What Is It About Jack Harlow?

The rapper has proved that capturing the hearts of Black women is a crucial component to hip-hop success.

Words by Bianca Betancourt

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There are few  subjects on the Internet right now as divisive as Jack Harlow.

The 24-year-old, curly-haired, Kentucky-born, and, well, notably white rapper is often a trending topic on Twitter, whether he’s dropping an infectious new track, starring in a groundbreaking music video (like Lil Nas X’s “Industry Baby“), or simply posting a flirty TikTok. But while the white rappers of yesteryear have come and gone (think Macklemore and G-Eazy, who usually serve as filler verses on B-list pop star tracks), Harlow has seen a slow but steady rise.

His success has been fueled not only by cosigns from Drake, Diddy, and Kanye West, and features from hip-hop titans like Lil Wayne and Big Sean, but also by what seems to be a passionate core fan base of Black women. Their fervent support of him is what drives the Internet discourse surrounding his career. Skeptics might be—rightly—wary of allowing yet another white man to claim space within the genre, but Harlow has a way of appealing directly to Black women. And whether it’s born out of a true emotional affinity or simply a clever marketing move, it’s definitely working.

In hip-hop—as in the music industry at large—people tend to forget the crucial role women play in driving artists to stardom. “Powerful artists, like Drake, have always had an appeal towards female fans,” Okayplayer writer Jaelani Turner-Williams says. “When he first started out, he wasn’t afraid to be soft. There’s always been a trend of rappers who appeal to women, and it just … works. Women are tastemakers, we are culture shifters—and you have to get to us first if you want to pop.”

Turner-Williams says it wasn’t just Harlow’s breakout hit “What’s Poppin'” that caught her attention. It was his unabashed embrace of Black women: in his music videos, on his album artwork, and with his response to the cultural and political conversations at the time. “He isn’t afraid to defend Black women,” she explains. “He’s from Louisville, Kentucky, which is where Breonna Taylor was from and was killed. He would post on social media clips and footage of him being at the protests in Louisville for Breonna. He’s always been very vocal about standing up for us and wanting to protect us, even though he is a white rapper. And I think he wants to use his agency and relevancy as a rapper to protect and defend us where he can.”

Women are tastemakers, we are culture shifters—and you have to get to us first if you want to pop.

Harlow’s rise hasn’t been without moments of controversy. The “What’s Poppin'” remix featured two artists who have fallen from grace: DaBaby, whose reputation was tarnished following his homophobic comments, and Tory Lanez, who is currently in a legal battle after allegedly shooting rapper Megan Thee Stallion. The remix was recorded and released before either moment occurred, but Harlow has still gotten some heat for hesitating to remove both artists. In Rolling Stone‘s April cover story, he addressed the issue, saying, “My character, my integrity are very important to me. And I think I’ve done such a good job that now I’m being forced to answer for other people’s actions. It doesn’t feel right as a grown man to speak for other grown men all the time. … One thing’s for sure, is that Megan got shot. And I wish her nothing but love and respect.”

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Harlow also got some blowback about the art for his album That’s What They All Say, in which he’s signing autographs inside a car with what appears to be a Black or Brown woman seductively sitting beside him—although, all you can see are her legs. Black women aren’t afraid to call out seeing their likeness being used as a creative prop, especially within the hip-hop world. But his fans argue that he’s always approached women of color with a sense of respect, whether in his music videos or in real life.

“I can understand why some Black women were up in arms about his album cover,” Turner-Williams says. “But I genuinely think he does just have an affection for us. I think he’s interested in all women, but he’s also using his influence to include us in his moments, just like with the ‘Nail Tech’ video and bringing Yung Miami along for that.” Yung Miami, one-half of the female rap duo City Girls, starred alongside Harlow in his latest music video last month.

You could argue that “respects women” is a low bar for a performer, but it’s useful to compare Harlow to his biggest white predecessor, Eminem, who has been committing blatant lyrical disregard of women across the board for decades now. It’s hard to not celebrate a small win in the gradual diminishing of misogyny in hip-hop. And Harlow’s baseline-respectful behavior is clearly paying off.

His presence on Twitter is a perfect example. The social media platform has served as somewhat of a safe space for Jack Harlow fans to openly fawn over him. In the midst of memes lay hundreds of (hilarious) tweets from Black women who are open about their affection for the untraditional rapper. According to data shared by Twitter, there’s been a 253 percent increase in tweets about Harlow in the last year alone, and his following on the platform has increased by 167 percent from this time last year.

