The broader points of Harlow’s biography are familiar at this point: He grew up in Louisville. He revealed in a local magazine profile that as a preteen, he asked his mom for advice on how to succeed as a rapper. She had just read Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers, the pop psychology book famous for its 10,000 hour-rule: If you want to get good at something, spend 10,000 hours doing it.
So Harlow started clocking in. He told Rolling Stone he recorded an album at 11, using a Guitar Hero microphone, and sold it to his middle school peers for $2. He kept working and raising his profile in Louisville, and by the time high school rolled around, there was interest from labels, but much of it led to nothing until his single “Dark Knight,” which got him signed to DJ Drama’s Generation Now label.
In January 2020, he went positively colossal on the strength of “Whats Poppin,” an infectious and punchy song that went viral on TikTok. He got an even bigger boost from a stellar remix to “Whats Poppin”, with outstanding verses from DaBaby and Lil Wayne (Tory Lanez was also there). The credibility of the cosign from established rappers propelled the remix to No. 2, and Harlow was suddenly on a new trajectory. His debut album, the end of 2020’s Thats What They All Say, peaked at No. 5 on the charts. It had hints of promise, and a handful of hits, including “Tyler Herro,” named after the white Miami Heat shooting guard, and “Way Out,” which cracked the top 100.
Now, true to the 18-month album cycle, Harlow has returned with Come Home, an album that has little to offer except for harmless posturing. Pitchfork called it “one of the most insipid, vacuous statements in recent pop history.” There he goes on “Side Piece,” a song with the irritating premise that he has already written a song for his main love interest but the women on the side deserve one too, rhyming Margot Robbie with Abu Dhabi. Sure, man. “I’mma fuck the earrings off of you,” he declares in “I’d Do Anything to Make You Smile.” Much of Come Home lands as rap simulacra, an attempt at replicating something with heft but falling flat.
The frustrating thing about Harlow is that he is objectively good at rapping, but still not sure what he wants to rap about. None of this would be a problem, if he hadn’t declared his sky-high ambitions to be among the greats, to be “the face of my shit, like the face of my generation, for the next 10 years,” as he told Rolling Stone. And even that wouldn’t be annoying, if he wasn’t regularly touted as the next big thing. The Drake feature on the album notwithstanding, Diddy said Harlow is his favorite rapper, while Kanye West reacted to Come Home’s lead single, “Nail Tech” by declaring on Instagram, “This nigga can raaaaaaap bro And I’m saying nigga as a compliment.” Ye hailed Harlow as “top 5 out right now.”
It is here that we have to linger on the question of the white rapper. Plenty of white rappers come and go, adopting the aesthetics and signifiers of hip-hop to create party music for a brief stretch and then keep it moving. I am pleased to say I know nothing about G-Eazy, and I supremely intend to keep it that way. Remember Asher Roth? Of course you don’t, but you probably remember “I Love College.” My editor forced me to redact a sentence about Chet Hanks.
All of this is to say: White rappers can become big for a variety of reasons, whether it’s luck, novelty, a funny gimmick. Some use rap as a convenient pitstop on the way to another genre — Machine Gun Kelly is having the time of his life in the pop-punk arena, while Post Malone was happy to throw the genre under the bus while still profiting off its vibes.
But white rappers stay relevant when they disengage from the myth of their own universal whiteness by attempting to locate themselves somewhere specific, and give that place meaning. Eminem painted extraordinary images of Detroit poverty; Macklemore was first criticized for trying to distance himself from the typical image of a rapper, but he addressed that in spades by writing personally and evocatively about how his whiteness has helped him sell records in a primarily Black art form (though has at times overcorrected into the cringe territory). Mac Miller started in the party lane, but he got wiser and weirder and more compelling and started indulging his own offbeat sonic interests. He even spent time and money cultivating Black artists who otherwise wouldn’t have had a chance without his cosign.
Harlow seems to want it both ways. He wants to make the universal party record, the Rap Caviar supremacy, but also wants the reverence of the greats. “I want respect, I don’t want flowers,” he raps on Come Home’s closer “State Fair.” In fact, he told Rolling Stone about his discomfort that people spend a lot of time with the party records. “I can’t believe people love to listen to ‘Tyler Herro’ on repeat and ‘What’s Poppin’ on repeat,” he said. He called “Nail Tech” his least favorite song on the album. Clearly, he worries about being tagged as just a rapper with big pop hooks. But puzzlingly, he has done little to address the problem.