Poppin’ Off: Jack Harlow Is Keeping It Hip-Hop, Even as He Stares Down Mainstream Stardom

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  • Jack Harlow
    American rapper

It’s a frigid Friday night in Chicago, and the place to be for Gen Z is Jack Harlow’s concert at the Aragon Ballroom, a meticulously renovated, hilariously ornate 95-year-old theater that looks like the setting for a Rudolph Valentino movie.

About 5,000 young people (approximately 60% female) are packed under the ballroom’s Moorish archways, mosaics and sparkly night-sky ceiling — girls in tight leather pants, halter tops, plaid or camo shirts, white sneakers, black boots, white boots, sparkly boots, go-go-boots; guys in t-shirts, Nikes, hoodies, basketball jerseys over hoodies. A surprisingly large number of the girls are wearing skimpy tops with shorts or short skirts — without coats — and clearly were freezing outside in the icy rain and high-30s temperature. For many, it’s a classic high school Friday night.

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After several teases — each one summoning hundreds of raised cameras and chants of “We want Jack!” — Harlow finally struts out the front door of the “Crème de la Crème Café,” the stage set reflecting the tour’s theme. Wearing shades, a puffy jacket, blue tee, leather pants, a chain and a big Rolex — the first two of which he quickly doffs — he kicks off with one of his biggest songs, “Tyler Herro,” rolling into a tight set of songs segued closely together, pausing occasionally to tell the crowd how much he appreciates them and that it just might be the best night of the tour so far. “We got some real ones up in here!”

But suddenly he raises a hand and abruptly stops the music: “Hold up, hold up — somebody needs help. Security? Quickly?” It’s something he’s done previously on the tour, including two nights earlier in Denver; video footage of it recently made the rounds, with a this-is-how-you-handle-it implication. Security carries a woozy girl to the side of the stage while Harlow waits for a signal that she is OK. After he gets the all-clear a couple of minutes later, he checks in with the crowd.

“We good right here? We good over here?” Cheers. “Thank you for looking out for the person next to y’all. I appreciate that,” he says in his warm Kentucky drawl. The fans roar with a shared sense of youthful virtue, and then it’s back into the show.

That dramatic pause at Harlow’s Nov. 12 performance is significant because it comes exactly one week after the Astroworld tragedy; 10 people died at Travis Scott’s festival in Houston as the crowd surged toward the stage. Like Astroworld, Harlow’s show is promoted by Live Nation, and it’s clear that the Aragon’s security team will be damned if anything bad is going to happen on their watch. Every time a teen teeters out of the throng, usually accompanied by a friend waving a hand in distress, one or two staffers, with flashlights and water bottles holstered in their belts, move in calmly, lowering the kid to a sitting position, talking them around.

“Obviously, [Astroworld] is fresh in the mind, so we stop the show, make sure they’re OK and keep moving,” Harlow tells Variety. “I’m not mosh pit-driven, so it’s not always on my mind that someone might get trampled or knocked out, although of course it’s always possible. But I feel like you go to a Jack Harlow show to catch a vibe, maybe find someone to dance with — it’s feel-good energy.”

. - Credit: Nolis Anderson for Variety
. - Credit: Nolis Anderson for Variety

Nolis Anderson for Variety

Like most stars in 2021, Harlow is engaged in an ongoing multiplatform dialogue with his fans, who say they often feel he’s speaking to them, for them, about them — or that they could be like him. Asked about his appeal before the Aragon show, people waiting in line highlight his lyrics, his flow, his personality and of course, his connection to his audience. However, the first answer from several young women is the same: “He’s hot!”

That reaction is precisely why Harlow finds himself feeling conflicted these days. At 23, he’s not on top of the world just yet, but he’s getting there in a hurry. He’s at the building stage, the hungry phase that many artists remember as the best part of their careers. The Jack Harlow brand is being refined and redefined by the minute. Now is the time to establish firmly who he is and will be, and he knows it.

He could go full pop: His hits, good looks and sensitivity connect with female fans; his swagger, basketball fandom, laid-back flow — a combination of Drake-ian introspection, Eminem wordplay and chill Southern accent — make him one of the guys. Early last year he dropped his breakthrough song, “Whats Poppin,” which took off on TikTok and garnered him a No. 2 single and a Grammy nomination on its way to being certified six-times platinum; his album “Thats What They All Say” debuted at No. 5 on the Billboard 200. He’s great on camera too, strapping and strutting but eager to make fun of himself, playing a janitor in a “Saturday Night Live” skit and a short-order cook in the video for his signature solo hit.

