“Who is Jack Harlow?”
Last weekend, NBA referee Scott Foster went viral during a Celtics-Bucks playoff game by asking fellow ref Ed Malloy the simple question, unsure of who the artist being shown on the Jumbotron was. Foster being unfamiliar with Harlow’s oeuvre naturally became a meme, all of social media seemingly dissecting this hilarious intersection between sports and pop culture. Yet the foundation of the joke was that, at this point, everyone should know who Jack Harlow is.
That’s because the Kentucky rapper is enjoying the type of commercial run that most artists can barely even fathom, combining hits, co-signs, cross-genre success and non-music opportunities to the point where his superstardom is barely up for debate anymore. That particularly bodes well for Harlow on the eve of his new album, Come Home the Kids Miss You, out Friday (May 6). The star-studded project already contains one smash, the No. 1 hit “First Class,” and could spin off a few more by year’s end.
Harlow’s trajectory to the top has been unexpected over the past few years, but he’s also moved with purpose and panache toward the A-list of mainstream music. He is now a superstar — here’s how that’s happened, in 10 steps.
1. He had time to find his voice.
Before Harlow was a household name, he was a teen from Louisville filming low-budget music videos in cars with his pals, rapping about both skipping high school classes and his go-to burrito order at Qdoba, and generally embracing a cool-nerd persona. Listening to Harlow’s early projects — which date back to the mid-2010s, a full half-decade before any sort of mainstream recognition — his gifts as a technical rapper that gravitates toward a brassy punchline are clear, but needed a few projects to gestate and evolve.
His personality on the mic was compelling, if not entirely coherent; he understood melody, but the hooks weren’t clean. When Harlow did score a smash in 2020, part of its appeal was how natural his flow sounded — but that effortlessness took years to cultivate before arriving anywhere near where we know it today.
2. He pounced on a killer song.
“This is one of the only beats I ever just like, heard, and I was like, ‘I need it right now,’” Harlow said of “Whats Poppin” in a Genius breakdown of his breakout hit. JetsonMade and Pooh Beatz, fresh off the success of DaBaby’s “Suge,” unearthed an instantly memorable beat marked by the push-pull of an elegant piano loop and trunk-rattling percussion.
In turn, Harlow snatched it and turned it into a showcase for his honed persona, tossing out sex boasts, weed tips, pasta orders (“Eating fettuccine at Vincenzo’s!”) and a catchphrase in “Whats Poppin.” Following its January 2020 release, the song took off on YouTube and TikTok before crossing over to streaming services and radio, and the original version of “Whats Poppin” climbed to No. 8 on the Hot 100 chart, delivering the 21-year-old to the masses.
3. He then made that song even bigger.
Six months after the release of “Whats Poppin,” Harlow gave his big single an all-star facelift by adding DaBaby, Tory Lanez and Lil Wayne onto an official remix for which he also recorded a new verse. Not only did the guest stars fill out the song — its run time expanded from 2:19 to 3:47, and it sported a more traditional verse-chorus structure — but nary a phoned-in moment exists on the remix: DaBaby, Lanez and Wayne all bring their A-game over that piano loop, and helped legitimize Harlow by sounding so ferocious alongside him.
Arguably, the “Whats Poppin” remix hasn’t aged well — the song was released weeks before Lanez’s violent confrontation with Megan Thee Stallion, and a year before DaBaby’s controversial statements at Rolling Loud — but when the new version pushed to No. 2 on the Hot 100, Harlow became an even more visible artist in mainstream hip-hop, with a couple of A-list co-signs now in his back pocket.
4. He kept collaborating in between big singles…
A little over a year elapsed between “Whats Poppin” and his next big hit, but Harlow kept himself busy in the meantime. His major-label debut, That’s What They All Say, became his first top 10 entry on the Billboard 200 chart upon its December 2020, and “Tyler Herro” and “Way Out” returned Harlow to the Hot 100, even though they couldn’t replicate the magic of “Whats Poppin.” He also continued making inroads with hip-hop’s elite class via collaborations, hopping on songs and remixes by Eminem, Ty Dolla $ign, Saweetie and French Montana in order to gain clout and keep popping up on streaming playlists. As he was searching for a follow-up hit, Harlow refused to disappear for too long, and made his voice a regular presence within the mainstream of his genre.
5. …And then one of those collaborations exploded.
Harlow’s appearance on Lil Nas X’s 2021 single “Industry Baby” plays out as a best-case scenario for a modern guest verse: not only did the chest-thumping pop-rap anthem become ubiquitous, give Harlow his first career Hot 100 chart-topper and eventually bring him to the Grammys stage, it also amplified his persona in a way that paved the way for his current enormity.
