Exclusive: Jack Harlow on Being a White Rapper Who Leads by Example, His Impact on New Balance & Going Back on Tour

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The seven months since Jack Harlow released his critically acclaimed debut album, “Thats What They All Say,” have been nothing short of frenetic for the Kentucky-born rap star, who is doing everything in his power to capitalize on the momentum.

Late last month, Harlow — dressed in a show-stopping custom velvet suit from Musika — walked the red carpet at the Microsoft Theater in Los Angeles for the 2021 BET Awards, rubbing elbows with his megastar peers Tyler, The Creator and Yo Gotti, and sharing a moment with Saweetie that went viral. He was nominated for Best New Artist, Best Male Hip-Hop Artist and Best Collaboration for his “Whats Poppin (Remix)” featuring DaBaby, Tory Lanez and Lil Wayne.

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And since the December 2020 release of “Thats What They All Say,” he’s been racking up scores of covetable media moments. He’s graced the cover of Spin, performed on “Saturday Night Live,” appeared in campaigns for Buffalo Wild Wings and Papa John’s, won the B/R Open Run celebrity basketball game with Quavo of Migos as his teammate and intercepted legendary quarterback Doug Flutie during the ESPN Celebrity Sweat flag football game.

“One thing we always tell our artists is the opportunities to help build your brand, make sure you attack them with diligence and just keep doing the things that will help push you forward,” said Don Cannon, co-founder of Generation Now, the label of Harlow through a joint venture with Atlantic Records. “Everything clicked with ‘Whats Poppin’ for him and it allowed him to get in a better space to build his brand. He’s handling this piece of the fame well.”

Along with this heightened exposure comes greater scrutiny. Harlow has faced his share of criticism — most recently, with social media questioning his BET accolades ahead of Black artists.

And there’s his image to consider: The rising star, who is just 23 years old, knows he needs to hone his appearance.

“I know what looks good on me, what sits right on me and what I’m looking for. And that just comes from trial and error, and seeing pictures of yourself at events and not being happy with how you looked,” Harlow told FN last month during a visit to Means Street Studios in Atlanta.

Harlow’s look and appreciation of fashion has been boosted in recent years by celebrity stylist Metta Conchetta, who boasts a client list that includes Metro Boomin and Sonny Digital, among others.

RELATED: Jack Harlow Plays the Shoe Game

On the evening of his cover shoot for FN, Harlow was set to attend Game 6 of the NBA Eastern Conference Semifinals, a matchup between the Atlanta Hawks and the Philadelphia 76ers. In between snaps with photographer Cam Kirk, Conchetta helped Harlow select his look for the game — an outfit from I.N Official paired with fresh Aimé Leon Dore x New Balance 550s — which he would wear courtside seated next to famed sports broadcaster Taylor Rooks, who was also on set getting her makeup done before tipoff.

While New Balance sneakers have been a staple of Harlow’s wardrobe for years (he’s also appeared in multiple campaigns for the brand), other aspects of his style sense have evolved, and he credits much of that to a change in scene.

2Stylish

Jack Harlow in Casablanca shirt, Nahmias pants and Common Projects sneakers. - Credit: Cam Kirk
Jack Harlow in Casablanca shirt, Nahmias pants and Common Projects sneakers. - Credit: Cam Kirk

Cam Kirk

In December 2019, a month before he would release his breakthrough single “Whats Poppin,” Harlow visited FN in New York City to discuss his tastes in footwear and fashion. During the conversation, the then-budding rap star said he preferred comfort and was still discovering how he wanted to dress.

Two years later, he hasn’t deviated too far from his comfortable ways. For instance, upon arrival to the recording studio for the interview, Harlow was dressed in a fresh gray Lyrical Lemonade hoodie with matching Bape x New Balance 2002R sneakers and black sweats. However, the Rolex Sky-Dweller peeking out from under his cuff was a noticeable change from that first encounter.

“I’m still not fashion obsessed, but I definitely have more of a taste for it. I definitely have developed a look more since we last spoke,” Harlow said.

The shift, in part, can be attributed to his new home. “When I first moved to Atlanta, I would go out with some of my OGs to the mall and I would see them buy all this designer stuff. I remember thinking in my head, ‘Oh, when you sign your deal, this is what you do with your money, you go to a designer store and this is how you become a good dresser,’” Harlow said. “I spent probably about six months to a year buying designer stuff and throwing it on aimlessly. I wasn’t doing it right. But coming down here gave me a taste for high-end expensive fabrics.”

Early on, Harlow’s go-to stores in Atlanta were Saks Fifth Avenue and Neiman Marcus. In the years since, he has graduated to Ferragamo and Louis Vuitton.

“They have a lot of staple pieces that I feel like are timeless, clothes that I can drop in my closet and see myself wearing for years,” Harlow said. “There’s nothing about it that’s too immediately identifiable, and they’ve got a lot of fly neutral-color stuff that I like. And if I wear a signature piece for a video, I’m not going to wear it in the next video or to my next interview, so I’m not going to pay five grand for something I’ll wear once or twice. What I will spend my money on are pieces that are staples that I can keep going to.”