In the past few months alone, he’s had a high-profile feature on a No. 1 single — his friend Lil Nas X’s “Industry Baby” — performed on “SNL” and at the VMAs (where he got louder screams than any other performer), gone to the Met Gala, met his heroes Kendrick Lamar, Drake and (over the phone) Eminem. He’s hung out with new A-list friends, from NBA stars to Ed Sheeran.

But for a decade he’s been training like an Olympic athlete to establish himself as a credible rapper — he made a mixtape as a 12-year-old and sold it at his middle school — and has succeeded, with icons young (Lil Baby) and old (Lil Wayne) collaborating with him. So he’s unnerved by the signs that he’s becoming a pop star, which could hobble his hip-hop credentials.

“Once you become actually famous, it’s only half about the music,” he says. “They’re just showing up to see you in the flesh, put you on their Snap, throw some panties at you, whether they know a single lyric or not.”

How does that make him feel? “Conflicted! When ‘Whats Poppin’ came out, it was so much about the music, but this year, I feel like I’ve put myself out there so much that my personality’s caught up with it. The fame is fun, but I have such a love for the craft. I want to get back to it, and I’m hungry to kill shit.”

That’s exactly what he intends to do with his next album, which has been quietly in the works for months and is likely to drop early next year. The new material is expected to be different from his past work.

“My songs are very intimate, and a lot of my fans say they feel like they’re having a conversation with me,” he says. “I love that and don’t ever want to lose it, but there’s a certain feeling, when I’m performing, that some songs are hitting the back wall of the room instead of the first five rows, and I’m excited to have more of that. Before, I wanted to show off my subtlety, but now I feel like my tone is more commanding — there’s more presence, more personality. This one has a lot more of my DNA all over it: I’m acting as a producer for the first time. I know my venues are about to get bigger, and I want my music to connect out there. I wanna turn up!”

Jackman Thomas Harlow was born on March 13, 1998, in Louisville, Ky., but the family moved to rural Shelbyville when he was young. “My parents wouldn’t let me play with video games or electronics — I only had books, so I read all day,” he recalls. “All the ‘Harry Potter’ books, this series about cats called ‘Warriors.’ It gave me an early interest in words and expressing myself.”

Around middle school, the family moved back to Louisville, and he became obsessed with hip-hop. His mom is a fan and introduced him to “OutKast, Eminem, Black Eyed Peas, a lotta Tribe Called Quest”; his dad would walk around the house singing Elvis songs. “I think a lot of the vibrato and bass in my voice comes from hearing him,” Harlow says.

Discovering Drake, Lamar, J. Cole and Kanye West set him on his own path. “I started recording through horrible mics — Guitar Hero mics, my mom’s laptop mic — and I got plenty of hate, but a lot of people were like, ‘You got something.’” He and a friend recorded a mixtape called “Rippin’ and Rappin’,” burned CDs and sold them at school. His early rhymes were about “school, girls, how I felt about being 14,” he laughs. “I got introspective very early; a lot of my earlier stuff was more intimate and introspective than the bulk of it is now. I’m sure there was some influence from Drake, but I had a desire to connect. I wanted people to feel like they knew me and what was going on in my head.”

He tried calling himself “Mr. Harlow” but thought better of it. “I realized pretty quick, ‘Nobody’s gonna call me that — I’m 13!’” So he took the less-common route of going under his real name and working a slightly nerdy look, with big horn-rimmed eyeglasses. While he cites Lamar’s stance that performing as himself evokes intimacy and “the real,” he says he wouldn’t mind having an alter ego to distance himself.

“I do wish I had that hiding place,” he says. “Like, Lil Uzi Vert has some range to his character — he’s like an anime kid with a kinda childlike voice when he raps. But we don’t know what he’s insecure about, what he’s afraid of, how he grew up. He never in-depth told his story.

“Sometimes artists will assume characters for a verse or a feature — Kendrick does that, Em had it with Slim Shady, and sometimes in the studio my engineer will even encourage me to ‘get out of Jack Harlow.’ That’s something I’d have to work on intentionally, and maybe I will.”

The elder of two brothers, popular in school and a self-described “horrible student” but a good athlete, he displayed a precocious level of confidence, hustle and self-awareness. “I had the same mindset in seventh grade that I have now,” he says. “As soon as I decided what I wanted to do, it always felt one step away.”

That focus was on full display during the photo shoot at the Aragon before the show. When not posing, he was looking at the shot on an iPad pointed in his direction, changing his outfits, asking for adjustments in the lighting. At the end of the session, he went through every single photo with his stylist: “Yup, nope, nope, yup, nooooo.” He’s accused himself of narcissism in the past, but here it seems more like quality control.

