When Jack Harlow first emerged onto the rap scene in 2015, his intangible qualities such as his swagger and trademark Southern twang worked to set him apart from the rest of the crop of rising wordsmiths. Harlow and his Louisville-based collective, Private Garden, were very much outsiders. As a goofy-looking, curly-haired white kid from Kentucky, Harlow was often not taken seriously within the rap game, and he had to earn all of the respect he has garnered since. Clips and songs from his adolescence show how dedicated he has been to rapping as a craft since he was a young boy. His major label debut mixtape, 2018’s Loose, and his subsequent project, 2019’s Confetti, display this hunger. In these first two albums, Harlow sounds raw, composed and in touch with Louisville’s underrated hip-hop scene. His beats skew towards the eclectic and psychedelic, and his natural swagger in the two tapes is apparent to listeners, as his cadence and delivery were remarkably far along for a rapper as young as he was then.
In 2020, Harlow released the single that turned him into a household name, “WHATS POPPIN.” Harlow fans rejoiced that Louisville’s favorite son was finally getting recognized by a more mainstream audience, but the song itself signified a shift in Harlow’s sonic profile from intricate, lush instrumentals to basic trap beats.
This shift is quite apparent in his most recent release: the highly anticipated Come Home the Kids Miss You. The two singles that preceded the album, “Nail Tech” and the Fergie-sampling “First Class,” were catchy, if a little boring. The hunger that you could hear in Harlow’s voice on Loose and Confetti is all but gone, and it seems like the trappings of life as a mega-star have tapered his creativity and drive. His intent now seems to be making inoffensive radio-rap fodder — a major deviation from his previous work. While he previously made melodic rap tracks, that aspect of his repertoire has definitely been emphasized as Harlow’s commercial focus shifted towards hunting for streams. Where Harlow’s whiteness previously served as a detriment to his career in the local scene, the mountain-moving national PR push that he has benefitted from since the release of “WHATS POPPIN” is in no small part due to his “marketability” (see: white privilege).
This negative transformation isn’t just a product of his aim to add more melody to his albums, as previous R&B-influenced tracks, like Confetti’s “THRU THE NIGHT,” work brilliantly. Harlow still has a ton of natural talent; at times on this new project, his swagger and flow mitigates his poor writing and basic production choices. He also has a good sense of humor and a rare boldness and confidence for a rapper of his stature. When these intangibles come to the forefront, the album is at its best, such as on the shameless DM-slide of “Dua Lipa” and the breezy “Lil Secret,” which has the best beat on the project — a smooth, vocals-centered instrumental. “Like a Blade of Grass” also sounds like something that could’ve been on Loose or Confetti, with its bouncy drums reminiscent of early Harlow gems like “SUNDOWN,” though it would have been better if he didn’t try to sing on it. He’s not off-key or anything, but his singing lacks the signature Kentucky lilt that makes his rapping so endearing.
In general, Harlow spends way too much of the album trying to be something he’s not. He gives a half-hearted Drake impression on “Churchill Downs,” a track that also features the Canadian rapper. Drake sounds more natural than Harlow on the song, but he still isn’t excellent. Harlow has shown that his collaborations with talented singers can be brilliant, like Confetti’s stellar 2forwOyNE collaboration, “WARSAW,” but his own crooning tends to fall flat on Come Home the Kids Miss You. While his career may be in a better place than it was three years ago, his music has deteriorated. Without the example of his early work, Harlow seems alarmingly similar to industry plants in other genres, like Billie Eilish, GAYLE or Iann Dior. At least Eilish still can lean back on her unique voice and world-class songwriter of a brother; Harlow just sounds uninspired.
Daily Arts Writer Ryan Brace can be reached at email@example.com.