Few things are as rewarding as watching an artist come into their own. Releasing a steady stream of music since I first covered Jack Harlow in early 2018, it’s been a pleasure to witness the 21-year-old shed his ego and step into his sound. From having something to prove on 2017’s Gazebo to the life of the party on 2019’s Confetti, Jack has evolved into a rap cat with quick flows, remarkable bars, and sweet, sweet melodies. His latest breakout moment comes by way of bombastic single “WHATS POPPIN,” the video for which currently has 14 million views and landed him a spot on late-night television.
Watching Harlow on Fallon, we realize the young rapper from Louisville, Kentucky, has matured from his early days of chasing fire. As he said while signing off from his performance, he is in the building. Now, Jack returns with Sweet Action, a seven-track project where he sounds at his most loose (“2STYLISH”), accessible (“I WANNA SEE SOME ASS”), and barred up (“HEY BIG HEAD,” “WHATS POPPIN”). The self-seriousness of 2017’s Gazebo is gone. The formula of 2018’s Loose, the first major pivot of Jack’s career, has been realized. On Sweet Action, Jack sounds comfortable and commanding. He sounds secure in himself and his sound. He sounds electric and carefree.
“When you’re recording, what keeps you excited is you can feel there’s inspiration in the writing—even if it’s something simple,” Jack tells me over the phone from New York City. “Like anyone that does art, you start to understand your own tastes and your own strengths and who you are, and what you could pull off. It’s like putting clothes on: You know what type of clothes will look good on you, you figure out how your body looks. Making music is like developing taste, but you’re just dressing yourself.”
Jack’s taste is a byproduct of him growing up and figuring out his passion for rhythms and grooves, for that smooth shit, like Sweet Action’s “2STYLISH” or Confetti’s “ICE.” He works with a vocal coach, an older woman outside of the hip-hop sphere, who pointed out his obsession with bending his vocal to engage certain unique rhythms. No one had ever said that to Jack Harlow before, but he admits her assessment is “clear as day.” Too, his reverence for her opinion tells me one thing: Jack Harlow cares deeply about developing his craft.
Returning to “2STYLISH,” then, there’s a moment where Jack admits to having not felt like himself. Consequently, there’s a moment where he feels like he’s returned to his own body, returned to his confidence. Amidst the swagger and sauce carrying the project, Sweet Action is packed with these self-aware drops. In large part, they’re what makes the project a worthwhile release: We get yet another taste of how Jack Harlow knows himself and communicates who he is to the listener.
“That’s something that can occur every week, not feeling like yourself,” Jack tells me. “You could have an off day, but when I was recording [“2 STYLISH”], I felt good. Some days you’re just confident, and things are going your way. Then you have some days where you feel alone and not at your strongest point, but at that point, I bounced back from whenever I was in that space.”
Jack speaks slowly. He mulls over every word, which should come as no surprise. He fucking loves language. From project to project, Jack’s ability to choose the right word to elicit the right feeling has only improved. “Flows are coming easier than ever,” he says. “Words are the challenge. Sometimes they’re not a challenge, but they’re the important part, to me, and that’s what I try not to sacrifice. Flows are easy to pick, it’s like dancing. Especially when I’m freestyling.”
“We’ve talked about this before: You can just get ideas off and not judge ‘em,” Jack says of the challenge of words. “It’s a little harder for me because I try to chokehold the result of the writing, try to throttle it, and decide what it’s gonna be so early. That’s the challenge: I’m a little too controlling over it. I just have a standard I aim for, and that I’ve hit. When I’m not hitting it, I don’t have any patience for anything less.”
High standards have led Jack to endless studio sessions. As he says on “WHATS POPPIN,” the work ethic is beginning to manifest into a “scary obsession,” but he likes to call it a passion. Jack Harlow has always been obsessed with capturing the fire of the written word, and lately, he’s been moving further and further away from his pedantic younger self and closer to his base emotions as a maturing young man. Though he admits to trying to control and navigate the writing, there’s more to his process. Jack Harlow is learning to let go:
“The goal is to get out of thinking and into feeling. That’s why so many of us turn to substances and little tricks to get us in that space. I’ve been recording sober a lot—most of this EP was recorded sober, maybe all of it. You just have to get in a space and you have to will yourself into it. I don’t walk into the studio and be in a space of creating something great. You have to start writing, and then you… There’s a moment, I’m sure you know, when you know you’re on to something, and it’s exciting to continue. It’s like going fishing: You gotta throw the line out there and see if something bites, but you gotta throw the line out there. You gotta sit in the boat, under the sun for a few hours, take a beating.”
