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On 'Jackman,' Jack Harlow is aggrieved and ready to let everyone hear about it

The rapper's third album is an introspective record without the self-scrutiny that comes with real reflection.
Julian Buchan
The rapper's third album is an introspective record without the self-scrutiny that comes with real reflection.

In a 2015 conversation with The Fader, Vince Staples and the late Mac Miller made a crucial distinction between white people that rap and "white rappers." "The genre of white rapper is not tight," Miller said. As someone who'd successfully transitioned from one category to the other, Miller's perspective felt especially pertinent. Both he and Staples were thinking of a white rapper as someone overperforming lyricism to compensate for a lack of cultural intelligence, but the underlying idea was that the white rapper was attempting assimilation and ultimately failing because he wasn't self-aware. Realistically, it's a sliding scale that is constantly shifting for each individual artist. More recently, Macklemore, who famously committed the most performatively self-aware act of white rapperism by publicly apologizing for robbing Kendrick Lamar at the 2014 Grammys, seemed to turn a corner toward the optimum form of rehabilitation: accepting and internalizing criticism. "Hip-hop is inclusive so there's always been an open door to a certain extent," he told CBS Mornings. "But I'm a guest, Em's a guest. Doesn't matter how good we get. Doesn't matter how great Eminem is. We're guests in the culture."

Eminem, of course, is the barometer by which all white rappers are measured. Surely, it must get annoying, but if you're a white person that raps you can't take the bait. To invite the comparison is to invite derision, and, by extension, classify yourself within the white rapper taxonomy. Doing so is one of many key mistakes made by the white rapper of the moment, Jack Harlow. Originally a Kentucky-repping outsider, Harlow has reached a point where he's bought into his own hype, jumping from wide-eyed newcomer to self-perceived frontrunner. "Ya boy's strivin' to be the most dominant ever / The hardest white boy since the one who rapped about vomit and sweaters / And hold the comments 'cause I promise you I'm honestly better / than whoever came to your head right then," he raps on his new album, Jackman. Beset by outside criticism, he wants to get in front of classifications of his work, but he does it so clumsily that he comes off clueless, forgetting he hasn't earned the right to even define those parameters.

Harlow is honestly somewhat ordinary. That was part of the initial charm. He is not immensely talented or focus-group tested. He does not have Eminem's furious, scribbling virtuosity or Macklemore's pop centrist appeal. His flows can be intuitive, as if they are innate within him and not learned, but he has proved himself limited with each new album. When picking his analog in pro ball, he knowingly selected Miami Heat sixth man Tyler Herro. (In the 2015 Fader conversation, Miller smartly pointed out a prescient parallel: "The reason white rappers can do what they do is because white people be hoorah-ing the s***. It's like when there are white people on an NBA team.") Kanye West once called him a "Top 5" rapper, but Kanye says a lot of things (and this endorsement came during a particularly fraught period of public outcry). What he really is: conventionally attractive, kind of engaging, nominally interesting and, yes, white, but white in a way that is particularly useful for a rapper; white but seemingly comfortable in Black-dominated space. The rap equivalent of being invited to the cookout.

But the energy has undoubtedly shifted by 2023. The double-edged sword for white people that rap is the more famous they get, the more they are seen as white rappers, gentrifiers and interlopers taking someone else's spot or commodifying the culture. As Danny Brown put it, "Man, I can't f*** with y'all n*****, y'all let Jack Harlow sell y'all chicken." With two No. 1 singles to his name, the ordinariness has become less endearing, especially when placed side-by-side with colossal Black artistry. When his album Come Home the Kids Miss You was nominated for best rap album at this year's Grammys with Kendrick Lamar's Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers, it seemed as if history might repeat itself.

Harlow didn't beat Lamar at the Grammys, but mostly because Come Home the Kids Miss You was deeply reviled by critics and impossible to root for, even when faced with Lamar's most provocative and divisive album to date. That hasn't stopped him from commiting a grave white rapper sin: setting discretion aside and leaning into entitlement. His new album has the energy of an alternate timeline where Macklemore doubled down after winning and responded to any detractor in a hostile way. The music is a bratty retort to every negative thing he's read about himself online. It's insufferably smug. The questions about acceptance that close the album mostly come from a cynical place, which would feel less narcissistic if they had any discernment behind them.

