Jack Harlow was one of many new rappers to break into the mainstream in 2020. In a year that saw rap continue to dominate as music’s biggest genre and record turnover at the top of the Billboard Hot 100, Jack Harlow finally crossed over from Kentucky’s underground scene to marquee playlists across the world. “Whats Poppin,” the Grammy-nominated lead single from his Sweet Action EP, flew to #2 buoyed by multiple TikTok trends and a remix featuring DaBaby, Lil Wayne, and more. He soon followed that up with “Tyler Herro,” the lead single from Thats What They All Say, which I named one of the 40 best songs of 2020.
As a white rapper, Jack Harlow has been thrust into a storied legacy that will forever impact the way he and his music are perceived. Hip-hop is arguably the music genre that has best-resisted whitewashing and retained its Black American roots. Over the past few years, aside from Eminem, white rappers have either burned out after one album (Iggy Azalea), completely transitioned into a different genre (Machine Gun Kelly), or put out multiple projects across genres (G-Eazy). Or, if you’re Post Malone, you’ve all but begged people to not classify you as a rapper but industry strongholds like Billboard pretend like they can’t hear you.
Jack Harlow is a very good rapper. He doesn’t solely rest on poppy hooks or sing-songy flows like many in his position (and generation) do. He’s a sly lyricist with ample room to grow, and he has a great ear for beats and how to fit them into his vision for a larger project. As white supremacy would have it, he will more than likely get radio play and industry success quicker and more easily than any of his peers. His talent and this fact can coexist. On his debut album, Jack wrestles with his awareness of this across multiple tracks — a move that adds more depth and character to the overall record. Thats What They All Say is a remarkably consistent record. The album’s fourteen tracks seamlessly flow together as Jack tackles love, his future, his hometown, and his come-up over pitch-perfect production courtesy of jetsonmade, Scott Storch, Boi-1da, and more. Jack’s debut is almost overwhelmingly concerned with his recent explosion into fame. Although his perpetual wide-eyedness makes the subject matter a bit tedious, there’s just enough nuance to showcase Jack’s potential.
“I became exactly what I wanted to/I became a millionaire at twenty-two” begins “Rendezvous,” the hook-less opener of the album. Opening tracks on albums are always important, but in hip-hop, they carry special weight. Hit-Boy’s sample-laced (the sample here is Midnight Movers’ “Lost for Words”) beat provides the perfect backdrop for Jack to recount his rise to the top and remind us that he is absolutely not an overnight success story. The thick bassline steadies the track as Jack raps his way through one single verse before the strings come in to bring the song to a close. Throughout the track, Drake’s influence on Jack’s flow, and his overall approach to storytelling is unmistakable. In fact, you can hear Drake on a lot of Thats What They All Say; while this isn’t necessarily a bad thing since he’s channeling prime Drake, it does make the album feel overly familiar. Take the Chris Brown-assisted “Already Best Friends” for example. The track is an undeniably great slice of R&B-inflected hip-hop, but the vocal melody and theme scream “No Guidance,” “Go Crazy,” and “City Girls.” He’s even singing on the track, and it’s surprisingly good!
The wide-ranging collaborations on Thats What They All Say achieve varying levels of success, but Jack is at his best he gets introspective. On one of the album’s early standouts, “21C / Delta,” Jack raps, “The playing field ain’t level, that’s how I engineered it/You don’t know when I’ma pop up and when I’m disappearin’.” It’s a startlingly honest bar that encapsulates the essence of the whole song. “21C / Delta” is easily one of the album’s strongest tracks because it efficiently makes full use of the gifts of the double-track format. The first half, “21C,” sees Jack bragging about making various women sign NDAs in upscale hotel rooms before nights of raunchy fun, and the second half brings us back to Louisville pre-“Whats Poppin” with Jack working through the friction in his relationship. Moments like these, when Jack uses his city as a lens to process his celebrity and his maturity, are what elevate Thats What They All Say. “Baxter Avenue,” the album’s closer (ignoring the “Whats Popppin” remix), is, perhaps, the most heartfelt and insightful moment on the album. With a stream-of-consciousness single verse flow (think: Drake’s “9 AM in Dallas”) over an Ayo the Producer beat, Jack pays tribute to his city and reflects on his childhood. Growing up on the white side of Louisville, but venturing into a Black genre with a group of predominantly Black friends and associates makes for a precarious situation. Towards the end of “Baxter Avenue,” Jack touches on that tension and looks for something greater to try and help bridge that racial divide. He raps, “Always wondered to myself if I could really be a leader of a group of brown-skinned boys when I’m not brown-skinned/Certain things they grew up on that they get but I don’t get.” Of course, Jack shouldn’t be applauded for stating a simple fact like this in his music, but it is refreshing to hear this from a white rapper in a way that doesn’t sound like they are overcompensating for any and everything (*cough* Macklemore). He kind of fumbles with the “giving them money” line, but he makes a quick recovery as he calls for “no contracts” and independence. With a fruitful indie career behind him, Jack has never wavered on the importance of independence in the hip-hop industry. When the artist wins, everyone around them that they love also wins, and that’s what Jack wants above anything else.
Jack Harlow’s debut is a solid formal introduction to the rapper. Thats What They All Say leaps across genre lines and pulls from influences like Hall & Oates, Bee Gees, and Lil Wayne. Above all, Drake’s influence stands the tallest on the record. Time will tell if Jack can build on that influence and innovate something more unique or stay in the shadow of that blueprint. Regardless, Thats What They All Say is ultimately a showcase of Jack’s potential in every sense of the term. It seems like he’ll be around for a while.
Key Tracks: “21C / Delta” | “Route 66” | “Baxter Avenue” | “Face Of My City” | “Already Best Friends”