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Maybe it’s just me being ignorant or not following rap music as closely as I used to, but with Jack Harlow it feels like he’s been around forever, whilst simultaneously bursting onto the scene out of nowhere in the last year or so. I think the reason it feels this way is because both are kind of true. Jack has been grinding it out in the scene for a few years now and through various features and verses here and there had become one of those names where you know it, but you’re maybe not entirely sure how. I know this isn’t true for everyone, and his solo music had garnered a very loyal and passionate fan base, but especially in the UK anyway, it just hadn’t quite crossed its way onto the mainstream just yet. I’m sure I won’t be alone in saying that Lil Nas X’s ‘Industry Baby’ was the moment I said ‘so that's Jack Harlow’. Having heard the name and been impressed with his feature, I did some digging on Spotify and to be honest was bewildered as to why this guy hadn’t come to my attention sooner; smooth flows, slick rhythms and old-school hip-hop beats – these are all key ingredients in making my exact taste in rap, which can only be described as a weird mix between 90s Jazz Rap and lo-fi hip hop, like if Drake joined A Tribe Called Quest.
As with many things in life, whether by coincidence or within my own mind, once I started to keep an eye on Jack he seemed to pop up everywhere. Once again I think both is true, I had definitely begun to take more notice whenever his name appeared, but it’s undeniable that it has started appearing everywhere. He has become somewhat of an internet sensation; his boyish charm and smooth talking has certainly made him a hit, and also produced some golden moments like trying to flirt with the intentionally awkward Amelia Dimoldenberg on ‘Chicken Shop Date’, or being shot down by Saweetie on the red carpet. This all came to a head when in the wake of this new album he released a snippet of the song ‘First Class’. Now, with the internet these days there’s sort of viral, then there’s viral - and this went viral. It was absolutely everywhere, the catchy hook keeping it appealing for music lovers whilst the clips of Jack vibing in the studio kept it appealing for those...well, you know. It certainly ramped up the excitement for the release of the new album, and now that it’s here I felt it only right to share my thoughts, just in case you’re interested.
One of the things that has caught my eye with Harlow is his swagger. He just oozes confidence and it comes across in his music. ‘Talk of the Town’ starts off the whole album and is just Jack hopping on a beat for 90 seconds to tell you why he's the man right now - and there are plenty of references to how far he has come. 'Young Harleezy’ continues in a similar tone, backing up the arrogance with talk about how hard he’s had to work to make it. I have to say this song feels quite fragmented. The original beat is pretty cool but then it switches up entirely, making you think the song ended. There's also this cameo from Snoop Dogg; my ears perked up when I heard his voice but I couldn't help but feel let down when he said a few words then left without even dropping a verse.
I think putting the swagger aside, though, the Harlow I really wanted to see on this album was the lo-fi, chilled vibe that he's perfected over the years and luckily we were treated to a few examples. 'Lil Secret’ and ‘Like a Blade of Grass’‘ are both solid tunes but my favourite by far is 'Side Piece’. Jack uses the chill vibe and offers something more meaningful. I love the style of this song and for me it’s what Harlow is best at. A masterpiece with a simplistic backing and a more melancholic feel, it’s just one of those I could listen to on repeat. The subject of the song is about the struggles for Harlow of travelling around the world and how it makes it difficult to commit to anything, as well as how he can kind of end up feeling lost travelling from place to place and not settling. I love it when rap songs in particular really tell us a story and give us something meaningful to engage in. Far too often these days, artists just rely on a good beat and throw any old rubbish on the top as long as it rhymes - and sometimes they don't even do that.
Another thing that excited me about this album initially was the features, and I have to say I was impressed. As Machine Gun Kelly's latest album proved, bringing loads of big names onto a project can have mixed results, but I think Harlow got it right. Ever since he released the track-list I’ve been looking forward to ‘Churchill Downs’. Jack certainly did enough to back up his claims that he's the man right now; sharing a track with one of the best around runs a risk of being overshadowed, but whilst it's not a competition I'd say for me Jack's verse is probably better than Drake's on this one. If that wasn't enough to convince you that Harlow is going places, then Drake kindly takes the time to tell you so in his own verse. I love the vibe that came with this song; you can tell it's all respect between these two and I have to give credit to Drake for getting involved with the project. I think for me this song was the dream scenario as my love for both artists stems from their ability to pump out meaningful, lo-fi masterpieces, so to have them produce a song exactly like this together was a huge plus for the album. I'll also give a special shoutout to the music video in which Harlow's own mother hilariously stands behind Drake for his verse playing the part of hype woman.