His “Industry Baby” verse packs tons of quotable lyrics — “I didn’t peak in high school, I’m still out here gettin’ cuter”; “OG so proud of me that he chokin’ up while he makin’ toasts”; “Say your time is comin’ soon, but just like Oklahoma, mine is comin’ sooner” — inside roughly 50 seconds, as Harlow’s strutting lines remain compact to counter-balance Nas’ sing-song flow. Meanwhile, the instantly iconic “Industry Baby” music video let Harlow play the foil to Nas’ prison break hero and display his unflappable cool and goofball charm in equal measures. Add in the praise that a straight rapper received from the LGBTQ community for co-starring in a queer rap anthem, and “Industry Baby” checked every professional box for Harlow — one could argue that it’s the most commercially transformative verse of the decade so far.
6. He was co-signed by Kanye West.
“Industry Baby” was co-produced by none other than Kanye West, and a few months after its release, Harlow returned the favor by appearing on “Louie Bags,” from Ye’s Donda 2 album. A few days before that project’s release last February, however, West posted a screenshot of Harlow’s music video for his single “Nail Tech” on Instagram, with the caption, “This n***a can raaaaaaap bro And I’m saying n***a as a compliment Top 5 out right now.”
Having Ye — one of the most respected voices in hip-hop history, regardless of the controversy he’s courted in recent years — describe Harlow as a top 5 rapper right now gave an ascendant young artist, and specifically a white artist in a predominantly Black genre, greater credibility with regard to his technical skill. If “Industry Baby” gave Harlow a chance to shine on pop radio, Ye’s words undoubtedly helped legitimize him to hardcore rap fans.
7. He booked a significant movie.
White Men Can’t Jump is beloved intellectual property, the type of sports comedy that still highlights VHS collections and deserved a 30th anniversary reunion at the most recent Academy Awards. A remake has been in the works for years, and in March, its star was announced: Harlow, who will be making his acting debut off the strength of his first-ever screen audition.
Multiple variables could make this film detour a footnote in Harlow’s career — maybe his appeal doesn’t translate to the silver screen, or maybe the remake comes and goes after getting panned. Yet the announcement underlines the fact that Harlow has become increasingly popular, so much so that the studio 20th Century is willing to have him top-line a major remake without a lick of acting experience. And who knows? Maybe White Men Can’t Jump 2.0 will be a huge success, unlock Harlow’s future as a double threat, and let him stop by the Oscars at its 30-year mark.
8. He rode a sample to a smash.
“Nail Tech,” which Harlow released in February, was a modest hit, peaking at No. 18 on the Hot 100 and continuing the momentum of “Industry Baby” in the upper reaches of the start. Yet “First Class,” which Harlow teased on TikTok ahead of its release last month, garnered a much bigger reaction, debuting atop the Hot 100 chart and instantly becoming the biggest solo hit of Harlow’s career.
Credit Harlow for expertly scavenging Fergie’s 2006 chart-topper “Glamorous,” a sample of which is placed prominently in the “First Class” hook, and then letting his magnetism carry the bars around it; the result is a slick combination of nostalgia and new-school braggadocio that listeners connected with immediately, and helped Harlow level up once more.
9. He’s releasing a major album at the right time.
The release timing of Come Home the Kids Miss You, Harlow’s second major-label album, couldn’t have worked out better for him: “First Class” is already a juggernaut, “Industry Baby” is still all over radio, and interest in his next moves as a recording artist couldn’t be higher. The album arriving roughly one month after the release of “First Class” gave his latest single a few weeks to find an even wider audience following its debut while anticipation for more Harlow music could be stoked.
Even casual fans are going to want to hear Come Home the Kids Miss You — which, as Harlow revealed this week, includes guest spots from Drake, Justin Timberlake, Pharrell Williams and Lil Wayne, as well as a song titled “Dua Lipa.” Time will tell how Harlow’s new LP performs on the charts, but his heightened profile and that track list suggest a bigger bow than that of That’s What They All Say in late 2020.
10. He stayed confident in his approach.
As a Kentucky MC with a sturdy punchlines, pop crossover appeal, serious buy-in from rap fans and a slightly goofy streak, Harlow does not have an analog in mainstream hip-hop — and that’s what’s made him reach the enviable platform he stands on today. The lone constant, from his days as a glasses-wearing rapping teen to the creator of one of the year’s most anticipated albums, has been Harlow’s unshakeable belief in himself, a type of swagger that bounces off his curly locks and is packed into every lyrical reference.
People believe in Harlow as an artist because he believes in himself, and that authentic point of view has brought him to a potentially major commercial moment. Harlow undoubtedly thinks the sky’s the limit for his career, and if his journey thus far has been any indication, he very well may be correct.