Come Home the Kids Miss You was an obvious star turn. "A long way from Bardstown, I'm on the charts now," he rapped mere seconds in. "Whip got an upgrade, the tint's dark now." Jackman is pitched as something more spartan. It's stripped down and forlorn. He appears on the cover shirtless in front of a basketball hoop with no net affixed to a half-painted building lined by garbage bins. It could not be clearer from the outset that this no-frills, soul-sampling approach is a response to "industry plant" talk and the much deeper subtext: that Harlow rose through rap's ranks on the basis of his whiteness. He addresses that explicitly at the start on "Common Ground," deflecting onto "frat boys saying 'no cap'," "business interns taking molly then percs," "suburban kids growing up to be rap journalists," all apparently posturing way more than he is. It's a diversion from taking the onus upon himself in any meaningful way. He seems annoyed that he even has to deal with this. Myopia has been a recurring problem in his music, but here his blinders leave him with a string of prickly songs that spend more time inadvertently exposing his neuroses than analyzing them. Uptight where it should be thoughtful, Jackman never finds the profundity it is so desperately fumbling for.

This is an introspective record without the self-scrutiny that comes with real reflection. Most of these songs are under two minutes, leaving little room for expounding. Brevity has sometimes benefitted Harlow (see: "Whats Poppin"), but here it feels like a lot is left unsaid. On an aesthetic level, the album is immediately more appealing than the garish Come Home the Kids Miss You, bearing some of the signatures of his best music, but his verses here don't have the same bounce. It is self-serious yet the songs lack weight. The benchmarks for Harlow's strongest modes have always been clear. On "Sundown," a viral breakthrough from 2018, he's the goofy Kentucky boy who grew into himself, his style and his music; on "River Road," a Drake-esque disclosure that closes the 2019 mixtape, Confetti, he's the star-in-the-making reckoning with those changes and their impact on those around him. "Sundown" was refreshingly low stakes, and he rapped about being young and whipless and eager with casual references to his complexion. His meandering verses on "River Road" revealed an anxious young man aching to reconcile his self-image with his perception, and the realities of the world with his own worldview: "Inner city kids I grew up with, we had some differences / But inside gymnasiums, it's almost like they didn't exist," he rapped keenly, the key word being "almost."

Unfortunately, fame has rendered the nascent pleasures of "Sundown" moot and the poignant reflections of "River Road" cursory. Where Come Home the Kids Miss You primarily pushed heartthrob seductions, Jackman leans far more heavily into targeted rebuttals. Harlow is aggrieved and ready to let everyone hear about it. The worst position you can take as a white person that raps is a defensive one (excepting, of course, the obvious no's of racism and appropriation), but he has decided he is willing to die on that hill as long as he can still look down on others. His loverboy shtick is melted away by his resentment. On "It Can't Be," he rattles off the laundry list of things he believes trump whiteness in his arsenal. The nature of privilege is that it elevates mediocrity and excellence alike. White mediocrity can be seen as on par with Black excellence. White excellence is hailed as genius in the face of other excellence. Come Home the Kids Miss You ends up in the same category as Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers. Of course, whiteness alone isn't the only thing powering Harlow's career, but it's telling that he is so eager to dismiss it altogether. Even Eminem, on "White America," acknowledged the added benefit it brought to his marketability, and he was a singular lyricist in a way that Harlow is not. Harlow can't even summon intense, Shady levels of indignation.