There’s no denying that Harlow has bona fide swag; one would have to in order to be taken seriously as a white performer in a historically Black genre. He doesn’t have a stereotypical pop star look—he’s a little rugged, a little lanky (at six-foot-three)—but he’s fine-tuned his aesthetic as his star has risen over the years, leaving behind his roomy tees and printed polos for Givenchy suits, an upgraded curl routine, and a New Balance brand deal. Harlow told Rolling Stone he initially leaned toward a nerdier aesthetic to appear as if he wasn’t coopting the traditional hip-hop look, adding that playing up his personal authenticity has worked for him. “I’m as goofy as I am. I’m as smooth as I am. I’m as funny as I am. I’m as serious as I am. I’m all those things. The totality of myself that I’m honoring is why I’m being embraced by hip-hop,” he said.

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In public appearances, he nails a dichotomy that many women want: charm and humor along with just the right hint of (respectful) vulgarity. And his millennial and Gen Z audience loves it. A fan-produced YouTube video titled “jack harlow being a natural flirt for 5 mins straight” has almost five million views on YouTube. In another clip, a video with British YouTube star Amelia Dimoldenberg, Harlow sweetly (if half-jokingly) shares he wants eight children, “all girls.” But he’s got range: He sounds just as genuine onstage, narrating how he wants to leave handprints on your girl’s ass cheek.

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“[The hype exists] mostly because he’s talented. You can put him against any rapper of any other race or any other rapper that’s popular right now and he holds his own. There’s nothing to be ashamed of about being a Jack Harlow fan,” entertainment writer Driadonna Roland says. “I think he’s a fly white boy—and it’d be different if the music wasn’t good. He’s talented and I like that he doesn’t seem like he’s trying so hard. He’s not trying to be down. Even the way he was at the BET Awards with Saweetie—he was really gonna shoot his shot! And I gotta respect that.” Harlow famously greeted the fellow hip-hop star on the red carpet at the 2021 BET Awards with a suave hello and a charming hand hold that lit Twitter ablaze last year.

“When I listen to Jack Harlow, I don’t feel degraded,” she adds. “That is one thing that I appreciate. He’s just being him, and real recognizes real. We know that he actually respects Black women—and that gets you far too. He might even be more respectful of us than some of the Black rappers, honestly.”

But it’s one thing to have swagger and another to have Kanye West call you “Top 5 out right now” or be yacht-bound in Turks and Caicos with Champagne Papi himself. From a production standpoint, Harlow’s original musical offerings were infectious from the jump, evident in his early hit singles like “Way Out” with Big Sean and “I Wanna See Some Ass” (another Harlow trait: He’s blunt, especially lyrically).

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“People are rooting for him, because they’ve seen his rise—and it’s been very authentic. He’s a rapper from the Midwest, and not many rappers make it from out of there,” Turner-Williams says. “And I understand why others aren’t so sure about his proximity to rap and if he’s being genuine, especially with him being a white man. We’ve seen white rappers exploit us before.”

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Thus far, Harlow has remained gracious to those who have embraced him in the industry and inspired him along the way. According to Roland, this kind of consideration and respect is crucial, and Harlow should be careful not to lose it as his career grows.

“To be fair, he is somebody that white mainstream America is comfortable listening to rap. Because he’s white, he’s more palatable to a lot of people, whereas [Black] artists who are making the same music probably wouldn’t be as accepted,” Roland says. “He’ll have to do things that show he still has a foot in the culture and that he still respects his influences [going forward]. Even the project with Lil Nas X—if other rappers were gonna make that move, they would’ve done it. So you can’t hate on that. You know what I mean? Even if it is making sure that he has features with certain artists on his projects, and when he gets a platform, he extends visibility to other comparable artists who are Black, or if he uses a sample, making sure people know where he got it from. He can’t use us as a bridge and just cross over and leave us, because that’s when we’re gonna be like, “Okay, wait a minute.'”

It’s one thing to have swagger and another to have Kanye West call you ‘Top 5 out right now.’

As Harlow’s star continues to ascend, he is also gaining just as many critics (“I think a lot of it is really just good old-fashioned hypocrisy and jealousy,” Roland quips). It’s clear that appealing to women—while maintaining the respect of his male industry peers—is the rapper’s continued pathway to success, and maybe a formula the hip-hop industry should embrace more. Most recently, Harlow dropped his single “First Class,” which samples Fergie’s 2006 megahit “Glamorous.” It’s sure to be his biggest song yet, with a clear and calculated approach to further seducing an older generation of millennial women with strategically deployed sonic nostalgia. (Within days of Harlow teasing the clip, the 13-second snippet went viral on TikTok and Twitter.)

“Honestly, Jack should just keep doing what he’s doing. He should continue paying it forward and making sure that he and his peers are always inclusive of women—Black women specifically—and always remember the culture he’s a part of, and just pay it respect and honor,” Turner-Williams says. “Really, just continue being authentic like he already is.”

This article originally appeared in harpersbazaar.com.