Jack Harlow on the Mind
Music

Jack Harlow on the Mind

Photography and creative direction by Julian Buchan / Story by Grant Rindner / Styling by Metta Conchetta

Jack Harlow has been rapping about being famous since before he was famous. Like his idol-turned-collaborator, Drake, many of Harlow’s songs wrestle with the sacrifices that come with celebrity status and the downside of having your name on the marquee. As a self-proclaimed sufferer of “main character syndrome,” it’s clear that the limelight suits him, but he’s at peace with the knowledge that you can’t remain the Hot New Thing forever.

“To me, what puts me at ease is just the thought of evolution and realizing that there’s nothing I need to recreate. I think that’s where a lot of people get stuck. They have a moment and they’re like, in order to keep this same moment going, they feel like they need to replicate the moment,” he says. “But I’ve evolved in many ways, from how my music sounds to how I look to how I carry myself to just who I am as a man.”

Not that this is a problem he’s going to have to deal with in the near future; his Fergie-sampling “First Class” remains one of the inescapable songs of the summer and he’s recently wrapped his foray into acting with a lead role in White Men Can’t Jump. Harlow’s love of hip-hop and the craft of rapping has been evident since he started putting out mixtapes as a teenager in Louisville, writing nimble verses at a breakneck pace and building fans with early tracks like the breakup bombshell “Got Me Thinking” and the raucous “Dark Knight.”

Vest and pants: A-COLD-WALL*

Along the way, he’s gone from a goofy kid posing in his boxers on single covers to something of a heartthrob, but more importantly, the kind of star whose every lyric, red carpet interview and occasional gaff or bad optics moment makes headlines. He’s still defining the kind of celebrity he wants to be, but seems committed to substance over bombast.

“You can either be a two-dimensional character who is just so iconic that people just accept you for your faults and are like ‘Wow, how amazing is that?’ or you could be three-dimensional and embrace your humanity and your flaws, in a way,” Harlow says. “You can probably strike a balance between those things, but all my favorite artists who I look up to definitely have that human factor as opposed to some character. And I think there’s more longevity in being a person than being a character.”

Harlow acknowledges that the response to Come Home the Kids Miss You was lukewarm. His second studio album — though his first as the kind of A-lister who doesn’t just perform on SNL, but appears in sketches — the record was a big swing at the kind of origin story statement LP his major influences like Drake, Lil Wayne and Jay-Z have all released. It was also a conscious departure for Harlow from not only his 2020 debut, but what he felt are the oft-used hallmarks of contemporary rap.

“To me, this album really could never be just pigeonholed as something that is safe, because safe is going to all the hottest producers in the game, getting 15 records at 140 BPM that got that 808 that everyone’s using, and just rapping my ass off on each one,” he says. “There’s definitely something very entertaining about that, but I wanted the sonics to be the sonics I wanted.”

Shirt and shoes: Givenchy, Pants: Mouty

A few days removed from a run of shows in Australia, PAPER spoke to Harlow about shooting his first movie, finding a balance between rapper Jack Harlow and celebrity Jack Harlow and why he’s so proud of the success of “First Class.”

It’s been three months since Come Home the Kids Miss You came out. How do you feel about the way it was received and how do you feel about it personally now that you’ve had some time to sit with it?

I had a unique experience, because as soon as the album dropped, I jumped into my first movie, so I really plugged all of my energy and efforts from not only making the music, but the press and the artwork and everything surrounding it was all preliminary for me. Then, as soon as the album was out, I had to shift focuses over to the movie, which was a new creative outlet for me. I was obviously aware of how mixed the reviews were when it came out, but I’m really grateful for the opportunity to have gotten into the movie, because I’d say it pulled me away from getting too invested into people’s reactions [to] it. Obviously, it was a success and the biggest project of my career, but there were new things that I had to face as I’m getting bigger. It's been an interesting summer because I’ve kept so busy that I’ve only been able to stay so invested in how it went.

