The 23-year-old star is the latest product of the white rapper industrial complex.
On Lil Nas X’s trumpet-blasting anthem “Industry Baby,” Jack Harlow begins his verse with a nod to his haters: “My track record so clean, they couldn’t wait to just bash me / I must be gettin’ too flashy, y’all shouldn’t let the world gas me.”
The music world has, over the past two years, certainly gassed up the 23-year-old Louisville, Kentucky, native, who is known for his inoffensive style and easygoing swagger. “I’m here, the world’s feeling what I’m doing,” elaborated the rapper in an interview with the lyric platform Genius. “Y’all shouldn’t have let ’em. Y’all shouldn’t have let me in.”
Every so often, the music industry spits out a young, fresh-faced white rapper who manages to land a top spot on the Billboard 100 — by virtue of their lyricism, musicality, charisma, or perhaps more commonly today, internet fame. They could be a flash-in-the-pan Soundcloud or TikTok artist, who either evolves into an industry mainstay or falls off the charts. Harlow, whether you like his music or not, seems to be the latest iteration of that figure, judging by his growing shelf of accolades.
Since 2020, his breakout year, Harlow landed a No. 2 spot on the Billboard Hot 100 with “Whats Poppin,” a catchy viral single that popped off on TikTok, which anointed him as a new rapper to watch. Harlow’s debut album was not released until December, but he was already generating buzz as part of XXL Magazine’s “2020 Freshman Class,” a rap newcomer’s medal of recognition. Perhaps most crucially, the success of “Whats Poppin” secured him his first Grammy nomination, leading Pitchfork to call him “the white rapper of the moment” in a brief, albeit backhanded review of the hit. Harlow’s sound is heavily influenced by, even imitative, of veteran rappers like Drake; his music can be breezy, imbued with “feel-good energy,” wisecracking wordplay, and intermittent doses of introspection.
His feature on “Industry Baby” earned Harlow his second Grammy nod. Harlow said the collaboration with Lil Nas X, the gay Gen Z rap superstar, went against advice from some people close to him. (“I had people in my corner that didn’t recommend I do that song, that don’t want to watch that video,” he told GQ.) But the song became his first No. 1 hit. Magazine profiles and media accolades might carry diminishing weight in the age of social media, but they still are institutional benchmarks of an industry’s rising star. Last year, Harlow was named Variety’s Hitmaker of the Year and one of Forbes’s 30 under 30 music honorees, after gracing the covers of GQ, Spin, and Complex.
It’s not just Harlow’s music that’s capturing public attention. Much of his relevance, like that of most celebrities’, is predicated on appearance. His well-calibrated combination of humility and swagger has helped draw intrigue in a predominately Black genre. It’s an eye-roll-worthy observation: Here’s another white boy in the rap game, who is charming and disarming enough to benefit from the cult of modern celebrity. But in 2021, during a time when the public is hyper-attuned to acts of cultural appropriation and performative allyship, Harlow’s mainstream popularity suggests that he may be doing something right, even while his appeal remains up for debate.
Two decades ago, the white man was rap’s persona non grata. White MCs have been around since the genre’s genesis, but few are remembered fondly and even fewer are considered masters of the craft.
But the 2000s saw the rise of Eminem, the inimitable white emcee who sought to earn the begrudging respect of Black listeners and artists. Meanwhile, as white listeners grew more receptive to rap, the 2010s spawned a saturated ecosystem of white rappers — the likes of Macklemore, G-Eazy, Machine Gun Kelly, Mac Miller, and Post Malone — with a variety of sounds and styles. The term “white rapper” has begun to feel like a reductive and lazy form of classification to hip-hop heads, but it remains, at least to the wider public, the clearest visual distinction. An artist may try to deny the role of racial identity in their music and fame, but it matters — to listeners and critics, and certainly within the context of American music’s blatantly appropriative history.
