Jack Harlow’s TikTok handle is @missionaryjack. It is not a reference to spreading the Lord’s good word. At the Grammys this year, the Kentucky-born rapper hopped on stage with Lil Nas X to perform their 2021 megahit Industry Baby; as the sound of spanking echoed around the MGM Arena in Las Vegas, Harlow swung his microphone around like a string of sausages. “I’m really about to scream without the s,” wrote @jackharlowsfingernails, a fan account dedicated to his well‑kept claws.
Six days before the release of his new album, Come Home the Kids Miss You, Harlow is busy as hell, with two shows tonight at American colleges. “It feels like we’re in the middle of something red hot right now,” he says from a hotel room in Boston. His latest single, First Class, built around a clever sample of Fergie’s Glamorous, is preposterously huge in the US, having racked up more first-week streams than Adele’s Easy on Me (it is likely to spend a fourth week at No 2 in the UK, behind Harry Styles). “I’m trying to remind myself to enjoy the moment,” Harlow says, with a deep exhale. “But I’m such a futurist that I’m just really hungry. I want to dominate.”
Harlow’s dexterous, witty flow has made the rapper a chart success – his 2020 breakthrough, Whats Poppin, and its remix have been streamed more than a billion times on Spotify – as well as a respected figure in hip-hop. On the back of his debut album, Thats What They All Say, he won admiration from Drake and Lil Wayne, both of whom feature on his new album, as well as Justin Timberlake and Pharrell Williams. Playing US college towns, filled with enthusiastic young fans but located outside the usual tour circuit, doesn’t seem like something an artist with the No 1 song in the US needs to do, but these audiences are Harlow’s bread and butter.
With a mix of testosterone-fuelled bravado, playful goofiness and the searching eyes of a puppy being rescued from the pound, the 24-year-old has become a gen Z heart-throb with few rivals. It is easier to imagine most other young, straight, male pop stars tucking you in with an Ovaltine rather than breaking your bed springs. In his uniform of white vests and jeans, Harlow feels like the boy next door done good, the kind of strapping lad you would want to sort you out if a pipe sprang a leak. Recently, he described his amorous rendezvous in a colourful tweet: “Sometimes when I nut I will see a high-speed Discovery Channel type of montage go through my head. Like 2 seconds of cheetahs, land, and different bodies of water.” When I read the tweet back to him, he replies, blushing furiously: “Some of my finest work.”
By way of explanation, he adds: “Kids are smart enough now to know when someone has a brand manager. I think if you can show that it’s your voice, people really connect with that.” How did he become a master of social media? “There are some things I’m very aware of that I’m good at,” he says, his words dripping with double entendres. “Not to say that I’m not good at that. I didn’t know you saw me as a guru. I like that.” He could charm the pants off a statue.
Harlow grew up mainly in Louisville, Kentucky’s biggest city, which he pronounces with the proper local elision: Lou-a-vul. In sixth grade, aged 11 or 12, he recorded a mixtape with a beatboxer friend using a Guitar Hero mic. A year later came his first solo mixtape, Extra Credit, which included an ode to odour elimination titled The Febreze Song. As a teen, he played every local venue going; he spent the night of his 18th birthday opening for Vince Staples at Headliners Music Hall. “I have a natural entertainer’s personality,” he says. “But the other thing that’s helped me is performing on stages with no one at the shows [and] having to coax crowds into fucking with me. I still have to put in work, but my comfort on stage is due to all the time I felt uncomfortable on stage.”
After moving to Atlanta, he juggled studio time with shifts at a Chick-fil-A fast-food outlet; he remembers waiting more than two hours to get on stage at an open-mic night hosted by the rapper Playboy Tre. “When I went up, the energy just shifted,” Harlow says. “I still had a lot to learn, but I won the open mic just off my energy and also the shock value of just being who I am.” Harlow knew that his nerdy, bespectacled appearance, as well as his whiteness, would make hip-hop fans wary. “There was a mix of that chip on my shoulder and insecurity from impostor syndrome,” he says. “I don’t think that ever completely leaves. Without a doubt, early on, I was walking into every room knowing what the general assumptions about me would be. But you can play those to your advantage.”