I knew about the movie, obviously, but I didn’t know that you had already shot it and everything. That is quite the turnaround.

It’s funny, because the album drops and I’m at the height of my music career and I’m daily in a new space where I’m with 150 people that don’t really care if I make music. They don’t really care about necessarily what I’ve done up to that point. They might have heard some of my biggest songs or know my name going in, but I shifted industries almost immediately and it was a refreshing experience that kinda was able to take me into a new space. I was going into an industry where I was so unproven. They don’t even know if I’m any good. I don’t have any history in movies yet, so I’m going into something with a lot to prove that I even belong there, aside from my name.

There is a history of musicians jumping into the acting world in a lead role, and the results have varied pretty widely. When you were exploring going into film, were you thinking about specifically getting a lead role and being at the top of the marquee or was there a conversation about easing into it with a smaller role?

Well, I have severe main character syndrome, so it carries over into the movies pretty seamlessly. But it’s funny, because we didn’t really set out with too many intentions. This is just something that came across the desk and it worked. I didn’t even have a lot of offers before this, there weren’t a lot of opportunities for me to be in movies. This one felt good and we just wanted to run it. I was thrilled to be a lead, but it also motivated me to know, there are other actors in the movie who have been doing this for a long time and it held me accountable to really do the work, since I don’t want to be someone who just slipped into that spot because I’m famous. I wanted to do the work and make the people I was working with proud and show them that I cared and this wasn’t just a cash grab or something to elevate. I got into the craft.

Shirt: Dzojchen

In terms of the actual on-set acting, being there every day, was there anything that you felt like being a rapper and having had this success already made the transition easier?

I think maybe my comfort on camera and my comfort just being vulnerable in front of a group of people. I think my years in music making myself vulnerable and being in the spotlight made that transition easier. I also think I could memorize the lines pretty decently. I think just being a wordsmith and memorizing lyrics, my memorization muscle is strong, so that’s another one.

There are people out there who think a lot of great rappers would make terrific standup comedians in part due to the complex memorization in both artforms.

It makes me wanna try comedy.

You’ve always been able to strike this good balance of being in on the joke and laughing at yourself, but not in a way that feels desperate. Is that just always how you’ve been and navigated the world since you were young?

One time I was talking to [comedian] Bill Burr, and he said that he realized the reason he did comedy was because he felt like if he could make people laugh, they wouldn’t hurt him. That was the root of it. I think I related to that in some sense, because as a kid, one way that I would recruit people onto my side or protect myself was with humor. So I think some of that probably is in my nature. I think if you can have a good awareness of being funny and you can be self-aware enough, I think there’s something protective about it. That’s always been in my nature, I’ve always been self-deprecating. Even as a kid, a lot of my earliest raps were really self-deprecating. A lot of it was cringe, looking back, but I was trying to find that balance really early, of not taking myself too seriously.

It’s something that Drake is great at and has been for so much of his career. I think when you’re a fan looking at an A-list celebrity, it makes the person feel more relatable. Because there are so many people who get to that upper echelon of fame and take themselves entirely seriously all the time and that can be alienating.

It’s almost like you have to choose because, like you said, you can either be a two-dimensional character who is just so iconic that people just accept you for your faults and are like “Wow, how amazing is that?” or you could be three-dimensional and embrace your humanity and your flaws, in a way. You can probably strike a balance between those things, but all my favorite artists who I look up to definitely have that human factor as opposed to some character. And I think there’s more longevity in being a person than being a character.

Sweater, pants, skirt and jacket: Louis Vuitton, Shirt: Dzojchen

I thought a good example of you understanding how to be in on the joke was when you did the BET Awards performance and brought Brandy out to do the remix of “First Class.” That started as a funny thing that happened in an interview and she ran with it and poked a bit of good-natured fun at you. How did that collaborative performance become a reality?

