Twenty seconds into Jack Harlow’s eerie “Dark Knight” video and my only thought was, “How is no one talking about this?” Harlow hoses down a trap beat with a concentrated stream of bars, all while bouncing around an alley and shoulder-shimmying his way into my heart. Clocking in at two minutes and 16 seconds, the single led me down a rabbit hole of semi-serious music videos and three full projects, each one crafted better than the next.
Moving from The Handsome Harlow EP to 18, to late 2017’s Gazebo, I listened to a young man find his confidence, dissect his toxic relationship with sex, and revamp an otherwise tired coming of age narrative for hungry rappers. My burning question evolved into a desire to learn more about the young artist.
Harlow’s story begins in his hometown of Louisville, Kentucky. Thanks to his mother, who is an avid fan of hip-hop, Harlow was introduced to a wide range of artists, listening to everything from A Tribe Called Quest to Eminem. “From there, it was on me and what I wanted to listen to, which became Drake,” Harlow tells me over the phone. There’s an attractive drawl in his speaking voice that makes him all the more charming and magnetic.
That energy intensifies as he gets into his Louisville pride. The city has played a cardinal role in molding Harlow as a creative. “I came from a part of Louisville that’s pretty diverse, with a lot of creative things going on,” Harlow says. “Louisville is a little more special [than other cities], there’s a little more weirdness in the air.
“Some people from Louisville will go so far as to not claim Kentucky, they’ll say they’re from Louisville, Louisville. I’m not one of those people. I’m proud to be from Kentucky. The experiences that I had as an individual, you know? The girls I talk to, the things I get into, the stories I have, it’s all about where I’m from.”
Yet two years ago, a younger and admittedly misguided Harlow didn’t see himself as a Louisville rapper. No, he saw himself as a rapper who happened to find himself in the city. This distinction, Harlow explains, came from a place of ambition.
“You just Nardwuar’d me,” he says while attempting to return to his old headspace. “I just found that a lot of times, I had aspirations for outside of the city. I was just getting introduced to the idea of a hip-hop scene, it was something about it that made me feel like there was a lot of people in the city that had [music] as a hobby, but didn’t wanna take it seriously and go anywhere.”
Presently, Harlow makes clear that he’s far from a Louisville one-off. “There’s a lot of people in Louisville pushing for what I’m pushing for, and there’s a lot of talent coming out,” he says proudly, also mentioning his collective Private Garden as well as The Homies. Though the city doesn’t have a definitive sound, Harlow holds firm that they can get there—collectively. In the meantime, though, Louisville remains a hotbed for raw talent.
Equally instrumental to Harlow’s early artistic development were the melodies and dogged women-chasing narratives that comprised classic country music, a genre his father shared with him. Women are a common subject in Harlow’s music, but he approaches sex with a vexed pen. Sex quickly moves from an achievement to a vice to a sordid topic on Gazebo. While I didn’t expect someone so young to approach sexuality with such nuance, everything clicks once Harlow explains that he has been passionate about writing since age 12.
“I was always into writing, when I was in school I liked writing papers and writing in general,” he says. “Hip-hop was a new way to do it [...] I’ve always said that every kid wants to be a rapper, whether they do it or not, I feel like most kids have written a rap. It was just a dope way to express myself.” His love for hip-hop, dubbed by him as “the coolest shit ever,” grew in tandem with his love for writing and recording music.
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But if every kid wants to be a rapper, at what point did Harlow make the transition into a fully-fledged artist? “Maybe when I was 16 or 17,” he muses. “I still have days where I don’t think of myself [as a rapper]. It’s hard to pinpoint that transition.”
Though I mistook this admission as a moment of self-doubt, Harlow clarifies that he has no doubts about his recording career. “As an artist, I just feel like a kid trying to make some raps,” he explains. “There are moments, of course, where I’m very serious. I believe in myself to be able to accomplish all of this. There are just days where you’re like, ‘Man, I’m just a person rapping.’”
At this point, the mystique of Jack Harlow begins to unravel. His humility and humanity make the music approachable and memorable. Filled with images of cul-de-sacs, spying neighbors, “Wasted Youth,” and all the other makings of a feel-good '90s flick, Harlow’s music thrives because he writes what he knows. Anyone can be a good artist, but it takes a believable act to achieve greatness. In that breath, Harlow is sitting on a goldmine.
“I think I’m just a self-aware person, often to a fault,” Harlow says in regards to his relatability. “I’m thoughtful about what I’m writing and how I’m representing myself.”
Harlow’s methodical personality is present all over Gazebo. Opening track “Eastern Parkway” is a measured rumination, the sonic embodiment of a late night drive home from a night gone wrong. Meanwhile, the more morose and melodic “Maybe” works as a series of questions probing at the gray area between sadness and depression.
Even so, Harlow is conscious that too much methodology could sour his music. “It sounds weird, but sometimes I wish music was objective,” he admits. “I can knock out so many tasks for things that are objective—I’m an efficient person. Music is all about feelings and being subjective. So one thing I’ve had to do as a person is grow from being analytical and just move off of what feels right.”
This mindset has translated into Harlow submitting to the process and allowing himself to make bad music and write weak songs, all in an effort to grow organically.
“We have no patience because of how quickly we can get everything right now,” Harlow notes. “I think it’s hard for people in my generation to make shitty stuff […] You can’t always hit the mark, and that’s what I was talking about with having no patience. You’re not always going to make fire, you have to go through making that weaker stuff before you’re gonna get the fire.”
How does Harlow summon his fire? Churning and burning through the recording process, with an emphasis on mood. His three projects were released in the span of two and a half years, but Harlow reveals he would have actually preferred to move faster.
“It’s easier for me to create in a shorter timespan,” he explains. “But it has to feel good to me every time, from the first bar I start writing. There has to be that feeling that ‘This is me, this is real, this is genuine,’ and when it’s genuine it really hits. That’s how you make something profound, and profound doesn’t mean deep or serious. Profound means something that feels real and feels right.”
As Harlow sorts through his feelings, he’s working on sustaining vibes and finishing songs. Following his recent move to Atlanta, and a record contract with Atlantic Records, he’s started work on over 100 songs. By the time this interview is published, he’ll likely have 100 more.
Before we said our goodbyes, I asked Harlow if he had any advice for young artists who might be too scared to follow their dreams. With full conviction he told me: “Man, it’s what I tell everybody: you’re gonna die. You might as well get it jumping and see what happens.”