The city also has made him more acutely aware of geographic fashion differences.

“I was in the studio the other day with a bunch of producers from Toronto, and there was some- body who had on ripped-up jeans and some Jordans,” Harlow recalled. “I could tell by the way he was dressed that he wasn’t from Canada because they were all in Stone Island, in that smoother utility s**t you wear up there. I asked the dude, ‘Where are you from?’ He said, ‘I’m from Atlanta,’ and I knew it before he even said it.”

He continued, “There’s a distinct style from Atlanta. Where I’m from in Louisville, not only did I not have the money to buy designer clothes, but there weren’t stores like that.”

Conchetta, who met Harlow on the set of his video shoot for “Pickyourphoneup” featuring
K Camp, has found ways to pique the rapper’s interests in fashion. “Whenever I have a chance, when we’re on set or something, I’m like, ‘Hey, you should check out this new brand,’ and I give him background,” Conchetta said. “We exchange on Instagram whenever I see a new collection of a fashion house and say, ‘This is amazing, we should try this.’ He’s very curious and he’s really open to learn and dig more into it.”

In their two years of working together, the stylist said she’s seen Harlow grow fond of Nahmias and Casablanca, and embrace the subtler looks that Louis Vuitton offers. “He doesn’t like flashy with a lot of things,” Conchetta said.

She has also recognized a willingness to explore in Harlow. “He definitely has a strong opinion of how he wants to look. He wants to look true to himself, but he’s confident enough to go outside of his boundaries,” said Conchetta, who first styled Harlow for his “Tyler Herro” video that dropped in October 2020.

However, while the music artist is willing to push his limits, he hasn’t deviated from a need for comfort. “Jack is like 6-foot-3, so he has really long legs and he likes his pants to fit a certain way: baggy, but not super baggy, always comfortable and to never look like he’s in a costume,” Conchetta said. “It’s really important to have good material texture that feels good on him, and his style is still street fashion but really sleek and sharp and sporty looking.”

When it comes to footwear, Conchetta has also helped open Harlow’s eyes to a range of brands. On set, the stylist brought over Clarks Originals Wallabees and the GF-01 from John Geiger for Harlow to consider, as well as looks from a company he has quickly become a fan of: Filling Pieces.

“I really like how minimal they are, so I’ve been wearing those a lot,” Harlow said.

But his love for New Balance remains. “They’ve stepped up their collab game like crazy,” Harlow said. “It’s become a cooler shoe. They constantly send me new ones and they collab with more and more obscure brands. It’s really tight.”

Well aware of his lifelong fandom of the Boston-based sportswear brand, Conchetta doesn’t try to steer Harlow away from his obsession. In fact, she feeds into it. “I love New Balance. It’s one shoe company that I’ve always gravitated to, and I’ve got to admit, I really got more interested in New Balance when I started working with Jack,” Conchetta said.

Harlow acknowledges that his love of the brand has become a recognized part of his public image. “I was there before they were in this wavy place. I don’t know if there’s anyone in culture that people associate with New Balance more than me,” he said. “I think of me and Kawhi [Leonard] — and Jaden [Smith] is involved, too — but when people see New Balances, talk about New Balances, they use my name, they bring me up.”

He continued, “New Balance put in a lot of work, they got the right people involved to make the right decisions and keep it fresh and revitalize the brand. But I feel like I’ve been right there with them helping. I’ve been f**king with them since 2014/15, I’ve been going to the factory to see them since 2017/18, so it’s dope to see them come this far because there was a time when people thought it was an ironic thing to wear New Balance and now people are like, ‘Can you get me a pair of those?’ They have tons of kicks out that everyone wants to wear.”

Out Front

Jack Harlow in 424 derby shoes and leather pants, Raf Simons sweater and Ermenegildo Zegna shirt. - Credit: Cam Kirk
Jack Harlow in 424 derby shoes and leather pants, Raf Simons sweater and Ermenegildo Zegna shirt. - Credit: Cam Kirk

Cam Kirk

While Harlow may boast about his sneaker bonafides, he is more humble when discussing his place in the hip-hop community, a music genre created by and dominated by Black people.

Last year, as COVID-19 took over the United States, so did racial tensions, with the stories of Black men and women losing their lives at the hands of both police officers and white people dominating headlines.

Although Harlow is a collaborator with some of today’s most beloved Black artists, including Big Sean and Lil Baby, he found himself the target of criticism. For instance, he faced backlash on social media for his “Thats What They All Say” cover, with some complaining the depiction of a Black woman’s legs in the back seat of a car next to him was objectification. And social media was buzzing during the BET Awards, where Harlow received three nominations and popular Black artists such as Lil Uzi Vert, Lil Nas X and Flo Milli did not receive one.

For his part, Harlow said he is grateful for still being accepted by Black peers and fans alike. “I feel blessed to have a voice in this period because, one, I’m not a street artist, and two, I’m not Black,” he said. “The only thing keeping me here right now is that level of authenticity, of being myself.”

