Jack Harlow was one of the success stories of 2022, thanks to his Fergie-sampling, Billboard Hot 100-topping smash “First Class” and its star-studded parent LP, Come Home the Kids Miss You, which debuted at No. 3 on the Billboard 200 albums chart. After years of audience-building, last year seemed to mark Harlow’s official emergence as a pop star.
However, pop stardom does not seem to be on Harlow’s mind with his current release, Jackman. The 10-track set, announced just days before its April 28 release, contains no features and no advance tracks — nor any singles as obvious as “First Class.” The set debuts at No. 8 on the Billboard 200 dated May 13, making it Harlow’s first album to bow short of the chart’s top five.
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Does the release show Harlow’s momentum finally slowing? Or is it doing something for Harlow’s career that you can’t see in the numbers? Billboard staffers discuss these questions and more below.
1. After two consecutive top five LP debuts on the Billboard 200, Jack Harlow’s Jackman comes in a little softer, landing at No. 8, with only two songs making the Billboard Hot 100 (and neither in the top half). Given the breakout year that he had in 2022, how surprised are you (if at all) that the numbers for Jackman aren’t a bit better?
Rania Aniftos: I was initially surprised given his success over the past year, but after thinking about it more, I’m not as shocked. One thing that Harlow does really well is go viral (like he did with that “Dua Lipa” hook and “First Class”), and subsequently garner hype for music releases to the point where you feel like you have to listen to his songs when they drop. This somewhat-surprise drop technique he tried out doesn’t work as well for someone like him, given that he’s known for his juicy viral bars.
Eric Renner Brown: Few artists are as synonymous with “pandemic breakout” as Harlow, and because of that, his career arc has always felt unpredictable. Without COVID, would “WHATS POPPIN” have taken off the way it did? And what would Harlow’s career have looked like after that? With Jackman, the cynical, Harlow-hating argument would be that entertainment-starved audiences in quarantine inflated his popularity beyond what it might have been under normal circumstances and that it’s now come back to earth.
Jackman‘s relatively paltry showing doesn’t surprise me, but not for those cynical reasons. For better or worse, Harlow and his team have proven themselves consummate self-promoters; at 10 exceedingly short and featureless tracks given practically no pre-release promotion, this project doesn’t seem like it was *supposed* to make a huge chart splash.
Jason Lipshutz: I’m not surprised at all, because Jackman doesn’t represent a typical Jack Harlow album. Instead of following up Come Home the Kids Miss You with more pop hooks and A-list collaborators, Harlow chose to assert himself as a no-frills rapper, and provided fans with a lean, 24-minute project in which he deployed rhymes and eschewed choruses over a collection of soul samples. That’s a canny move to build cred, but not one that aims for chart dominance; a No. 8 debut makes all the sense in the world for an experimental LP like this.
Neena Rouhani: I’m not surprised, because I don’t believe his goal with this project was big numbers. This project was meant to be the anti-album – something that greatly contrasts with Come Home the Kids Miss You… especially after that “Tryna come the same day as Jack? Rethink it” line from “First Class” didn’t pan out so well. I think a lot of people questioned where his rapping abilities went with the last project, as there was a lot of chatter about Jack setting his career on cruise control following the success of “First Class.” This was him reminding his fan base that he still has the technical skills of the That’s What They All Say and mixtape days.
Andrew Unterberger: I’m a tiny bit surprised, just because we have seen the semi-surprise release like this really end up capturing the conversation when pop stars are able to catch fans off guard and show them a new side of themselves. Not every such release is gonna be Folklore of course — and though he’s doing well, Jack Harlow doesn’t have anywhere near that level of fanbase yet — but after his overstuffed and undercooked last album, I thought this one might catch a little more attention. Just shows you how hard it is to put up J. Cole numbers with a J. Cole approach; maybe only J. Cole can.
2. Obviously this release differs from Harlow’s last few in that it was a semi-surprise drop, being announced just days before its release. Do you think that was just an ineffective strategy for Harlow? Is there a way he could’ve tweaked it to be more effective?
Rania Aniftos: I don’t think the strategy is necessarily ineffective, because I truly believe a new artist should test the waters whenever possible, even if the result isn’t what is hoped for. If he wanted to do a semi-surprise drop, he could have teased a bar or verse from one of his songs without saying what it’s for (“No Enhancers” would have been a good song to pull from, because I know the girls on TikTok would love those lyrics). Then, when that verse starts to spread on the internet, announce the album the way he did — but the difference is that there’s already some excitement surrounding the release.
