harlow would see a giant grade boost in “Sticking to Themes”
The album’s most electric track is opener “Common Ground,” which examines his white privilege in a way that’s not as self-lacerating as Macklemore nor as angry as Eminem nor as confused as Brad Paisley. “Common Ground” is simply some self-aware disgust aimed at festival crowds, suburbanites, and the rap journalists who perpetuate ideas of “authenticity”: “The suburbs are filled with ebonics and trap sonics/Frat boys sayin’, ‘No cap, put racks on it.’” Lest you think he’s a scold, “It Can’t Be” is just as quick to quiet doubters who think his skin tone is the only reason for his success, cataloging his tireless hustle, attention to detail and simple good-dude energy.
You could accuse those politics of being a bit mealy-mouthed on “Gang Gang Gang,” a take on having friends that are #MeToo’d (or worse). However, you can’t accuse “Gang Gang Gang” of being dishonest, since it does a fairly vivid job of explaining Harlow’s confusion, mixed emotions and sadness when one of his friends ends up persona non grata: “We hold accountable the ones we hold dear out of morals, but mainly fear/The choice becomes clear/And years of camaraderie suddenly disappear/Almost like you never were here.”
The maturity and depth on display on Jackman may not be enough to silence haters or mollify critics but, like Mac Miller’s Watching Movies with the Sound Off, it’s a step up in lyricism that shows that Harlow has much, much more to offer.