When Jack Harlow put out his last project, Come Home the Kids Miss You, to decidedly mixed reception (despite it catapulting him to household name status), there were many thinkpieces about his next move being a make-or-break one for his career going forward. Luckily for Harlow, it seems that he took the criticism of his past work seriously. While his public persona might have you thinking otherwise, this is a man who grew up as a full-fledged rap nerd and put in the hours perfecting his craft – for anyone to suggest differently (at worst, a gimmicky culture vulture) clearly got to him. Enter the self-titled Jackman., a 10-track project spanning only 24 minutes that’s nearly hook-free and simply finds Harlow dropping some of his most multi-layered bars yet on a series of increasingly conscious topics about his own life and his community, all while retaining his world-renowned charisma. And while there are a couple cheesy bars and sensitive moments not handled with the utmost grace, Harlow showcasing his legitimate hip-hop skillset while humbling himself and turning the camera outward often succeeds.
Harlow paying for the soul samples across the board here is just about the only thing on this project that would make you believe he’s a highly successful mainstream rapper. Over two brief verses, “Common Ground” opens things up over some gospel-tinged 90s R&B as Harlow delves into the issues in the community he came from with incisive detail. He touches on rap culture in white suburbs and how it skews their perception of the people they’re emulating, fetishizing their existence to a harmful degree as racism and firearms proliferate, while diminishing the credibility of those who become journalists and hip-hop commentators. Speeding up the soul sample for a bit more of a flex track on “They Don’t Love It,” Harlow continues to show why so many people compare him to Drake – he has a lot of the same approach, flows and energies, for better or worse, but on this project he sounds like the hungry, young version. Bringing some of Aubrey’s recent New Orleans bounce kick to a beat of twinkling, chopped-up pianos, Harlow does what he does best and uses his charisma to talk about his charisma. There are definitely a couple Eminem-tier dad jokes littered throughout – interestingly, on a track where he controversially (and incorrectly) dubs himself the best white rapper since – but it’s a fun one.
The track “Ambitious” is the first to break the two-minute mark, and it’s for good reason – it’s a Kendrick Lamar-style track with one verse each dedicated to his big dreams at various ages. Taking a bit more of a laid-back and calm vocal approach over a crackly, vintage-sounding orchestral beat, it’s charming to hear Harlow talking about his humble beginnings – from his air conditioner hanging around in the back of his recordings to his steadily growing facial hair and his crowds of 15 people – all female, of course. Progressing through his arrogant teen years and career stumbles to FaceTiming with Bieber, he ends by seemingly addressing the blowback to his previous project and solidifying his dedication to rhyming. There aren’t many hooks on this project, but when they appear, Harlow infuses them with the catchiness he’s known to. “Is That Ight?” is one of those, as he adds some suave singing to the quotables while talking about shying away from some of the flashier aspects of stardom and building a social media profile – most of the time, at least.
While the whole thing is certainly a surprising project from Harlow, nobody could have been prepared for the track “Gang Gang Gang,” as he addresses an incredibly dark and sensitive subject with an unexpectedly gentle and poignant touch. Playing both sides of the conversation in perfect rhythm, Harlow relives talks with childhood friends where he learns that two past acquaintances committed some truly despicable acts, displaying highly impressive storytelling ability as he repeats the hook – “ride for my dawgs, die for my dawgs” – in a dead-eyed tone emphasizing its futility. What’s even more shocking than dropping some ugly words and horrific circumstances into the mix is how seamlessly Harlow adds details about how he used to play Pokemon with them as he depicts their lives as regular kids. The final somber verse finds him sorrowfully regretting friendships and memories forever tainted, dropping his former brothers immediately despite the “gang” talk. The next two tracks had a lot to live up to, but they do represent the weakest part of the album. The acoustic sample of “Denver” doesn’t provide as much propulsive energy as some of the other tracks, and while Harlow can usually carry it with his persona regardless, he’s talking about being down in this one and his delivery reflects it. Still, his musings on feeling the pressure as his star grows and not feeling like “that guy” all the time are compelling. “No Enhancers,” on the other hand, is the shortest track here, full of clunky and misplaced bars and an obnoxious and repetitive hook.
The track “It Can’t Be” is another one that addresses a sensitive subject, but this time on a triumphant note with the energetic beat to back it up. Running through a list of all the reasons he’s so successful – other than the common criticism that he’s just there because of his skin colour – it could have gone over very poorly if Harlow weren’t actually bringing the skills and charisma to back up his boasts about the dedication and work he’s put in and the personable, loyal and confident guy that he is. Plus, it might be the most technical track here, with some nice internal rhyme schemes. “Blame On Me” is also infused with a storyteller’s level of detail as Harlow dives into the suppressed emotions in a male family dynamic. Speaking from the perspective of all three as he reflects on his dad’s harsh attitude towards him rubbing off on his treatment of his younger brother, all three are shown to have good intentions, but they don’t have a healthy way of showing it. Harlow’s own verse in the middle finds him apologizing to his brother as the whole track advocates for strong communication, delivering another powerful message. “Questions,” however, closes the project on a somewhat scatterbrained note as Harlow runs through many of the themes that he’s presented in a gimmicky way that’s been done to death, with each line ending in a question mark.
If Harlow was out to prove himself once again that he’s a rappers’ rapper who is lot more than a goofy Fergie sample or an interview where he makes a public figure blush uncontrollably, he’s certainly done it over the course of a brief 24 minutes here. Alternating between the two going forward might genuinely be the most entertaining and best option for both sides of himself.
Favourite Tracks: Gang Gang Gang, Ambitious, It Can’t Be, Blame On Me, Is That Ight?
Least Favourite Track: No Enhancers