Rapper Jack Harlow Talks Exploding Popularity, Humble Start

The rising rapper from Kentucky is getting bigger by the day, but he’s not satisfied yet.

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Jack Harlow during The Come Up Show in 2018. Harlow is a rising American rapper from Louisville and is now on The Mission Tour. (via Flickr)

By Sophia Letson-Ettin, Contributing Writer

It was just another Thursday for musician Jack Harlow. The 21-year-old rapper started his day by posting a video of his first billboard in New York City to Instagram. A milestone for any artist, the Times Square advertisement was just the latest step in a carefully crafted rise to stardom for Harlow.

“Confetti,” his second mixtape under Atlantic Records imprint Generation Now, has been out for a little over a week now. It was the latest in an avalanche of successes for the rising star this month alone, including a BET Hip-Hop Award nomination, the cover of Preme Magazine and a spot on iTunes top 50 rap albums. WSN sat down with Harlow to discuss his beginnings in music, unwavering connection to his Midwestern roots and newfound mainstream success.

“I thought I’d be past where I’m at right now,” the Louisville rapper said. “I just feel like there is a chip on the shoulder when you come from a city that isn’t appreciated.”

Harlow didn’t gain recognition for his music overnight. The artist started making music in middle school using a Guitar Hero microphone and free audio editing software. 

“I remember there was this kid named Andrew,” Harlow said. “I told him I wanted to rap so he showed me. The quality was sh-t, but that’s where we started.”

Jack eventually graduated from his makeshift set-up when his father gave him a USB desktop microphone for Christmas. When he got to high school, he began to mature musically. He networked with professionals around the city and booked studio space in actual recording booths. A career in rap was a serious goal for the teenager.

The ambitious rapper has always been at the intersection of artist and businessman. For his first studio-produced project, “Finally Handsome,” Harlow sold promotional hoodies out of his trunk in his high school parking lot. It was a starting point for gaining traction locally. His next project, “The Handsome Harlow EP,” the rapper’s first venture into streaming, expanded his clout beyond the Louisville public high school scene. From there, he started playing local festivals, like Forecastle Festival, and regional favorites, like Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival and South by Southwest. 

“18,” his second mixtape, brought his work to national attention, impressing the likes of Vince Staples, who asked him to open for his Louisville concert. But for Harlow, like many artists in the digital age, social media has been the best tool to connect to more fans and other artists in the industry. 

“I knew what could go viral, and I knew what had to happen to build an audience because I saw other artists blow up,” Harlow said. “It’s annoying how much deeper success is than just making good music. You have to be strategic.” 

Since he started playing the game, his presence online has been a propellor for his success. It helped launch Harlow into the viral sphere of social media, where his single 2017 single “Dark Knight” amassed over 2.8 million views on Youtube and caught the attention of DJ Drama. He was subsequently signed to their label Generation Now, a subsidiary of Atlantic Records, home to rappers like Lil Uzi Vert (“XO Tour Llif3”) and Lil James (“Traphouse”).

While Harlow hasn’t yet released a full length album, “Confetti” shows a bright future ahead. The 12-track mixtape is a self-actualized declaration of his abrupt rise to success. Compared to his previous projects “Confetti” is less introspective, but this change is not a drawback. Songs like “ROTTEN,” featuring EST Gee, and “THRU THE NIGHT,” featuring fellow Kentucky rapper Bryson Tiller, are definite standouts among the album. 

Despite this success, Harlow remains humble and feels indebted to the people of Louisville for giving him his roots. The mixtape’s closing track “River Road” is a sequel to his earlier single “Eastern Parkway.” Both tracks are named after prominent streets in Louisville. They stray from his usual boastful beats and instead read as a poetic train of thought ruminating on the place he called home for two decades. 

“People from Louisville share that sentiment with me,” Harlow said. “Louisville is the perfect size where there’s actually a culture to take pride in but you know you haven’t been appreciated.”

Jack Harlow will embark on a promotional tour for “Confetti” next month. He hits New York City at Sound of Brazil on Oct. 24. 

Email Sophia Letson-Ettin at [email protected]