Jack Harlow’s Debut ‘That’s What They All Say’ Demonstrates Developing Potential

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A lot of people hate Jack Harlow. Ever since his single “What’s Poppin?” began tearing up the airwaves and landing primo playlist placements, the 22-year-old rapper from Louisville, Kentucky has taken a lot of flak. Before the song’s success, critics were content to ignore the kid, and his 2019 mixtape Confetti was mostly passed over as conventional pop-rap fare, although DJ Booth’s Donna-Claire Chesman was warmer toward the lightweight, easygoing attempt at a breakout moment than most.

But for some reason, it’s “cool” to undercut Harlow, despite his proficiency at the technical aspects of rapping. He addresses as much on his debut album, That’s What They All Say, summing up the general disposition toward him on a song shouting out his NBA player buddy “Tyler Herro”: “The ones that hate me the most look just like me / You tell me what that means.” It may be a reductive, dismissive explanation, but even if it’s slightly insufficient, the pithy line belies a lot of broader questions under surface. Along with the project as a whole, it suggests that perhaps he’s owed some grace — and the opportunity to grow into the artistic promise he flashes on this breezy debut.

What is it about Jack Harlow that makes him so easy to hate? He’s funny, likable, and humble. As demonstrated on “What’s Poppin,” “Tyler Herro,” and the Big Sean-featuring “Way Out,” he rides the beat well, and while his storyline isn’t super compelling compared to what we’ve been conditioned to expect from the more critically hailed rappers of today, his punchlines are clever enough to induce a smirk and his music overall is inoffensive enough that you can let the songs ride out without scrambling for the skip button. He even exhibits the wherewithal to engage with the culture on a deeper level than you might expect from first glance, employing 1500 Or Nothin as executive producers and soliciting soulful sounds from the usually rowdy JetsonMadeIt — the beatmaker responsible for the tinkling keys and thunking drums of his breakout hit.

He smartly taps into a variety of subgenres across the project to showcase his versatility and willingness to immerse himself not just in hip-hop, but in the genres that inform the one he chooses to take part in. But the benefit of the doubt doesn’t come easy — especially in a year in which the highlights were the projects that delivered the expected levels of trauma porn and the truly innovative ones were largely overlooked. And while innovation isn’t the most distinctive characteristic of Harlow’s debut, it’s a good album, if it isn’t a great one. Maybe that’s why it seems perfectly calculated to piss off the aggressively predictable hipster rap criticism complex.

While his “Tyer Herro” opening quip does come pretty close to hitting the nail on the head, he doesn’t seem all that interested in pulling on that particular thread. Maybe he should have. If nothing else, it’d make his detractors a little less comfortable in their smug superiority to question why a collection of fun, not entirely wholesome party raps — the entire basis of the genre, to be sure — are somehow less worthy than the stern-faced, crime-riddled tales of damaged childhoods and neighborhood degradation that mark the critical faves. It’s probably not quite Jack’s place to bring it up, but hip-hop should have room for lighthearted boasts as much as it does grimdark narratives of midday shootouts and omnipresent paranoia presented by “opps.”

But maybe a conversation about white folks’ place in hip-hop isn’t the one he wants to have so he steers clear, content to rest in his relatively cozy position in the continuum of white boy rappers, confident in the knowledge that a reevaluation is likely no further than an FX sitcom away. Maybe he remembers how previous generations of critics praised the Beasties to the high heavens, despite them being no deeper than a swell soundtrack to a Friday night fraternity party, or how they similarly dismissed Mac Miller, only to hail his breakout mixtape K.I.D.S. a decade later with 20/20 hindsight. Yesterday’s frat rapper is the next decade’s misunderstood genius, only it’s not quite sophisticated enough to give one that credit in the moment.

Yet Harlow shows flashes of those forebearers here, with a twist of something like sophistication on tracks like “Same Guy,” which brings in a gospel choir — an eye-opening choice for an artist as young as he is. Static Major appears along with Bryson Tiller on “Love Is Dro,” paying homage to an artist decades removed from Harlow’s rise to stardom, while “Baxter Avenue” is earnest and biographical, even if it isn’t rife with exciting elements like drug sales and home invasions. Complaints that he doesn’t quite dig deeper than empty flexes about materialistic purchases and his sexual prowess apply just as much to the hustler rappers that dominate year-end lists. If there are any shortcomings to That’s What They All Say, they are in his somewhat tasteless choices of guest artists — Chris Brown and Tory Lanez are disappointing inclusions after a year that highlighted the importance of protecting Black women. While Jack would likely still be thrashed whether he condemned them or enabled them, neither contribute enough to their respective appearances that he absolutely needs them here.

However, Harlow holds his own alongside Big Sean, Bryson Tiller, EST Gee, and Lil Baby, proving to be personable enough to justify the buzz and the breakout and demonstrating good artistic instincts that could flourish into the same sort of musical experimentation that defined the last few Miller projects, given time and leeway. If nothing else, That’s What They All Say is a solid request for those elements to the equation, an argument for Harlow’s inclusion into the cool white boy discussion, and a reason to ease up on the verbal abuse. Give the kid a chance and he might just surprise you.

That’s What They All Say is out now on Atlantic Records. Get it here.

Jack Harlow is a Warner Music artist. Uproxx is an independent subsidiary of Warner Music Group.