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Maybe it was the lukewarm reception to his last album, Come Home The Kids Miss You, or maybe it was the backlash to his casting in a remake of White Men Can’t Jump, but Jack Harlow seems fed up. On his newest album, Jackman, he goes back to the old Jack, only this time, with a chip on his shoulder and more to say than ever. Oddly enough, this more combative stance suits him, positioning him perfectly to address some of his recent controversies and distance himself from one of the most common complaints about him.
In a recent trailer for the FX show Dave, the show’s protagonist Lil Dicky engages in a tense (but comedic) confrontation with fellow white rapper Jack Harlow. While the episode itself hasn’t aired yet, it’s the origin of their on-screen beef is, like most things in the show, inspired by real life. The two men, both white rappers with oodles of curly hair and off-kilter senses of humor, are often compared, and Harlow especially seems to bristle at such connections.
That’s probably because, unlike Dicky, Jack has taken rap seriously from the beginning. At least, at the outset of Dicky’s career, it seemed that the elder rapper treated hip-hop — and his presence in it — as something of a joke. And while Dicky captured the public’s hearts with his obviously dedicated flow and sharp wit, Harlow never approached hip-hop as though he were an outsider. But the two entertainers have ended up at a similar place, albeit from disparate paths.
Rap fans seem to regard both with an equal measure of curiosity and skepticism. Although he’d been independently releasing mixtapes for several years before “What’s Poppin” took over the charts in 2020, most fans were introduced to him by that song. And, as so often happens in the post-blog rap era, many of those fans apparently regard him as an interloping, overnight success. In short, they sort of see him as Lil Dicky 2.0, just using rap to get over until he can move on to bigger, “better” things.
Jack’s resentment of this assessment is no clearer than in “It Can’t Be,” which tackles those accusations head-on. “It can’t be that I simply make ear candy,” he muses. “Especially when the industry could just plant me / Especially when I didn’t grow up on Brandy” — a nod to the non-controversy last year in which it was revealed he didn’t know R&B singers Brandy and Ray J were siblings, another mark against him in the eyes of fans who view him more as a cultural tourist than a hip-hop purist.
Likewise, Jack employs his observational gifts to highlight and subtly satirize the sizable and growing portion of the fan base that actually is engaging in the tourism, appropriation, and exploitation of hip-hop in the album’s intro, “Common Ground.” While the song stops short of outright judgment, it is lightly antagonistic, the way a good journalist should be when interrogating a subject (Jack has plenty to say on that count here). While this isn’t his first time addressing this disconnect, it’s done more bluntly — and more deftly — here.
Unlike Dicky, these were always tools that Harlow had in his bag. But, to tease — or torture — the metaphor a little, there was one other element that Jack needed to put these tools to good use. Any carpenter who wants to acquire their license must first complete an apprenticeship and put in their hours as a journeyman. In short, what Jack Harlow needed was experience and time to make full use of his technical skills, to hone them to the point that a Jackman would be possible.
“Gang Gang Gang” highlights this. A concept track which the rapper poses as a series of conversations catching up with friends back home, he’s horrified to learn that some of his closest friends have turned out to be bad eggs. It’s effective because he doesn’t pull back to make any larger political points, he keeps the focus on the discomfort and disbelief he feels and his internal struggle to reconcile the kids he knew with the monsters they grew up to be — and how to let them go. It’s a conversation more of us should be having with ourselves if we’re honest.
The glitzy, Neptunes-inspired production of Come Home — which was timely in its own right, but rubbed day-one fans and newbies the wrong way — is gone, replaced by the earthy, soul-looped backpack rap of Harlow’s youth. (An interesting catch-22 is that, had this been his second album after the success of That’s What They All Say, he’d have been undoubtedly written off as a self-serious, one-note backpacker. He had to release the glossy, celebratory Come Home in order to be taken seriously). Instead of R&B hooks and flashy features, Jackman is just 10 two-minute songs, each digging deeper into subjects he’s always touched on but with more maturity and insight than we’ve previously seen.
The funny thing is, he’s always had this in him. Jackman is, after all, his full first name. Little has changed but the circumstances. Harlow is now just a little more weathered. He’s grown into himself more as a man (it’s easy to forget, he’s just 25 years old; his brain is literally still not finished cooking from a biological standpoint). Jackman, the album, is Jackman, the person, completing his journeymanship. He knows what he’s doing now and maybe now, we’ll trust that. He may not ever shake the Lil Dicky comparisons, but now even those listeners who only scratch the surface will know he’s no joke.
Jackman is out now on Generation Now/Atlantic. Get it here.