I think that showmanship is important and entertaining people is important. Sometimes, you really have to put on a show and, to me, it felt like it would be an amazing addition and a wonderful way to honor her. It was my idea, we reached out to her team and me and her eventually got to talk and I just told her, “One, I think people wouldn’t expect it and I like doing things people wouldn’t expect, and two, we’re here to put on a show.” And sure enough, it went off.

It’s not like you started rapping for six months and then had a number one song or went viral. It was clear from early projects of yours like Gazebo that you were laying the groundwork and putting all this time into really building a career in rap. But now you’ve achieved this level of ubiquity and fame that comes with having your face out there to this incredible degree. The KFC meal, the New Balance deal, all this superstar stuff. I imagine that comes with a lot of pressure because you can’t be the new hot thing forever. The fact that you have a legitimate track record, does that ease the pressure of being the man of the moment because you know what it’s like to exist in hip-hop without this level of notoriety?

That’s an interesting question. To me, what puts me at ease is just the thought of evolution and realizing that there’s nothing I need to recreate. I think that’s where a lot of people get stuck. They have a moment and they’re like, in order to keep this same moment going, they feel like they need to replicate the moment. But I’ve evolved in many ways, from how my music sounds to how I look to how I carry myself to just who I am as a man. Growth is important to me. I look forward to continuing to evolve and figuring out ways to push myself, because I’m hard on myself and I’m critical of my work and I also want to make sure I’m drawing from the right places and channeling the things that feel purest. I’m excited to see what’s next for me, because I know it’s gonna be another step. One of the things I’m most proud of is the difference between the hit song I came into the game with two years ago [“What’s Poppin’”] and the hit song I have this year [“First Class”]. Literally just when you take it down to the difference in how they sound, the type of song they are. So I can already say, a couple years into being established, that I can’t really be put in a box. And they’ll continue to try to put you in a box, but it’s exciting to know that this is just another step in my [journey]. I’m gearing up to get ready for the next one.

Even with the muted critical reaction to Come Home, it’s clear that the effort was there on your end. When you look back at the arc of your career in 10 years, I think that album is gonna occupy a really interesting place, because it is clear you weren’t trying to do your debut album again and just have another “What’s Poppin’.”

JH: We all have goals and there’s nothing like being loved as an artist and getting that praise, but one thing I think all artists should always be proud of is being able to say that they spent their time in the studio making something that sounded good to them. It’s not always about what the result is after that. If you can be proud of the music you made, then you’ve just gotta let it flow from there. Now, of course you want to find a balance. I have ambitions I want to achieve, places I want to take it and people I want to feed, so those byproducts are always important to you, but at the end of the day if you can stand on music and say, “Hey, this is what I want to make,” it’s a good feeling.

It’s interesting you mention that, because in the Rolling Stone cover story you did you talked about the disconnect between your feelings on the songs that become the hit singles, the “Tyler Herro”s and the “Nail Tech”s, and the songs that you connect with most deeply and that you really love.

JH: That’s why I bring up the difference in the sonics between the hits, that’s why I’m so proud of “First Class.” Deeply proud of it as if it’s some personal introspective outro deep cut, and it’s obviously this big commercial record. But it’s something that is truly a brainchild of mine. I always wanted to get a smooth record to the top of the charts. All my records up to that point that had really made some noise for me were trap influenced. Big producers had touched them. They had that modern sound and I always loved that, but I thought that deep down, what I like and what I wanted to make and what my mixtapes and albums are filled with–the track eights and track twelves and thirteens–are these smooth records that I want to play in the car with a girl that might not necessarily cause a mosh pit. To get one of those to debut at the top of the charts, not to mention a sample that is near and dear to my heart, that’s one of the best feelings in the world, man. I said to my producers, “I wanna sample this. I’ve been wanting to sample this. This song, this artist changed my life when I was a kid.” It’s one of those accomplishments that makes you trust yourself.

Shirt and pants: Dzojchen

I remember hearing a snippet of “First Class” and having the thought that it sounded like a pretty compelling album cut, but didn’t intuitively feel like a single.”

