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Jack Harlow on Liking Older Women, Defending Eminem, Listening to the Beatles, and Why His New Album Is His Masterpiece

Jack Harlow had a whole lot to say in nearly a week’s worth of interviews, conducted in Los Angeles and in his hometown of Louisville, Kentucky, for his first Rolling Stone cover story. With “First Class,” the Fergie-sampling second single from May 6’s Come Home the Kids Miss You, out now, here’s more from those conversations.

He feels like his new album is what he’s been aiming for his entire career.  “I’m working with such incredible people that I’m not gonna do anything to take any of the light off them,” he says. “But I will proudly say that I was part of the production of the entire thing, because I just know what I want more than ever. I tell these guys I’m working with that I’m so grateful for them. Because I’m making the music I wanted to make my whole life. The production I’m working on is what I’ve been asking producers I was in the room with since I was 12 and 13. ‘I want this,’ and they wouldn’t quite hit the mark. Or they do it and turns into a trap beat. Finally, I’m getting exactly what I’m looking for out of production, instead of reaching for something like I’ve been doing for so many years. And you’ll be able to hear the little bits of it in my discography along the way that led to this. Like, you’ll hear flashes from ‘Sundown’ to ‘Cody Banks’ to ’21C/Delta,’ groovier stuff. And I’m sure on the next project, it’ll be an even more elite form of what I’m talking about.” 

With former Timbaland protege Angel Lopez and producer-of-the-year nominee Rogét Chahayed making music in the studio with him each night, Harlow feels he’s reaching a new sonic level. “People were excited to show up every day,” he says. “They say, ‘We’ve never had sessions like this, because everyone is just taking beats out of packs right now.’ They don’t want to create right there with you. Everybody’s picking beats out of packs or spending the whole session vibing and nothing ever happens. We go to work. I just have never been more addicted to the process of what I’m doing. I used to dread the studio a little more, because there’s a pressure attached to it. Now I literally crave getting into the studio.”

An affectionate Instagram comment from Kendrick Lamar on a vintage clip of a goofy, tween-age Harlow rapping helped him get over his embarrassment at his juvenilia being online. “My development is crazy documented,” he says. “There’s this crazy shit up there that I tried to tuck away, and it came back out. When I was trying to be taken seriously at 18 and 19, I didn’t want anyone to see the videos of me of 14. I was like, ‘They don’t need to see these dumb-ass shits.’” But the Kendrick comment “made it so beautiful. That was such a thing that let me know like, it’s OK. My idols recognized it, and I’m like, you know why? Because they are the same. They felt they were that once. Kendrick was probably not exactly the same. [Laughs.] He wasn’t a lanky white boy. But he had a time where he was trying to figure it out.”

He has a thing for older women, and “there’s no upper limit” on the age. “Maybe it’s an Oedipus complex,” he says with a laugh. “I like somebody I can learn from. And that’s for real. It sounds, like, sly, but really, I think that’s part of the appeal is somebody has definitely seen more than me, has got some years on me. I remember one time I tweeted, ‘I love when a girl has kids, because it’s like, Oh, you’ve definitely fucked.‘” He laughs. “What’s crazy is I knew it’d be funny, but that’s really how I feel. If a girl’s had kids, you’re like, ‘Oh, yeah, you’ve gone there.’” 

Harlow wants to inspire a new generation. “For the last 10 years, I’ve been looking to my idols for what’s OK,” he says. “It’s starting to become my turn to tell the kids that are looking to me what’s OK. After a while, you have to stop looking at your idols and saying, ‘All right, what’s the blueprint? How do I do?’ That was very valuable for a while, but now I’m becoming my own man, my own artist, with my own lane. I’m doing subconscious things that are making people say, ‘Whoa, we’ve never seen somebody do that. We’ve never seen somebody act like that, carry themselves that way.’ So now I’m starting to realize. OK, I can set the tone. That’s an exciting feeling. Because there’s kids that are going to be inspired by me, and that’s what drives me to still make the music I’m making and keep some of that hip-hop essence of my shit instead of hopping on a bunch of trendy beats and just rapping them down. So many people want me to do that. So many people in my life want me to get on 15 trap beats, whatever the fly sound is right now, and just swag them out. But what’s driving me to push the envelope is I know there’s still kids that are 11 years old that want to be the best rapper alive one day, like I wanted to be at 11, and there’s not enough people making music for those kids. There’s not enough people making music to inspire. There’s a lot of dope shit out right now. I’m not saying the game isn’t creative, but it’s just not enough shit for the way I remember being in middle school, and listening to ‘Rigamortis’ by Kendrick Lamar, and thinking, ‘This dude is the best alive. And that’s what I want to do.’ We need more people in our generation that are trying to be the best.”

He’s really tired of “Face of My City,” from his last album. “I don’t love the production,” he says. “It’s, like, deceiving, because it’s supposed to be an anthem, but it’s too fast. I’ve grown to know what tempos actually work for the up-and-down jump effect that our generation’s defined by in music. I think part of what sets me apart is with a lot my music, the tempo is not made for jumping. The tempo is made for swinging. That’s what I’m attracted to. But I still want to sneak in a couple of those [jumping songs]. I mean ‘What’s Poppin” gave me that, ‘Industry Baby’ gave me the fuck out of that. Unfortunately, my taste is the swing, but it sets me apart. I think for a second I thought ‘Face of My City’ was gonna be that until I performed it one time. Then I was like, ‘Oh, this is fast as fuck.’ They’re gonna jump for a second, just out of energy, but they can’t jump that fast. But I love all the little details of this shit.”