‘Movie Star’ is another big feature song, this time with Pharrell. It's another one of my favourites from the album, but for entirely different reasons. We lose the melancholy and the meaningful verses, but they wouldn’t work on this song anyway. What we get instead is just really cool from start to finish. I like the 808 bassline, I like Pharrell’s hook and Jack nails his verses too. The only downfall is that, similarly to 'Young Harleezy', we do get a beat change again (seriously, is it 2016 again?) but this time it fits much better into the song. If anything, it just takes the old beat then cranks it up a couple of notches.
‘Parent Trap’ with Justin Timberlake once again is a song that was made for me, the piano backing moves it close to my beloved jazz rap style and combines with Harlow’s smooth vocals perfectly. As expected, Timberlake delivers too, offering some great R&B style bars; the whole song is just the definition of smooth from start to finish and I love it. ‘Poison’ with Lil Wayne rounds out the big name artists who came to help Harlow.
After all the praise, we must come to the main negative with the album - and it starts with a positive.
Before the album came out there were two 'main' releases that really caught my attention: 'Nail Tech' and 'First Class'.
‘Nail Tech’ is the Harlow that I love in his best form. We've got some chill vibes, we've got the swagger and the arrogance and the hard hitting verses and the catchy trumpet riff in the background, which some have compared to ‘Industry Baby’. It all comes together to ensure you'll have the song stuck in your head. I've had it on my playlist since it came out and it never gets skipped when it comes on; it's one of the main reasons I was excited for this project.
The other main reason was the sneak preview Harlow gave us of 'First Class' on Tik Tok. However, in come the negatives. After all the anticipation I have to say I was a bit divided - maybe he should have called it 'Business Class', or even 'Economy Plus'. I think if I was being completely objective I'd say it’s a good song, but that’s all I can really say. The issue here is that Jack was kind of killed by the hype. It's not really his fault, and it isn't as if it's a bad song. It's just for me, after hearing the earworm of a hook and knowing what Jack is capable of, I was expecting him to drop one of the songs of the century. The first time I listened I was full of excitement, but I just felt a little underwhelmed. The verses feel a little bit disjointed and don't carry Harlow's usually smooth swagger.
This album is really tough for me to decide on – a quick look on Twitter will show that the majority of people feel somewhat disappointed or let down and I have to say I do feel myself sitting in that camp. It’s weird because as I listen back and read through what I wrote about the songs, I like all of them, some of them I really like. I think the issue with 'First Class' resonates across the whole album. With his rising profile, the release of 'Nail Tech' and the viral snippet of 'First Class', expectations for this album were through the roof. Everyone knows how good Harlow is and it just felt like he was right on track to drop an iconic album.
I think one of the main reasons for me that I am somewhat disappointed is that, whilst I enjoyed listening to the album as a whole, I wouldn’t really call it memorable. It's no coincidence that 'Side Piece' is my favourite song from the album as it offers something to engage in. The meaningful lyrics and the storytelling make it a compelling listen but unfortunately it was a one off. Even when writing this review I found myself listening to the album methodically, thinking, 'Yeah, that's a decent song' but not having much else to say. Music is entertainment after all, so there is a lot to be said for songs being a good listen, but after showing what he's capable of in 'Side Piece' I was left hankering for more and it never came.
So did expectations ruin Harlow's big release?
Yes, to an extent. It's all about context and for me this album is probably a six or a seven out of ten, which is a very respectable offering. The issue is when you expected a ten out of ten, a seven suddenly doesn't seem so great anymore. Whilst for me, regardless of expectations, I think Jack is capable of better, I do think a lot of the negativity surrounding the album is purely down to the fact that the bar was so high. Either way - I'm certainly (cautiously) excited for whatever Jack does next.
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