Nicki Minaj wasn’t wrong to remark that it was “a great time to be a white rapper in America.” Her observation, made in 2017, still holds true years later. One could even argue that too many non-Black artists have capitalized on rap’s diversifying turf, given its tradition as a Black art form.
This already crowded field, then, might seem unfavorable for any white rapper to debut in. They have to withstand comparison and criticism while navigating the racial privilege and personal politics of the genre. But sooner or later, a new white guy stumbles his way into the rap spotlight.
Some hip-hop fans and music critics have yet to be convinced that Jack Harlow is the real deal, not just an overhyped middle-of-the-road rapper. Harlow himself seems taken aback by the abrupt nature of his fame. The thought occasionally permeates in his lyrics, and in interviews he admits that it hangs in the back of his mind: that the fame might detract from his craft, or that he sometimes feels like an impostor. His burgeoning popularity has also subjected him to the antics of stan culture, and “white boy of the month” syndrome: A celebrity lands on the public’s radar by way of their good looks, and their talent — or what was responsible for their fame in the first place — becomes a secondary metric as to how they are perceived.
“Once you become actually famous, it’s only half about the music,” Harlow told Variety. “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.”
That isn’t to say Harlow exists solely as a thirst object in the public imagination (more on that debate later). His newfound sex appeal (“I didn’t peak in high school, I’m still out here getting cuter”) has brought him more listeners. It has also invited trouble. Harlow is dogged by frequent dating rumors and became the subject of a false pregnancy claim made by a mysterious Canadian scammer last year. And it’s not just white women that he’s attracting to his shows; his fans include Black women and other women of color. Harlow has, to his credit, prominently featured Black and brown women in his music videos, promotional posters, and on his album cover, although they’re usually positioned as arm candy or sex symbols (such is often the nature of rap).
how do we stop my black sistas from finding jack h*rlow fine…
— chalissa kordei (@certifiedgayz) September 17, 2021
As a result, Harlow has become a lightly contentious subject on Black Twitter, with people either applauding or bemoaning his popularity and overall appeal. One viral tweet encapsulated the discourse: “Jack Harlow was an experiment planted by the government to test the Black community.” While it’s all fun and games to lament over his supposed “hold on Black women,” these tweets reflect a complicated sentiment. His emergence as a mainstream white rapper during a culturally fraught time shows the power of Harlow’s charisma, even though some listeners aren’t entirely sold on his music. He has managed to jockey his way into high-profile collaborations with Lil Wayne and Eminem, sell out tours nationwide, and secure deals with established brands like New Balance and KFC.
It’s worth mentioning that Harlow doesn’t seem to have a problem in also working with — and, at times, defending — rappers with an unsavory history. He opted to feature Chris Brown, who has a troubling record of domestic abuse claims against him, on a track instead of R&B singer Tinashe, and kept Tory Lanez on his “Whats Poppin” remix after rapper Megan Thee Stallion alleged that Lanez shot her last July. “I don’t have no room to judge anybody,” Harlow said in December, when asked about taking Lanez off the track. “I wasn’t there when this and that happened. I don’t know anything.”
Harlow claims to prioritize music and an artist’s skill in his feature choices, rather than base the decision on public opinion, or “pack mentality” as he put it in an interview with Power 106, a Los Angeles radio station. Yet Harlow’s come-up didn’t depend solely on his music. It has hinged on this relative respect to existing industry norms, in spite of his whiteness. Perhaps that has conditioned him to not rock the boat — to speak and act gratuitously toward industry veterans, even when problematic artists have signed onto a song.
According to Mickey Hess, a professor of English at Rider University who has written about whiteness and hip-hop, white rappers who care about paying homage to the genre have traditionally relied on these three approaches to carve out a path in rap: cultural immersion, imitation, or inversion. “Jack leans towards the immersion aspect,” Hess told me. “He’s vocal about how he grew up on hip-hop, and a big part of his story is that, despite being white, he identifies with hip-hop, began rapping at a young age, and is embedded in the culture.”
