Jack Harlow’s ‘Loose’ Captures the Moment the Smoke Ring Hits the Bedroom Ceiling

Jack Harlow continues forging his identity on his Atlantic debut.
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Jack Harlowm 2018

Jack Harlow is a humble character. Harlow, a young Louisville rapper dedicated to process over posturing, acts his age as much as he doesn’t. Speaking with him, he sounds methodical and deliberate—pedantic to a fault, as he admitted to DJBooth earlier this year. Pressing play on his music, though, we see that the young man is far from self-serious, but not in a way that suggests a sophomoric overcorrection.

Each Jack Harlow project, then, is a release of tension. From Handsome Harlow to 18, to the more complete and emotionally nuanced Gazebo, Harlow has found a way to make the seemingly pithy pleasures of a young man sound expansive and universal. With his fourth full-length project and official Atlantic debut, Loose, Harlow continues the trend, taking the highs of Gazebo and using Loose to get ever-closer to his own identity as an artist.

Loose borrows the teetering fun of Gazebo’s best tracks—“Routine,” “Detox,” “Dark Knight”—and turns them into 40 minutes of skittering through a Louisville summer. It’s sputtering and jockish, and when Harlow gives into his pleasures he makes the plain or juvenile sound endearing. These are the tales of the downtown strip when the sun goes down and the streetlights dim. Harlow is transportive in the same way as, say, Wiki. Where Wiki takes me to the ricket of the L train, Jack Harlow brings me back to hazy basements and musty couches. Loose is the moment the smoke ring dissipates on the bedroom ceiling—not sad, just true of youth.

The features, too, help bring us closer to Jack Harlow’s day-to-day in Louisville. While Loose does not boast the overbearing pursuit of becoming a hometown record and elevating Harlow to hometown hero, it is a calculated effort to introduce the world to all Louisville has to offer. Features from 2forwOyNE and Taylor, with 2forwOyNE also handling a majority of the production on Loose, make the project a family affair. We get the energy and community of a DIY affair, with the polish of a major-label budget.

A lot of Loose is built upon tiny victories in ad-libing, cadence, jest, and groove (“PICKYOURPHONEUP”). Jack Harlow has swagger, this we’ve known to be true, but on Loose, he sounds more confident than ever. Of course, this is why the project is missing an “Eastern Parkway,” but also why the debauchery sounds so lively and brand new on the seething and hot “LIKE THIS.” And while we expected Jack Harlow to make tuxedo music, that is, tunes that sound as expensive as they do nonchalant, “CODY BANKS” is special in that it sounds like Harlow rides the peak of a far-reaching ripple from the bursting bassline.

At the rate at which artists are putting out music in 2018, we get to watch growth and prophecy fulfillment in real time. In late 2017, Harlow said CyHi The Prynce gave him the cure to writer’s block (“Dark Knight”) and on Loose, the duo come together for an equal parts cutting and sultry high point: “DRIP DROP.” Really, the track is everything Jack Harlow excels at: tricking flows, fastidious aura, relatability, bad-boy status, and breath control. Scoring the CyHi verse is just the icing on the cake of the track, and is an impressive co-sign that also suggests Harlow knows how to manifest like it’s nothing.

The overarching draw of Loose, and for all of Jack Harlow’s music, is that he’s a cat and he’s a cad—mostly on paper. Harlow’s delivery along with the structure of Loose is aloof and selectively interested but never disengaged. Take “9TH GRADE,” and how each syllable waterfalls out of Harlow’s mouth. It’s as novel as it is familiar, but a marvel nonetheless. Harlow holds our attention in that way, making himself a commodity on his own album.

There are times where playing hard to get on his record spites him, though. As opposed to the slicker “DRIP DROP” or “SLIDE FOR ME,” “CAN’T CALL IT” feels a bit papery in its approach, closer to a reference track for the tape at large and less of a standalone song. “TOO MUCH” is a more developed attempt at avant-garde auto-crooning, but falls into a similar trap as “CAN’T CALL IT.”

The in-studio atmosphere of “TOO MUCH,” and its place as an outro, give it some leeway, but it is a blemish nonetheless. Where “VACATE,” for all its near-romantic posturing, could not close the project, “TOO MUCH” just falls shy of a satisfying ending. Enjoyability does not always equal closure. Jack Harlow is a cat, yes, but Loose exists mid-pounce. The project concludes with listeners enthralled, but ultimately waiting to see how he sticks the landing.

Here’s the thing with Jack Harlow: he has plenty of time. Loose is not his opus, of course, and it absolutely shouldn’t be. The function of Loose is to get closer to “the fire” as he so described during our interview. In that way, and in the way of enjoyability, too, Loose is a grand success. The project is Jack Harlow in mid-air, wherein the air is also a forge going for his identity. Everything good is still coming; Loose does not project the worry of a fall, but the promise of soaring.

Three Standout Songs

“SUNDOWN”

The lead single for the project showcases Jack Harlow in his pocket as a rapper who can knead down a beat with a wavy and punctuated flow. “SUNDOWN” works well as an album opener, setting up the record to be a catalog of fast times and impressive show of technical skill and charisma. The video is tight, too.

“PICKYOURPHONEUP”

This track is a masterclass in personality and subtlety. The bird calls and ad-libs give “PICKYOURPHONEUP” a fresh coat of whimsy, tempered by Harlow’s lax delivery. This track embodies the effective push-and-pull of Loose and reminds us that Jack Harlow is sly with his attention-getting.

“VACATE”

Harlow does not skate over this beat, he barely touches it. On “VACATE,” Harlow makes a show out of floating his delivery, and the slow-jam of the hook gives this cut some range. The singing is somewhere between all-terse and all-silk, which makes for an endearing listen. R&B Harlow might be his next venture, it might not, but “VACATE” remains a worthy show of his music’s present and future.

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