Eric Renner Brown: It depends how you define “ineffective.” If the aim was to get Jackman another top five Billboard 200 debut, then sure, his team failed – and the corrective seems pretty clear, to have loaded up the album with guests and twice as many tracks to juice the streaming figures. But given Jackman‘s overwhelming contemplative, introspective subject matter and its brevity, it feels intended more as a recording stopgap and “Hey, remember me?” statement before Harlow’s film debut in the White Men Can’t Jump reboot. And if ever there was an opportune moment for Harlow to get a bit more reflective in the studio, this might be it.
Jason Lipshutz: I think it actually was effective! When viewing Jackman through the lens of a for-the-fans detour with limited crossover potential, an extended rollout never would have made sense. If anything, I would have tweaked the unveiling of Jackman to be a total surprise — just have the album revealed on streaming services upon release, during a particularly snoozy week of new music, and watch both casual listeners and diehard fans check it out. But even that change would not have produced a commercial juggernaut, because Jackman wasn’t built as one.
Neena Rouhani: If I’m wrong and they did expect Jackman to have huge commercial success, then yes, it was an ineffective strategy. But I don’t think that was the goal here. Either way, they could’ve done a bigger social media push, drawing attention to his bars and reminding people he’s a talented rapper by way of various musical influencers. Regardless, the album did alter his listeners’ view of him and put him back in the rapper conversation, which I think was the point.
Andrew Unterberger: A different album cover might’ve helped. (Maybe a different title, too.) But generally, I think Harlow and his team went the right route here — and for the record, it’s not like a ton of other rappers are debuting higher than No. 8 so far this year either.
3. Without the A-list features and big samples/interpolations from his previous album Come Home the Kids Miss You, perhaps Harlow was going for something other than immediate blockbuster commercial success all along with this album. Do you think Jackman could (or will) still prove a smart release for Harlow in the long-term?
Rania Aniftos: Despite what I’ve said about the rollout strategy, Jackman is a great step forward as Harlow navigates maintaining his position as a star in the rap world for years to come. It shows music listeners a new, more contemplative side of him and shows that he has more versatility beyond the flirty, almost cocky persona he always portrays.
Eric Renner Brown: Again, it depends how you define “smart release.” This album has already racked up praise (relatively speaking) from hip-hop heads, because of its understated, smooth production and Harlow’s dexterous rhyming, deployed here in service of more mature content rather than puerile frat-rap. But critical praise doesn’t translate to commercial success, and because I doubt that Harlow is planning a career swerve into headier, less-mainstream fare – I mean, never say never, but – I don’t think plaudits from the heads matters for his trajectory. But for his own ego and sense of artistic self-worth? Sure. Considering that he’s still riding his 2022 musical successes and preparing for his big turn on the silver screen, it tracks that he’d feel less pressure to release another set of potential chart-toppers.
Jason Lipshutz: Yes, because I believe fans who have invested in Harlow long-term will rally around Jackman as proof of the Kentucky rapper’s technical skill. Harlow and his team would no doubt love more smashes like “First Class” and “Whats Poppin,” but chasing hits can yield ephemeral satisfaction and the lack of a core fan base. Meanwhile, a project like Jackman congeals that foundation of support in between hits, and lets listeners who appreciate Harlow’s flow know that they’re being heard. It’s a smart move from an artist who could be focused solely on the here and now, but is instead driving stakes into the ground and setting up his career for years to come.
Neena Rouhani: Yes. What matters in any artist’s catalog is not just big chart moments. It’s those deep cuts and under the radar projects that are rooted in the artists’ skills and passion that fans feel deeply connected to and appreciate. Those offerings lead to deeper loyalty from listeners and longevity for the artist.
Andrew Unterberger: Sure. It’s a little bit of a course correction — Come Home the Kids Miss You did respectable numbers but got mostly lousy reviews, and didn’t spawn a second hit anywhere near “First Class,” largely because the crossover-baiting felt a little too obvious (and the bars a little undercooked). To his credit, he seems to acknowledge he maybe shot a little too far too soon there, and Jackman makes it clear Harlow can still captivate solo and without borrowed hooks, and that’s important to re-establish before he makes his next (presumably bigger) move, whenever that is.