This is a more modern approach than imitation, Hess said, for which Vanilla Ice was the poster boy. The record-smashing ’90s rapper was at the height of his fame when the Dallas Morning News reported on falsehoods in Ice’s press biography. Ice’s rap career quickly unraveled, and he was discredited by an industry that was said to value authenticity. Meanwhile, Eminem’s success was found in inverting the narrative around whiteness and hip-hop: He spoke of the persistent challenges he faced as a white rapper to achieve visibility and respect, having come up after the Vanilla Ice scandal. It was a sentiment that some Black listeners found relatable.
“There’s always been this fear that white people would take over hip-hop,” Hess said. “At the same time, Jack Harlow is being received well because he seems to know his place.” In 2020, Harlow participated in a Black Lives Matter protest in Louisville, and used part of his XXL Freshman freestyle to reference an incident of police brutality in his hometown. More recently, after a video surfaced of an altercation between two Atlanta police officers and a Black woman who was denied entrance to Harlow’s show, the rapper posted an apology on social media about how the events unfolded.
Harlow is cautious about centering whiteness at the core of his music. Sure, there are mentions in a few lyrics here and there (“I brought a gang to the party with me / five white boys but they not NSYNC”), but he seems to gravitate toward more universal themes: love, growing up, dreams, money. Even in earlier interviews, the younger, scrappier Harlow mentions authenticity and the importance of rapping what one knows. What he knows is the South, his Louisville hometown, fame, and sex, to name a few things, and they all carry tinges of veritable whiteness.
“Jack’s songs don’t come across as a gimmick to me,” said J’na Jefferson, a freelance music and culture journalist. “When I think of gimmicks, I instantly think of Macklemore and his song ‘White Privilege.’ That, to me, doesn’t have to be the point of a song, and I already get it. Macklemore’s white. I just want the music to be good and for a white rapper to acknowledge their presence and privilege in a Black genre.”
Still, some music critics and devoted hip-hop fans can’t seem to figure Harlow out, or they dismiss him altogether. Among critics, the common opinion seems to be that his music is solid but generic; he has a keen ear for hits and room to grow into a distinguishable artist. Harlow has the range to deliver an introspective track before reverting back to his familiar frat-boyish flows, but retains some of that childlike earnestness found in his earliest teenage work. Is that commendable or corny?
He “sounds like a rapper you’ve heard before,” wrote Pitchfork, drawing comparisons to Aminé, early Chance the Rapper, and DaBaby. Yet nothing definitively suggests whether he’ll surpass the existing rap bar into a league of his own — whether Drake, one of Harlow’s main stylistic influences, is his “jumping-off point or his artistic ceiling,” wrote Rolling Stone. One could interpret this critical reluctance as a product of white mediocrity, but history proves that white rappers have topped charts — and won prestigious awards — despite not being very good. Metrics aside, though, the Jack Harlow industrial complex appears to be here to stay.
I first became aware of Harlow fervor in October, when clips of the rapper’s interview with British comedian Amelia Dimoldenberg made the rounds on TikTok. The six-minute interview was formatted as a casual date over fried chicken as Dimoldenberg, in her endearingly deadpan style, interrogated Harlow about his type of woman (dark hair), his ideal number of kids (eight daughters), and his most romantic gesture (purchased an economy plane ticket for a lover). It was a quirky, banter-filled episode — most of Dimoldenberg’s chicken shop dates are — but the audience’s reaction to Harlow was positively feral.
“I’m smiling the whole video like a dumbass,” read one YouTube comment on the video with 22,000 likes. “This dude got so much finesse.” The top responses either praised Harlow’s confidence and charisma or likened his attractiveness to that of a familiar figure: the easygoing boy next door, the goofy class clown, or the hometown crush held at arm’s length since high school. The interview-cum-date with Dimoldenberg didn’t initiate the Harlow thirst. It simply fueled a smoldering fire kindled earlier last year.
