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Acclaim Digital Cover 023: Jack Harlow

The Louisville rapper has travelled the world to achieve his dream accolades in the rap game, from desolate band rooms to sold-out festival stages. Now, presenting his sophomore album alongside hip hop legends.

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“But I’m still staring at the ceiling in my bed at night, thinking ‘bout what I don’t got yet, why I’m not hot yet, why the last project was something I thought would me make something that I’m not yet.”
These are lyrics from Jack Harlow’s song ‘RIVER ROAD’, the track that closes out his 2019 mixtape Confetti. The title references the path alongside the Ohio River in his hometown of Louisville; the place the doubts in this piece would ensure he’d return to. 

His contemplation on this song is easy to understand. He was three projects deep into being signed to DJ Drama and Don Cannon’s Generation Now imprint, which played a major part in the global rise of Lil Uzi Vert. But the same swiftness didn’t apply to his career, despite tracks like ‘SUNDOWN’ garnering some internet buzz, and having collaborations with established artists like Bryson Tiller. It seemed at the time that River Road could become Jack Harlow’s destiny, sitting along the water reflecting on what could have been. But what we’ve come to learn of Jack is that was never an option. He wasn’t going home until he’d hiked to the summit of his goals. 

Flash forward to now, Jack Harlow has decided to return home, with his head held higher just as high as his place on the charts. It started with 2020’s standout single ‘WHATS POPPIN’ becoming a smash, which he followed up with his excellent debut album That’s What They All Say. His fame continued to rise in 2021, delivering a highlight of the year with his verse on Lil Nas X’s Billboard-topping single ‘Industry Baby’. The accolades still haven’t stopped, returning to the top of the charts this year as a solo artist with the ear-catching ‘First Class’, leading into his just-released sophomore album Come Home The Kids Miss You. The project is a culmination of over half a decade of work, honing in on his unique style which meshes the energy of trap, food-for-thought lyricism, and groovy R&B elements into bouncy earworms. Legends like Justin Timberlake, Pharrell, Drake, and Lil Wayne appear as features on the album, helping Jack achieve his infatuation with swing, and creating unique tunes that are bound to stand the test of time. River Road no longer symbolises doubt for Harlow, as his presence in hip-hop is undeniable. Instead, he returns in first-class, hopping off the plane as an ambassador for the city, and an inspiration for every artist reflecting by the water.

In our third interview together over 3 years, Jack talked me through his infatuation with swing on Come Home The Kids Miss You, his blossoming acting career, and how he wants to motivate the youth.

Congrats on the album, my man. How are you feeling about the release?
You know, it’s hard to wrap my head around. It’s hard to think about the whole world hearing it, and people from high school consuming this music. It’s exciting 

The title is something that grabs your attention right away. What is it that’s calling you home right now?
I think it’s just the time away. I spent a lot of time away from Louisville while I was recording this album, and my mission has always been to lift Louisville up so now that we’re in this place. You know, I got to go back, finish the job, inspire the kids, and put other people in position.

Do you feel like you need to leave home to begin truly appreciating it?
It’s definitely helped me appreciate it more. Going home now is like a vacation for me. 

This album marks the first time in your career that you’re creating in an established place; a far cry from the doubts you rapped about on 2019’s ‘RIVER ROAD’. Is it different creating in a place where you’ve already made it?
Rap is special because there’s so much bravado involved in the rise. Your words become more compelling if you speak from the heart because people know your vantage point. They know you mean it, they know it’s a fact. One of the things that drew me to rap is the ability to talk my shit. I would hear other artists talk their shit when I was a kid, and I’d be like, “Damn, they must feel like the man, they’re making me feel like the man.” People want to know what’s going on in your head, and what it’s like to be where you’re at. So if you can document it vividly, and say genuine things, It’s powerful.

Something I’ve noticed about you heading into this album is your focus on the songwriting between the bars, where you’re putting extra detail into the sequencing, bounce, etc. What’s it been like adapting more into that role?
It has been a natural transition. You know, as you get more into something, you start to care more about the fine-tuning, and there are things you notice that you didn’t notice before. So you know, it’s just like anything, as you delve deeper into it. So this has been a massive upgrade in terms of fine-tuning from my last album, and I’m sure on the next album, I’ll find a way to upgrade again. Sometimes I think I might end up mixing my shit one day.

You’ve mentioned your love for the ‘swing’ when it comes to the sound of a song. What artists kickstarted your infatuation with this component of the art?
Great question. I think it was The Black Eyed Peas that first drew me to swing, alongside all the stuff Timbaland and Pharrell were producing in the mid-2000s. I just find it really interesting when rhythm in a way where it gets people dancing, and it puts you in this type. It’s kind of indescribable, but with my music, I want to make people move. 