4. The biggest headlines for Harlow’s latest over the weekend revolved around the response dis from Machine Gun Kelly, likely aimed at the rapper’s claims on the album about being the best white rapper since Eminem. If you were on Harlow’s team, would you be persuading him to respond and engage in the back-and-forth, or to just leave it alone and not give it more oxygen?
Rania Aniftos: OK, I just want to start off by saying that I’m not an MGK hater. I promise. I do think, however, that he starts beef for no reason and seems to have a temper that often makes him blow situations out of proportion or put out random attacks on the Internet. With all that being said, an MGK diss really doesn’t hold too much weight given that he’s seemingly mad at everything all the time. If I were Harlow, I’d take the high road. Anyway, Eminem already took care of it back in 2018.
Eric Renner Brown: Can I leave this question alone and not give it more oxygen? This whole thing is just hilarious to me: That MGK or Harlow would fashion themselves in the same lyrical universe as Eminem, that white rappers are still vying for Eminem’s crown 20 years after his creative peak, that MGK all but abandoned hip-hop and but still wants to seat check the white rapper throne (if he even occupied it at all which is… debatable). If I’m Harlow’s team, I’m advising him that he has bigger fish to fry – not because a beef with MGK would hurt Harlow’s career (I don’t think it would) but because… why bother?
Jason Lipshutz: I mean… I’m an absolute sucker for rap beef, particularly one that seems relatively harmless. I wouldn’t begrudge Harlow for brushing off MGK’s diss and moving forward without acknowledgement, but the craven-for-content part of me wants him to flex like he’s about to re-shoot the Jackman album cover.
Neena Rouhani: I’m personally a lover, not a fighter, so I’d never encourage my client to continue hurling insults. But if relevancy is the goal, it’ll definitely keep their names in the headlines. Also, it’s news to me that MGK still considers himself a rapper.
Andrew Unterberger: Well… it’s an option, anyway, and a relatively simple one for pumping up the number of eyeballs he has on him in this Jackman promo period, if that even is a priority for him on this album. But ultimately I don’t think I’d advise it: He’s already got White Men Can’t Jump around the corner, and the kind of attention he’d get from responding to an MGK beef is not that dissimilar from the kind of attention he already got too much of on his last album cycle.
5. MGK beefing aside — now that Harlow’s done more of a One for Me type album, what would you generally advise him to do for his next project if he wanted to recapture more of the crossover/pop star momentum he had after Come Home and “First Class”?
Rania Aniftos: Might I suggest a collaboration album? Harlow works so well with others, and flawlessly matches energy with all types of collaborators. I’d love to see him team up with a female artist – perhaps his “First Class” music video co-star, Anitta? It would be cool to see him dip his toes into the Latin world with a collaboration like that.
Eric Renner Brown: More features, more pop-oriented beats, more promotion. But maybe he can take some of the lyrical maturation on Jackman to heart – he’s always been a talented technician, and I’ve long thought that scaling back on the “sex jokes a 16-year-old thinks are funny” factor could serve his career well in the long-term.
Jason Lipshutz: I’d recommend that Harlow move quickly. Popular hip-hop remains a game of “what have you done for me lately?,” and while I believe Jackman to be a clever left turn, I also think that, if he sits too long on top of it without putting out something more pop-facing, Harlow will be in danger of losing some of the top 40 momentum he scooped up last year. Maybe he’s ultimately fine with that, but if not, he should queue up a big single before the end of the year, in order to lead into a major 2024.
Neena Rouhani: A big collaboration with someone other than Drake. I’d say his efforts towards being heavily associated with Drizzy hurt him a little more than it helped him. He already proved he could have a massive solo moment, and “Industry Baby” with Lil Nas X was also noteworthy, but I’d love to see him collaborate with a woman.
Andrew Unterberger: Two words: soundtrack single. He’s got White Men Can’t Jump coming up — the original of which had a pretty dope OST 31 years ago — and what better way to cement his cross-platform stardom than with a ’90s-worthy lead single to kick off the movie? Harlow seems like a student of hip-hop history to some degree, at least; it’d be a shame if he let an opportunity to live up to his ’90s forebears like this slip.
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