In the past, Jack’s music was woefully plagued by his desire to prove something, leading to denser and wordier songs—enjoyable, to be fair, but the air of him looking for approval tainted his earliest offerings. Now, as begun on Confetti, all of those hang-ups are gone.
“You have a song like ‘I WANNA SEE SOME ASS,’ and that’s the most accessible song I’ve released,” Jack explains. “In the past, my music has been so dense. And part of that has been self-inflicted, because, you’re right, I felt I had something to prove. I didn’t have the confidence to make something as simple as ‘I WANNA SEE SOME ASS.’ Now, I could see the music getting less dense because sometimes the swag carries it. Now, I’m in love with words, so I’m always gonna use ‘em, but something like ‘I WANNA SEE SOME ASS,’ the bravado is carrying it.”
Bravado is the word of the day for Sweet Action. In seven songs, you get everything Jack was aiming for on Loose. The project sounds even looser than Loose, how it billows and weaves from song to song as this ingenious concoction of irresistible rhythms and tightly woven bars. The further we get from Loose, too, the more we realize the mixtape was Jack’s first real leap as an artist. We’re now in a post-Loose world, and we’re witnessing Jack sow the seeds he planted just two years ago. The difference between past and present, too, is Jack’s mindset in regards to his vices.
“I’ve just tried a lot of the vices now, and I’ve realized there [are] more cons than pros,” Jack details. “Not even in a smart, long-term fashion. Smoking weed makes me self-conscious, so there’s no way I can write anything confidently. Alcohol makes me bloated and tired, so I don’t have the energy to work. And psychedelics make me nervous and emotional. So, I don’t have a go-to. Adderall makes me delusional. Everything has this downside to it, and I realized that sobriety is my best bet.”
Jack is sober and dedicated to his craft, and he assures me solitude has always been his friend. “I’ve been traveling so much and shaking hands, doing shows; that overstimulation adds up,” Jack says. “No matter how strong-minded you are, you can’t help but have influences. But being by yourself is good for work. You get [the] unfiltered You. I’ve always been someone that values my solitude. I’m in New York right now, and it’s nice as hell outside, and I’m ready to be by myself. There’s value in being by yourself. You get to reflect and decompress.”
On the note of decompression, I ask Jack about his ego—a big topic of conversation during our last talk. He tells me he’s getting ever-closer to being rid of the ego, and his comfort is taking over in the best way.
“I think there’s some ego shedding involved, and I feel comfortable,” Jack explains. “I know how things need to sound, and I know what feels good. It’s all about balancing your own taste with the context of knowing what everyone else’s is. It doesn’t mean you fold to what everyone else likes, but being aware of it, that’s what’s fun to me. If I want a room of people to yell words back to me, I need to tap into what they like. I care a lot about other people. So, you gotta keep that in mind without totally selling yourself.”
Selling out is the last thing on Jack’s mind, too. He believes he’s made it. He’s been on TV. He’s hit the charts. He tours. He releases music at a steady pace. Everything he envisioned for himself has come to fruition. Though life has gotten busier and he’s more exhausted than ever, none of his newfound success feels shocking, mainly because it wasn’t an overnight rise. Instead, Jack is basking in the fact that he manifested his dreams. And he has so many more dreams still within him.
“I’m still fucking with the same people—I’m still where I’m at,” Jack assures me. “I wake up to good news, but the only thing this has let me know is artists above me ain’t living that weird. You have to get really far in this industry for your life to change super, super drastically. Then again, my life is definitely different than it was months ago. I don’t think I’m gonna go crazy, solely because I’ve been trying to do this for so long. It wasn’t no overnight thing. You envision yourself in a space, and you’re ready when it’s time.”
“You see your life a certain way, you envision moments in the future, and I envision,” Jack begins, “I envision what I want my wedding to feel like. I envision the GRAMMYs. You envision these huge things. The dreams don’t stop.”
For as fun and jeering as his music can get, never forget how much Jack Harlow cares. During our interview, every note on his music was met with a question from Jack, a desire for me to expound and regale him on the machinations of his sound. For fun. Jack Harlow’s obsession with craft cannot be understated. He lives, breathes, and dreams of hip-hop. The rest, as they say, will be history.