On songs like ‘First Class’, you produce a more laid-back performance, letting the swing of the beat and the sample carry some of the load. Do you think this sound style can convey emotion?
That’s a good way to put it. I’ve always wanted to make a mainstream record with that sort of restraint because I think it helps you evolve. So much of my stuff has been trap-influenced and high in energy, so it’s good to make something more laid back. It’s breezy, and I like breezy. 

Miles Davis once said, “I don’t care if a dude is purple with green breath as long as he can swing,” which I feel is a testament to the many parts that go into achieving this sound. In your opinion, what are the key components of making a song swing?
His definition would be completely different from mine of course because it’s from a jazz perspective. But I do think there’s something universal about it. There’s a feel to the swing when it’s happening; it’s a tempo thing. I was speaking with Ebro at Hot 97 recently, and we talked about how 100 BPM is timeless because there’s a natural urgency to it. It’s indescribable, and it feels like it’s something to do with who we are as humans and our pulse. I’m attracted to tempo and the swing that comes within a tempo. When that percussion starts to slide, something special is created. 

You and I once talked about Frank Sinatra’s ‘I’ve Got The World on a String’, and how you interpret that song in a way that represents your emphasis on being in control of the things around you. Do you think as you’ve progressed in your career and life, you’ve learned to lessen your grip?
I actually might have gotten worse. It’s crazy, you’ve been really on point with stuff that’s happening in my life right now. Or, things just haven’t changed at all. 

Do you think you need to lessen the grip?
I think so, and I can see myself getting there. But it feels like right now, more than ever, we’re in the spot of getting past the finish line. But then again, finish lines aren’t the end, because there’s more that comes after that. 

Esteemed songwriters like Benny Blanco and Rick Rubin have likened the process of creating and releasing music to that of therapy. Was there a particular moment creating this album where you felt like your own therapist, walking through steps of growth?
I think that applies to my verse on ‘Churchill Downs’, the song I’ve got with Drake. I feel like I was speaking with so much conviction on that track, about what I think is meant for me and where I’m at. I’ve been really into making shit where you just speak the truth, and people know you’re not lying. No one thinks I’m lying on these songs, and that’s what this shit is about.

Do you think there’s a difference between Jack Harlow the artist, and Jack Harlow the person?
I think that applies to other artists, but not necessarily to me. I don’t think I’ve ever looked at music as a way to escape things. I’m envious of artists that can become a character or caricatures of themselves. I think I might channel different parts of my personality in my music, and I think I’m getting better at becoming a character, but I really set the tone when I decided to go by Jack Harlow. When someone sets a stage name, it allows them more freedom to explore beyond themselves. But I’m happy being myself in this game, even though sometimes honing in on a character seems interesting. 

You’re now transitioning into movies, being cast in the reboot of White Men Can’t Jump, and earning that opportunity to explore characters outside of yourself. How have you found the process of learning how to convey emotions in this new field of creativity?
That’s a good question. I haven’t been able to jump into different characters as an artist, because I’ve grown into myself and have become more comfortable in my own skin. I might even accuse myself of getting comfortable with having a specific tone or energy. This movie is pushing me out of that a little bit. It’s not a far cry from who I am, it’s not like I’m playing Edward Scissorhands, but the character isn’t Jack Harlow, and I’m really liking the new horizons of becoming somebody else.

You’ve shined the light on how unique and creative Louisville is as a city. From my outside perspective, its versatile nature seems to be presented as a unified front, where everyone from their respective fields seems focused on celebrating this place they live. What is it about the city that you think fuels this?
There’s a strong melting pot aspect to it. Not in every way, because segregation still exists in ways people may not be aware of, but there are strong melting pots in a lot of the pockets. I think the melting pot is what spawned someone like me, and people who can thrive in hip-hop authentically. There’s a certain warmth to the city as well, where you can tell that Louisville is a place with a lot of soul. 

Lastly, you’re going home with this album because the kids miss you. What do you do to help the youth not only in Louisville but around the world who now see you as a role model?
I just want to be someone who can inspire these kids to be confident and love themselves. Some people don’t come from a house where they’re hugged enough or get told they’re worth something, so I want to be somebody that can make someone feel positive when they put their headphones on. As I continue to get older, I think that goal will start to develop further, and I’ll find ways to tangibly push that agenda. It’s very important to me.

Follow Jack Harlow here and stream the new album Come Home The Kids Miss You now.

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