Maybe it was Harlow’s SNL cameo in March that allowed him to leech off Pete Davidson’s “big dick energy.” Or maybe it was the sheer force of white boy summer, a curse placed upon us by Tom Hanks’s rapper fail-son Chet Hanks: “I’m not talking about, like, Trump, you know, Nascar-type white,” Hanks said. “I’m talking about me, Jon B., Jack Harlow-type white-boy summer.”
In June 2021, Harlow made headlines for his flirtatious swoop at the rapper Saweetie, catching her by surprise on the BET red carpet. Their prolonged handshake, with Saweetie lightly negging Harlow (“Why are you shaking?”), was caught on tape by The Shade Room, a gossip and celebrity news site with a primarily Black audience. It was a red carpet interaction destined for virality, featuring two attractive and talented people making eyes at each other. American fans, it seems, are always hungry for public displays of affection between celebrities, whether these stunts are planned or not. (Recall the fervor Oscar Isaac unleashed by caressing Jessica Chastain’s arm while promoting their HBO series Scenes From a Marriage.)
His demeanor, while self-assured and smooth, remained respectful, without a hint of overt cockiness. And that’s where Harlow’s appeal, in both music and persona, begins. It’s in the energy that he emits — his vibe, so to speak. There’s a disarming confidence to him, coupled with a refreshing honesty reflected in his social media presence, public interviews, and best lyrics. Has there ever been a rapper so keen to admit that fellatio can be painful?
“He’s got this aura, this charm that doesn’t feel forced, and I think that is what’s making the girls swoon,” Jefferson added. But by virtue of his rising fame, Harlow is considered a “contested crush object,” to borrow a phrase from the writer Alexandra Molotkow, who publishes the newsletter “Crush Material.”
Harlow doesn’t have the princely glow of a TikTok e-boy, nor the chiseled look of a Hollywood leading man. Sure, he’s tall, with a halo of moisturized brown curls, but his facial features don’t seem all that striking. He looks like “a Shakespearian jester,” according to one Twitter user, and his unassuming appearance leaves his sex appeal up for debate.
To that end, Harlow has been grouped in with the likes of Pete Davidson and Adam Driver, as many people dissect — and fret over — their attractiveness: Are these white men hot, or are they just tall, skinny, and somewhat talented? What spell have they cast over a segment of the public? How do we stop them?
we need to formulate a plan to stop jack harlow from stealing all the bitches
— Corn ✮ (@sneerid) December 6, 2021
In Molotkow’s analysis of Davidson’s appeal, she describes him as a “public boyfriend,” a “straight male muse” whose cultural value is derived from giving people something to talk about. Harlow, on the other hand, is a generative force. His newfound attractiveness and social relevance are largely contingent on his fame and musical success — although at a certain point, fans begin to conflate the two. Collective thirst can be a dangerous trap, blinding admirers to the fact that their “unproblematic fave” can do wrong.
Harlow’s charm is essential to his marketability as a white rapper, who is attempting to transgress racial boundaries with his music. He often mentions “unity” in his interviews; it’s a neat, public relations-friendly conclusion to the elephantine question of being a white man in rap. “No matter how embraced I am, there will never be a day that I’m Black,” Harlow told Billboard. “With that being said, there’s a certain responsibility that comes with being a white man in a Black genre, and there are certain things that have me regarded differently.” It’s a straightforward acknowledgment that seems to pacify fans, reflecting a potential shift in our expectations of white rappers.
Fans often say they are drawn to Harlow’s authenticity and his humble roots, but those aspects of his public persona are strategic. Harlow might be a “nice Kentucky boy,” but he is also a millionaire in control of his image, approaching fame with caution. In today’s fraught celebrity atmosphere, where artists have to reckon with cancel culture and public accountability, Harlow is practiced in efforts to protect his reputation, including requiring women to sign nondisclosure agreements before meeting privately.
Two favorable rookie years in the spotlight, however, are no guarantee of lasting success, and stan culture is always fickle. For now, at least, Jack Harlow can rest easy, knowing that he remains a leading contender for Twitter’s white boy of the year.