Macklemore's recent album, Ben, released in March, seems to understand this in a way Jackman doesn't, spotlighting the rapper as he finds peace with his place in hip-hop, through the clear-eyed lens of sobriety. In his pursuit of his position, he embraces the rap signifiers of his youth — a DJ Premier feature; references to Fab 5 Freddy, DJ Quik's perm and Funkmaster Flex bomb drops. When he raps about studying Lil Wayne's Tha Carter, it's as if it's Charles Dickens. But his understanding of hip-hop isn't strictly nostalgic: he raps alongside Memphis bruiser NLE Choppa, talks about following autotuned megastar Lil Baby's lead and reflects on Miller's death in 2018. His invoking of the Obama playlist as a flex does conjure Get Out vibes and the album can still feel hopelessly corny — despite his heartfelt and optimistic verses about overcoming addiction — but it is commendable to hear him recommit to a form he loves. "I'll be seventy-eight, SM58 in my face," he barks proudly on the opener. It's clear he is simply happy to engage with hip-hop on whatever terms the culture allows. Even at its worst, you get the charm of it: Macklemore isn't a culture tourist, he's a rap tour guide for the uncultured with the wholesome yet cringe, feel-good energy of a youth pastor.

Harlow's inability to infer extends beyond the inefficacy of his self-examination. The dark verses of "Gang Gang Gang," which deadens a snippet of Stereolab's "Baby Lulu," each depict the rapper learning someone close to him is a rapist or a molester. His lyrics focus on his own discovery and disbelief. His voice is solemn, as if to convey a deep and critical tone, but his words themselves are completely insubstantial, particularly for an undertaking of this magnitude. It is self-congratulatory, in a way. A more thoughtful rapper might probe what it means to dissolve problematic relationships. A more empathetic one might spare some consideration for the victims. A more lucid thinker would at least have something to say about the duality of man, or how our struggle to accept the flaws of our chosen people can reflect the doubts we have about ourselves as decision-makers and judges of character. Instead, it is the kind of bungled sidestep of a rapper who hasn't grown from his mishandling of bad actors in his musical life.

Harlow is a linear thinker, which is both his greatest strength and weakness. In the three, building verses in "Ambitious," he marks his internal monologues at three different ages: 14, 19, and 24, all milestones. It is a clever bit of perspective management that also serves to plot out his trajectory, and the writing is just as carefully structured. The flipside is that he has a narrow imagination. On "Blame It On Me," he performs from the POVs of a younger brother, an older brother and their father. It isn't very hard to figure out which of the three he is. The only way he knows to get outside his own head is to literally inhabit someone else's, and those raps barely make sense of the forces at play. There's an Aesop Rock song, "Blood Sandwich," that's also about brotherhood, about finding your place and identity within a family of boys, but instead of spelling out these dynamics in the most straightforward possible way, Aesop lets storytelling reveal them to the listener. Harlow never reaches for imagery, for allegory, for rhetoric; his appeals for pathos feel shallow and unearned. It's hard not to hear an album like 4:44 as a blueprint for the confessional nonconfession, only Jay-Z is perhaps the greatest rapper ever, using his mastery to elevate his legacy into myth, and Harlow is merely thinking out loud.

"Denver" is the exception. There isn't a song in the Harlow catalog more effective. He skips along the surface of the sample as he wonders aloud about the sustainability of his lifestyle, its toll on his soul and the pressure to live up to expectations. "But deep down, I find myself wonderin' / If the people that write about me are right about me / And I wonder if my exes are oversharin' 'cause they know a lot about me / I'm a long way from Shelby County," he raps in likely his most pointed moment. There is a better version of this album that lives primarily in that headspace — one that thinks earnestly about arriving at the place you always dreamed of, and what you do next when you get there. "Denver" exposes a missed opportunity for a personal reckoning on the deepest level at a crucial career moment, an opening to not only reevaluate his responsibility to the culture but reconsider the function of his music.

At one point Harlow raps, "Nemo said to keep my foot on necks 'cause I can't let 'em just forget me / But the brags in my raps are getting less and less convincing," practically spelling out the internal conflict at the core of his work. Moving with self-awareness takes vigilance. Perhaps if he shifted focus from being the most dominant ever to being truer to his impulse to really take stock of himself and his purview as he rises, he might still avoid the pitfalls of the white rapper.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Sheldon Pearce
[Copyright 2024 NPR]