He finds it “tragic” that some young rap fans don’t appreciate Eminem’s music (including some who refer to his beats as “circus music” on Twitter). “But I think that shit is still forever immortal, and we’re gonna get back to it,” he says. “We’re a couple years away from everyone reviving that shit as a culture and being like, ‘Look at this shit.’ And everyone’s gonna pay their rightful respects again. No matter how the production ages to people, like, he put so much into his words that it immortalized him, even though that shit aged as ‘circus music’ to [some] people.”

He wonders why male rappers tend to measure themselves only against their male peers. “Maybe that’s a patriarchal thing,” he says. “I’m somebody that loves Nicki Minaj, loves Dej Loaf. And I’m not saying that because we’re doing an interview. I love these artists because they’re ill. I love the way they use their voice. I love the way they write. There’s something to pull from. I loved Fergie. I love Gwen Stefani. But I think a lot of guys have trouble finding themselves in women’s music. I think a lot of people that aren’t white sometimes have trouble finding themselves in a white person’s music, no matter how hard it is. And there’s probably white people who have trouble finding themselves in Black people’s music. So it’s tough. It’s definitely an interesting thing, how it’s split like that.”

He’d like to go as broad as possible with his brand-new acting career, which is kicking off with a starring role in an upcoming remake of White Men Can’t Jump.  “I think there’s some comedic shit that will come my way naturally,” he says, “but I’d love to have some dramatic roles with some real depth. I think about how Adam Sandler did Uncut Gems, and it’s totally changed my view of him.”

His ambitions sometimes feel boundless. “I desire to be everything sometimes,” he says. “I want to be humble, I want to be cocky. I want to be kind, I want to be charming, but I want to be tough and alpha. There’s just certain people, we want to fill every blank. And it really just comes down to we want to be perfect. That’s an insecure thing. That’s why I’m in that gym. That’s why I’m eating healthy.  Because it’s not enough to just make a living at what I love and live this great life.  I need to be in great shape, too.”

He thinks part of his success comes from not being overly hung up on being a white rapper. “People listen to my music because they don’t feel like ‘Oh, there’s a Caucasian chip on his shoulder,’” he says. “There admittedly is one! But it’s not overbearing. It’s really just the imposter symptoms. Some white rappers, their whole shit is balanced on that. They self-identify with that chip.”

He expanded his musical horizons during the pandemic. “I just said to myself when the pandemic hit, I was like, it’s time to study up,” he says. “Like, there’s so much music you don’t know about. Like, how have you never listened to the Beatles? If there was an album I’d seen the cover of and I’d never listened to, I’d click to listen to it. I’d never listened to David Bowie. I listened to a lot of David Bowie, Marvin Gaye. A lot of Motown, just like Sixties R&B, a lot of that soulful stuff. I didn’t grow up in a Black home, so there was a lot of ’90s R&B missing, shit that a lot of people know.” He also went back and listened again to classics by the likes of Jay-Z and Kanye West, among others: “I always knew Kanye was great. But it wasn’t until the last couple years that I really started to be like, ‘Oh, that’s why.’ I had to revisit these things and pick out little details. ‘That’s what makes him great. Do I have that? I don’t have that. I don’t do that. My music could use a little bit of this touch or that touch.’”

He’s grown immune to what people say about him online, good and bad. “They say the worst things you can imagine,” he says. “‘This guy’s fucking hideous. He’s disgusting. He looks dirty. He looks fucking gross.’…  It builds up to so much, the same way the love builds up to so much that it starts to mean nothing to you. Just the same way when I read like, ‘Oh, he’s cute.’ When you see enough of those, you just realize people are either happy or unhappy. That’s how I see it.”

He’s open to a serious romantic relationship. “I’m always looking for the one,” he says. “Um, well, I’m not on active hunt, but I’m very receptive and open. Like, I’m definitely not somebody that’s like, ‘I’m 23, I ain’t gonna find the one right now.’ There’s no reason for that. I just take things as they come. So I’m receptive.”

“The ones that hate me the most look just like me,” a line from “Tyler Herro,” is taken from his real life. “I felt like the bulk of hatred was coming from like, other white boys,” he says. “Or very well-educated white guys were writing thinkpieces on me and trying to discredit me… And then I started to realize, well, this isn’t a unique situation. So I felt like well, let’s make this bigger than me.”

He sometimes wishes he could literally “erase” some of his early discography. “It feels like blemishes,” he says. “But in other moments, it feels like, ‘Oh, it’s beautiful that every part of this got documented out there’ — and that’s the correct answer. But in your insecure moments, it genuinely feels like blemishes on this perfect discography you’re trying to create, because you have people you look at who are,  in your mind, perfect. Like, you look at Frank Ocean, and go, like, God, he took his time and he doesn’t have any blemishes.”

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