Harlow honed his flow’s crisp technicality by studying André 3000 and Eminem. Living in Atlanta in the mid 2010s, the city soundtracked by improvisational maestros such as Young Thug and Future, he learned to freestyle and began to colour outside the lines. “I heard André 3000 say that your talking voice is your best voice,” he says. “In the last year or two, I’ve started to add more personality back in. I think it started to be more compelling.” His rhymes, delivered with a standup’s comic timing, are absurdly quotable, like First Class’s claim that pineapple juice makes his semen taste more appetising.
He is heathen to the core, but has a good heart. You can imagine Harlow at school: one of the lads, popular with girls, but also standing up for the gay kid in the cafeteria. He calls his collaborator Lil Nas X a boundary-pusher. “The totally inappropriate reaction to him lets you know that we still have some progress to be made,” Harlow says of LGBTQ+ artists in hip-hop. “And you hear it in passing; there’s still some homophobia going on. But he’s taking the hit that artists won’t have to take in the future. That’s what makes him a hero.”
Already, there is some sign that minds are opening. Last month, the thrillingly talented Saucy Santana announced a record deal with RCA, which felt like a watershed moment – it is hard to remember the last time a major label signed an out gay male rapper. Harlow shows that, sometimes, the best way to be an ally is to be nonchalant: performing Industry Baby with Lil Nas X at the MTV Video Music awards last year, the two musicians low-fived along to bum-slapping sounds, celebrating that consensual sex is fun no matter who you are doing it with.
Artists can blow up overnight, but Harlow says he treasures his decade-long emergence. “When something seems so easy and attainable, I think you let off the gas a little bit,” he says. He has grown wiser, too. In his early music, Harlow played his whiteness as a gimmick; in one freestyle, a riff on Drake’s Started From the Bottom entitled Started From the Middle, he called his neighbourhood “whiter than a cue ball”. He has since put those kinds of punchlines to bed, but his continuing chart success is a reminder that white men always have it easier. Writing for Pitchfork, the critic Alphonse Pierre noted: “He’s got endorsements, co-signs, and magazine covers that wouldn’t be on the cards for non-white rappers who are twice as popular.”
In March, Harlow was announced as the co-star of a forthcoming reboot of the 1992 basketball comedy White Men Can’t Jump, playing a new version of Woody Harrelson’s Billy Hoyle. “There were parts of his identity that really resonated with me,” he says. And playing a white character in a black space doesn’t seem like a stretch. “That wasn’t something that I necessarily had in mind, but the world sees it that way and it’s very obvious to me why,” he says. “Sometimes things just make sense in a really fun way.”
Harlow has a “longtime fascination” with film-making and says he would be open to doing more acting alongside music. He loves the freewheeling vérité of Sean Baker’s 2017 film The Florida Project, particularly the performances from untrained actors. “They probably weren’t as concerned with showing off their skills; they were just pushing the story along in an accurate and soulful way,” he says. “That’s what I’ve learned [about film-making] – it’s not about me putting on a show. At the right moment, it’s key, but really it’s about being the best cog in the machine that is the story.”
He was as active behind the boards as in the booth when making Come Home the Kids Miss You, co-producing nearly all of the 15 tracks alongside the executive producers Angel Lopez and Rogét Chahayed. “My DNA is all over this album,” he says. “I was choosing the chords, I was choosing the drums. I’m rapping over the production I’ve always wanted to rap on.” On the Drake collaboration Churchill Downs, named after the home of the Kentucky Derby (think Ascot with more seersucker), Harlow brags about his credentials over a beat reminiscent of Drake’s Take Care. “I’m hip-hop, do you fully understand?” he raps, which feels like a boast and a plea, suggesting that his success is not without moments of unease. “Sometimes I wonder if you get more insecure as you get older,” he says. “There’s a sort of ‘ignorance is bliss’ when you’re young.”
But he can win over most crowds. Earlier this week, Harlow showed up at the Met Gala and left Emma Chamberlain, a vlogger moonlighting as a red carpet host, spluttering into the camera after falling for his flirty shtick. As well as planning for summer festival dates, he has been talking through his role in White Men Can’t Jump with his friend Nicholas Braun, AKA Succession’s Cousin Greg. Harlow says he is looking forward to learning from Braun – the transferral of knowledge from one internet boyfriend to another. “But I’m in this hip-hop shit for the long haul,” Harlow says. “We’re trying to make history, so nothing’s going to get in the way of that.”
• Come Home the Kids Miss You is out on 6 May on Generation Now/Atlantic Records