After graduating in 2016, Harlow opted to skip college, and moved to Atlanta full time a year later, thanks to advice he received from fellow Kentucky native and collaborator, KY Engineering (Drake, Lil Wayne). He independently released two EPs on his label Private Garden Sounds; a friend of DJ Drama heard them and arranged for the two to get together in the studio. By 2018, Harlow signed a recording contract to Drama’s and Don Cannon’s imprint Generation Now (a joint venture with Atlantic Records).
Harlow’s work ethic has remained consistent since signing the deal, dropping another three projects since joining the label: Loose in 2018, Confetti in 2019 and Sweet Action, his new EP out today (Mar. 13). The lattermost extends the rapper’s streak of releasing at least one body of work per year since 2014, and he cautiously teases more may be in store later in 2020.
“I might drop two this year,” he says. “[But] quality is a priority for me. I don’t want to oversaturate — I’m not somebody that believes in flooding the market once a month.”
Sweet Action, which arrives on the rapper’s 22nd birthday, is buoyed by his biggest hit to-date, “WHATS POPPIN.” The January single, with its droning production and piano flutters, earned Harlow his first career Hot 100 entry (now at No. 74 on charts dated March 14). Since its release, he has earned co-signs from peers (DaBaby, Blueface, G-Eazy) and athletes (Johnny Manziel, LeVeon Bell) alike, performed the track on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, and racked up more than 16 million views on the track’s music video, directed by Lyrical Lemonade’s Cole Bennett.
But outside of all of his rapid-fire bars on “WHATS POPPIN” and “HEY BIG HEAD,” Harlow successfully leans into his more R&B-pop side for much of the 16-minute EP, be that on late-night groove “2STYLISH,” the unsubtle “I WANNA SEE SOME ASS,” or project closer “ONCE MAY COMES,” which sounds reminiscent of that early 2000s music he may have listened to in his parents’ minivan, though more in the vein of Nelly R&B than Eminem rap.
“There are some times when it’s your duty to spit, but I already showed you that I can rap,” he says. “So guess what else I’m going to show you? I can make some ear candy that you’re going to want to hear 100 times. I can’t let anybody condition the type of music I’m making — I know what I’m going to do in the long run."
And to his credit, Harlow’s trajectory has been on a steady, ever-increasing upward trend since landing his first breakout hit, “DARK KNIGHT,” in 2017. He’s taken his time finding his footing in the game — he’s gone back and forth between focused writing sessions and more of a freestyle approach, and recording under the influence versus sober — but sounds more comfortable with his craft than ever on Sweet Action, despite rapping about getting “resentment from every direction” on “WHATS POPPIN.”
Rather than listen to outside noise, Harlow’s focus appears to be on the future — he’s slated to perform in a Saturday night slot at his hometown Forecastle Festival in July and recently teased photos of him together in the studio with Pharrell — and celebrating recent achievements. “Having a Hot 100 hit or going on Jimmy Fallon are accomplishments that resonate with anybody,” says Harlow. “If I stopped today, I still have something I can brag to my grandchildren about.”
A version of this article originally appeared in the March 14, 2020 issue of Billboard.