. - Credit: Nolis Anderson for Variety
. - Credit: Nolis Anderson for Variety

Nolis Anderson for Variety

Hip-hop was his high school and he got better and better, dropping a proper debut, “The Handsome Harlow,” at 17. “I first saw Jack at the Forecastle Festival in Louisville in 2015,” says Chris Thomas, Harlow’s co-manager at Range Media Partners. “A local rapper named Dr. Dundiff was bringing all these people onstage to do guest verses, and this shirtless, sweaty, skinny local kid with bushy hair and glasses got on and made quite a strong impression. I didn’t get his name, but a few months later, someone sent me ‘The Handsome Harlow,’ and I was like, oh my God — it’s that kid.”

Thomas, a fellow Louisville native, tracked down Harlow’s email and reached out. “He was still in high school, but his mindset was just light years ahead. I figured Jack would be going to college, but he said, ‘No — this is what I’m gonna do.’ There was no fake bravado: He just knew, and almost everything he’s said he would do since then, he’s checked off the list.” Thomas signed on as Harlow’s manager in 2016, and the following year the young rapper moved to the hip-hop capital of Atlanta, signing with DJ Drama and Don Cannon’s prestigious, Atlantic-distributed Generation Now label. He scored a minor hit with the song “Dark Knight”; by the end of 2019 he’d sold out a 4,000-capacity show in Louisville. Then, in early 2020, “Whats Poppin” took off on TikTok and began climbing the charts. And then came the pandemic.

After noting that his own situation was a small matter in the scheme of things, he admits, “I was like, ‘Damn! Really? Right now? This is my moment, and I’m not even gonna get to feel it?’ But [soon] I just got to work — I said to my engineer, ‘Everything we record this year is gonna serve us next year.’” They dug into working on his debut full-length album, “Thats What They All Say,” which came out in December and, in the song “Rendezvous,” includes the lyric, “I became exactly what I wanted to / I became a millionaire at 22.”

But the road hasn’t been without other bumps. He rose to fame at the peak of the Black Lives Matter protests, receiving some online negativity for being nominated earlier this year for three BET Awards for music.

“Over the last 10 years, since Trayvon Martin, hip-hop has been a little different. It hasn’t been as easy to slide in as a white person because the culture’s fully connected,” he says. “I didn’t feel my career was at risk because my calling card has always been my authenticity.” Even though a lot of his lyrics are about feelings or partying or women, “I did feel a responsibility — my XXL [Freshman] Freestyle was right in that moment,” he says. (“Did you come to smash a skateboard against the glass or are you down for the cause?,” its lyrics read in part.)

He also made a couple of collaborations that he may have come to regret: with Tory Lanez (who is on trial for allegedly shooting Megan Thee Stallion in the foot in July 2020) and DaBaby (who has made multiple homophobic comments since last summer), although the “Whats Poppin” remix that features both was released before the events in question. Through a rep, Harlow declined to comment.

But his chart-topping tag team with Lil Nas X, the most outspoken gay rapper in hip-hop history, has overshadowed any negativity. Even in the collab-heavy hip-hop world, their bromance resonates, not just as two outsiders co-signing each other but as two artists who have a genuine personal chemistry. Harlow even doubled down by saying he would have danced in the “Industry Baby” clip’s most controversial scene, which features Nas nude in a shower with a bunch of male dancers (with their privates pixelated), if he’d asked him to.

“I think he’s giving a voice to a lot of people and kids who could use one,” Harlow says of Nas. “I just felt like it was important and something that in 10 years I’m gonna look back on and be very proud of. Louisville is a little more urbanized and liberal than the rest of Kentucky — I have a lot of family members who are part of the LGBTQ community, so it’s something I’m totally comfortable with.”

Lil Nas X tells Variety, “I just love when artists are really introspective and say the things I think about on a daily basis that I wouldn’t expect others to relate to. [Harlow is] one of the only artists in the industry that I am truly inspired by, and I’m always gonna root for him.”

Also rooting is Harlow’s hometown, where he’ll wrap the four month-long Crème de la Crème Tour with five shows in five days later this month, at venues with capacities ranging from 750 to 2,500. It’s a suitably magnanimous gesture to cap off the tour, which has been his strongest flex to date. And although he’s laser-focused on a long career, like everyone else in his position he knows it could all go away in a moment, at any moment.

“Especially now, I work out of fear,” he admits. “I’m terrified to fall off and lose my spot or lose the ground I’ve covered, or not reach the potential that people see. Every time I sit courtside at these games or go to the Met Gala or maybe the Grammys, what’s in my head is ‘I’ve gotta be here next year.’ I don’t want this to be the last time.”

Styling by Metta Conchetta

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