/  05.11.2022

Somewhere between “What’s Poppin” and a highly publicized hangout with Drake, Jack Harlow, like Thanos before him, became inevitable.

Wielding a gauntlet of flirty charm, quippy Twitter jokes and an accessible but polished brand of lyricism, the Kentucky native found himself in the face of an endless stream of career-affirming accomplishments. In 2020, he was named a XXL Freshman and his “What’s Poppin” remix peaked at No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100. In 2021, he landed an endorsement deal with KFC, and by early 2022, he’d been cast in a reboot of White Men Can’t Jump. From there, he dropped “Nail Tech,” a single with quotable bars that led Ye (formerly known as Kanye West) to say he was “top five out.” Then he released “First Class,” a Fergie-sampling tune that found TikTok ubiquity before shooting to No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. This is all a long-winded way of saying Harlow had become a superstar, and in accordance with the bylaws of the rap fairy tale committee, the next step for him was to unleash a new album. Last Friday, he took it there when he released Come Home The Kids Miss You.

Checking in at 15 tracks, Come Home is a strikingly monotonous collection of ankle-deep introspection, drab beats and shameless stabs at TikTok virility. While there are flashes of technical mastery, and he’s too young and talented for anyone to rule out improvements, the LP is evidence that he’s still got some work to do. His growth will depend on him expanding his musical and thematic range for songs that feel more distinctly his own. 

Although the Wall Street Journal said his technical rapping ability was all that was left for him to prove, Jack first made his mark as a certifiable rhyme technician, a wordsmith with a knack for dexterous flows, tightly wound rhyme schemes and quotable wordplay. Bars have generally been the least of his problems. Those honors belong to a dearth of unique musical instincts, a voice that isn’t particularly dynamic and a lack of all-around songwriting ability.

To date, he’s got five top 40 Billboard Hot 100 hits, and three of them lean more on his ability to drop braggadocious bars than anything unique in terms of cadence, melody or message (“Whats Poppin,” “Nail Tech”). Released in 2020, his second Hot 100 placement “Tyler Herro”  has bars, but its reference to the Miami guard — a thriving White player in a predominantly Black league — offered a hilarious parallel that helped make it a winking, mini viral phenomenon instead of a track that’s dope just because it’s dope. For Lil Nas X’s “Industry Baby,” a track that sees Nas X deliver an infectious hook, Harlow’s once again left to do what he does best, unloading a petty verse designed to be rewound. When left to devise entire songs by himself, Harlow’s hooks generally fail to match his verses in quality, and that pattern continues on Come Home.

For “First Class,” his second single from the album, he uses a sample of Fergie’s “Glamorous” for the hook, using mid-2000s nostalgia as a crutch. On the rhyming end of things, his lyrics feel just a bit mailed in, with his rehashing of middle class-to-riches tales sounding uninspired — a common thread of the LP — and a bar about pineapple juice and semen being more than a little cringey. The album’s opening track, “Talk of the Town,” employs the same approach, sampling a Destiny’s Child classic (“No, No, No”) to fill a gap in musical ingenuity. 

Unfortunately, the gimmicks don’t stop there. For “Dua Lipa,” Jack evokes an international pop star for a vague baddie anthem that feels like pure clickbait. Making things worse, the beat blends in with almost all the muted synths that came before it, adding to a general lethargy that floods the album. The Pharrell-produced “Movie Star” sounds like a throwaway version of Clipse’s “Mr. Me Too” and although “Nail Tech” features his sharpest verses, the instrumental sounds like a more sterile version of “Industry Baby.” The hook is also a flatline, with Harlow’s one-note delivery robbing it of any potency. Then again, it’s not a particularly good chorus to begin with. 

Harlow’s penmanship might get lost in the memes trashing his new album, but when operating in peak form, he’s a slippery rhymer with a gift for wry wit, succinct observations and concision. 

He previously flaunted those talents on his That’s What They All Say standout “Keep It Light,” a track that explores small talk for a look at hidden motives and changing relationships. He produces a similar effect on the album closer “State Fair,” but too often his takes are mundane and his tonal inflections too subdued for it all to stick. 

By now, the Jack Harlow-Drake comparisons are inescapable, and they’re not unwarranted. As a young artist burrowing into his own narrative, many of Harlow’s rhymes sound like Drizzy’s, with his pauses and ad-libs closely mirroring those of the Toronto rapper. It’s kind of like listening to a younger Drake without the hyper-specificity and more approachable self-praise. Still, there’s a notable difference, and the vagueness of Harlow’s not-so-humblebrags feel like imitations of a position he’s yet to grow into. The differences and similarities between Harlow and 6ix God are particularly evident on “Churchhill Downs,” one of the best songs on the LP. 

The track is an intergenerational, passing-of-the-torch type of song not unlike Drake’s JAY-Z-assisted 2010 single “Light Up.” On it, Harlow unloads a thoughtful rumination on the ups-and-downs of fame, interspersing it with outlines of opulence and impending dominance. With 13 years of spotlight and outright experience at his back, Drake presents a whole portrait, infusing the atmospheric track with flashes of vengeance, pristine pettiness and multimillion-dollar flexes you’d have to actually be rich to think up (“I’m out here makin’ a mockery, I got my realtor out here playin’ Monopoly/How can I address you when you don’t own property?”).

While “Churchill Downs” is one of the stronger songs on the album — and Harlow himself comes correct — it doubles as an example of how far he’s got to go before finding his own artistic identity and reaching the level of his idols. The same can be said for Come Home. 

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