It’s funny because when we were making it, some of the people in the room were tweaking it. They had ideas about how they wanted to make it feel bigger. They wanted the drums to be clubbier and they wanted to add certain aspects that created this ding ding ding, it’s a hit song [sensation]. Of course, the sample already has that feeling, but I demanded that we keep it sort of minimal and stripped. The word we started using for it was “boutique.” I don’t feel like the production is begging you to play it on the radio. The production isn’t begging you to set that shit off in the club, but it’s easy listening and it feels good. That’s what was important to me, I wanted it to feel good, and then we’d see what happens from there. That’s how a lot of the records on this album happened. A lot of the songs, I’d say the running theme throughout Come Home the Kids Miss You is just how minimal and stripped-down the production is. It’s the paint I would throw on the canvas, and that’s the paint I threw.

It’s interesting you brought that up, because I wanted to ask you about your role as a producer on this album, which is a notable change from That’s What They All Say. What you’re describing with “First Class,” was that sort of the role that you played as a producer throughout making the whole project? Staying away from some of the obvious modern rap sound stuff and going for something that felt a little more cohesive?

Yeah, or just going for what I wanted. To me, this album really could never be just pigeonholed as something that is safe, because safe is going to all the hottest producers in the game, getting 15 records at 140 BPM that got that 808 that everyone’s using, and just rapping my ass off on each one. There’s definitely something very entertaining about that, but I wanted the sonics to be the sonics I wanted. That’s why I was listed as a producer, because on all those records I produced, whether I chose the sample or whether I picked out the drum sounds or I heard Rogét play a chord I liked and said, “That’s it.” And that is not to take away from them, because Rogét Chahayed and Angel Lopez helped steer this project along with Nemo and Nickie. It was a massive team effort, but I didn’t just come in at the end and write the raps. It was very important to me that I steered the way the music felt.

You haven’t done a ton of press since the “Churchill Downs” video you and Drake shot at the Kentucky Derbycame out. What did that experience mean to you?

JH: So thrilling. That’s one of the only videos I’ve dropped that every once in a while I just go watch. That’s definitely my favorite video of mine. It’s so personal and, you know, full circle working with him, but also it being in Louisville. My mom being in it. The things I’m talking about on the song. It’s classic. I think in 20 years when kids in Louisville are watching that, they’re gonna be impacted by it and it’s special. It’s hard to put into words, but that day was amazing and the result was amazing and I love everything about it. I feel like it just feels so closely connected to the album and the moment and where I am in my career. It's powerful. It’s a perfect snapshot to me.

We’ve talked about navigating this level of fame that you’ve achieved now and how there’s you the rapper who clearly has this deep-rooted love of hip-hop and works really hard at it and there’s Jack Harlow, big time celebrity, talk show guest, on every red carpet. Now that you’ve been in that space of occupying both of those lanes for a little while, does it feel to you like two separate aspects of who you are?

JH: I wouldn’t say they feel totally separate. Obviously, each of those things you listed bring you into different worlds and give you access to different things and highlight different parts of who I am. I think, if anything, some of that top-heavy celebrity stuff has gotten to a point where I think it’s just gotten so big that I’m excited to nurture that hip-hop side of things. Not to say that I ever wasn’t focused on that, but I’m excited to put some energy into that. To me, what’s actually exciting is the fact that it’s all connected in a way. Thanks to a lot of people before me and how hip-hop’s become, I’m able to stretch myself and be present in different ways.

Shirt and shoes: Givenchy, Pants: Mouty

Photography and creative direction: Julian Buchan
Styling: Metta Conchetta
Grooming: Tessa Lungaow
Lighting and digitech: Stefan Vleming
Photo assistant: Tanner Nicholas
Prop styling: Ryan Brennan
Styling assistant: Brooke Samuels
Production: Amanda Kahle

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Story by Zach Shucklin / Photography by The Cobra Snake (Sponsored by Cuervo Tradicional Cristalino)