He observed that the rap scene has changed of late, moving in a different direction from the era in 2008 to 2011, when artists such as The Cool Kids, Odd Future and the late Mac Miller were in the spotlight. “All of this stuff was coming into the fold and it had this energy surrounding it of, ‘We’re letting the white kids come to the party. We’re all in this together,’” Harlow said, referencing conversations he’s had with friend Nemo Achida. “He feels like the country going into these new civil rights moments almost shifted away from, ‘Let’s have the white boy at the party.’ It became less about let’s all be diverse together and turned back into hip-hop being, ‘It needs to be a Black genre.’ That’s just been the natural transformation of things, I think.”

One of the more publicized police killings last year was of Breonna Taylor, which took place in Harlow’s hometown of Louisville. Her death on March 13, 2020, at the hands of local police officers, sparked a nationwide conversation about racial injustice.

Rather than simply tweet his support, Harlow marched in the streets of Louisville alongside protestors to support the demands for justice.

“This was a travesty that was outrageous and made no sense, and it was one along a string of many. It was a no-brainer for me in terms of where I stood on the topic,” Harlow said. “There was a moment last summer when we were all marching through the city and there was this feeling that this is historic. This isn’t a viral moment, this is going to be in textbooks and is something I’m going to be able to tell my grandkids about. There was a gravity to what was going on where you felt like you had a responsibility. Where are you going to fall? You can’t be on the fence for this.”

Because he has been accepted as a white artist in a genre created by Black men and women, Harlow said it’s not enough for him to just make good music.

“The things I was doing last summer, any fans who didn’t feel like criticizing the police or were on the other side of things, I was going to weed them out. That could have been a moment for them to no longer be fans,” Harlow said. “But what is important is that I lead by example for all the white kids looking at me. This is what you do. You don’t just enjoy Black culture. You stand up next to Black people in a time of need.”

Rendezvous

Jack Harlow in Saint Laurent Court Classic leather sneakers, and Nahmias shirt, vest and pants. - Credit: Cam Kirk
Jack Harlow in Saint Laurent Court Classic leather sneakers, and Nahmias shirt, vest and pants. - Credit: Cam Kirk

Cam Kirk

After a year-long break from touring because of COVID-19, Harlow is eager to hit the road and engage with fans.

In late June, the rapper revealed dates for his “Créme de la Créme” tour, which sold out less than two weeks after it was announced. It kicks off in September in Florida and wraps in November. This month, he began his residency in Las Vegas at Zouk Nightclub, and his upcoming festival appearances include Lollapalooza, Bonnaroo, Austin City Limits, Rolling Loud and more.

“I had so much fun on my last tour — and that’s pre-‘Whats Poppin,’ that’s pre-me getting to the level I’m at now,” Harlow said. “I was selling out rooms of 300 to 600, 700, having a blast, one of the best times in my life. I look back on that as a gift, so I’m totally looking forward to this.”

Despite Harlow’s packed schedule, the people closest to him can’t help but wonder how much brighter his star could shine now if the pandemic hadn’t put a halt to live shows.

“He’s a real showman, and if he would have been able to perform right when [‘Whats Pop- pin’] dropped, with his showmanship, I think he’d be a lot further,” Cannon said. “He’d be traveling the world. His first tour would have been amazing overseas, in places like Tokyo. But he’s had a year and change to build up his show even better.”

He continued, “One of the things I always say about Jack is he’s a ‘classic man.’ He’s really approachable, honest, genuine, he’s a cool dude and from the jump you feel like you know him.”

Rather than dwell on what he couldn’t do to improve his position in rap this past year, Harlow prefers to remember how he improved and what he accomplished. “I’ve tried to look at it from a glass-half-full perspective,” he said. “I probably wouldn’t have been able to record a lot of my debut album had I been on the road. Once I’m on the road, I’m tired after a show. There’s a lot of great songs that I may not have been able to lay down had I been so busy.”

Perhaps more importantly, Harlow used the time to fuel personal growth. “I made myself a music listener again. Before COVID started, I would drive in silence, clean the house in silence. I got so deep into making music that when I wasn’t in the studio, I didn’t want to hear this s**t. But I felt like I was suffering because my creativity was suffering, and I was stunting my growth by not doing it,” Harlow said.

The rapper dove deep into music from as far back as the 1960s, immersing himself in the work of legends such as Marvin Gaye and David Bowie. And he became deeply impacted by The Beatles, dissecting their discography and buying books and watching documentaries on the iconic group.

“The main thing you get from that is perspective on the songs that sound good 50 years later,” Harlow said. “One thing I preach about music from the ’60s and ’70s is there was so much intention in the music, there was a story, there was a message it was trying to get across.”

This informal education is something he believes will pay dividends in the future. “My music knowledge has probably doubled or tripled since COVID began,” Harlow said. “New things inspire me, and my songwriting is better because of it.”

See more photos from the Jack Harlow Cover Shoot.

Launch Gallery: Jack Harlow: The Footwear News Cover Shoot

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