“First Class” Rapper Jack Harlow on Criticism, Female Pleasure, and Uplifting Black Voices

“I feel a responsibility to make sure people don’t think of Louisville hip-hop and only think of one white guy.”

Interviewing Jack Harlow feels like being assigned to a group project with the most popular kid in school. We meet at a restaurant in Midtown Manhattan, where I expect to be seated in a dimly lit room, surrounded by thumping music and an entourage. But when Harlow arrives, we make a beeline past tables and up a flight of stairs to what I can only describe as an employee break room. I’m startled by fluorescent lights and clutter, but then I spot a table set for two, candlelight and all. I reach out for a handshake before I sit down, but he gives me a hug. Tonight, I’m the one shaking.

Finding time for this interview in the 24-year-old rapper’s schedule was nearly impossible. “I’ve really pushed myself to the brink, so now I know what that feels like,” Harlow tells Teen Vogue. “It’s all in my hands, what I say yes to. I don’t have anyone to blame except me at the end of the day.”

Commitment-wise, has he reached his limit? “I’m close,” he says in a lilting whisper. I warn him to steer clear of toxic girl boss behavior, to which he declares: “I am a girl boss.”

Jack wears a K.ngsley top and Calvin Klein archive pants courtesy of David Casavant.Ally Green

Born and raised in Louisville, Kentucky, Jack Harlow became enamored with hip-hop as a kid after his mom introduced him to legendary acts like A Tribe Called Quest. In middle school, he recorded and sold $2 mixtapes to classmates. As a teenager, after gaining local attention, he took meetings with Scooter Braun and other industry giants and dreamed of a record deal. Little came of it, but in 2018, DJ Drama brought the self-proclaimed middle-class hero onto his Generation Now label through Atlantic Records.

Four years later, Harlow’s celebrity has skyrocketed in a way that is characteristic of the digital age: While millions follow his every move, millions more still don’t know who he is. That paradox is evident when a restaurant cook walks past our table set up. Not missing a beat, Harlow greets him with an earnest, “Hey, man, s'up?” This person has no idea why two kids are eating a multicourse meal in his break room.

The TikTok-friendly single “What’s Poppin’” brought Harlow viral fame in 2020, but it was “Industry Baby,” his Grammy-nominated hit with Lil Nas X, that turned him into a pop culture mainstay. His choice to collaborate with Lil Nas, whose sexuality has been shamed by other rappers, was quickly politicized. Harlow didn’t mind. “It was a decision I made from my soul,” he says. “I wasn’t thinking, Oh, optically, this will look good. But I do think Lil Nas stands for something really important. I’m gonna be really proud as that ages.”

Jack wears a Versace jacket and pants, K. NGSLEY top, and Jacquemus shoes.Ally Green
Ally Green
Ally Green

What Harlow stands for, meanwhile, is currently in flux — at least in the eyes of some. Fervor around his persona hit a fever pitch when he released Come Home the Kids Miss You in May, a 15-track album filled with groovy beats and highly anticipated features. But in the days that followed, he engaged in a string of highly questionable incidents (see: being carried over mud by Black men at the Kentucky Derby and struggling to identify a Brandy song — and learning Brandy and Ray J are siblings — on New York’s Hot 97 radio station). As a white man taking up valuable space in a genre created by and for Black people, holding him to the highest standard is not only justified, it’s necessary — a fact he seems fairly cognizant of.

“The era we live in has forced you, as a public figure, to be hyperaware of the decisions you’re making,” Harlow says, nodding emphatically when I reference the poor optics of those aforementioned moments. He talks slowly, noting that the stakes feel high. “Not everything can be, ‘What a charming guy who knows exactly what to say.’ It’s not human. Sometimes you put your foot in your mouth.” 

True as that may be, Harlow knows the scrutiny isn’t going anywhere. “Everything you say is really liable to affect your career in a crazy way," he says. "That’s just the nature of where we’re at. But it’s also dependent on your integrity, which is something I feel I have a lot of.”

Related: Saucy Santana on Pop Eras, Lil Nas X and Lizzo Dream Collabs, and Making the World His Own

Listen to any handful of Harlow’s songs and you’ll hear countless tributes to the city that made him. In September, he told Complex that Louisville is full of hip-hop’s “hidden gems,” and today, he tells me how he’s amplifying its Black talent: “I did five shows in Louisville in the winter, and at each show, I put two or three artists from the city on [to perform].” The roster included members of The Homies, longtime collaborators who also opened every show on Harlow's 2021 Crème de la Crème Tour.

“I don’t know if anyone from Louisville could say that I’m not doing my part to lift the city up,” Harlow says. Hometown pride, tinged with self-awareness, swells in his voice. “I feel a responsibility to make sure people don’t think of Louisville hip-hop and only think of one white guy.”

When I look at the Jack Harlow sitting across from me, I see a mildly nervous, soft-spoken young man who knows he’s bound to mess up. It’s a stark contrast from his usual on-camera persona, which seems to be all self-assured smiles and witty, often suggestive, jokes. Perhaps I view him with empathy because I, too, am a 24-year-old white person. Perhaps it’s also because I was introduced to his music by Black women, the fanbase he most directly credits with his success. “Black women are such a massive part of my career,” he says.

Harlow's advocacy for those fans plays a critical role in his appeal. When a Black woman was harassed by a police officer at his concert last year, Harlow publicly admonished the situation. “I want this woman, and every Black woman that supports me, to know — I am so sorry,” he wrote on Instagram. “I want you to be protected.” (Harlow reached out to the victim privately to offer his support, Teen Vogue confirmed.)

That behavior shouldn’t be unusual for a man in hip-hop, but unfortunately, it is. Thankfully, Harlow doesn’t see himself as any kind of savior. “I was telling The New York Times how it’s not a massive phenomenon to me because it’s just a continuation of how my life was before I was famous,” he explains. “They’ll never have to worry about not being credited by me…. I mean, I look out at my shows and I see them. It’s one thing when you see the memes and you hear people talking about it, but it’s another when you travel the country and you see them all over the place. I love Black women. I’ve loved Black women my whole life.”

Jack wears a K.ngsley top and Calvin Klein archive pants courtesy of David Casavant.Ally Green

Harlow is part of a new class of celebrities who are as revered for their internet presence as they are for their craft (often, they’re better known for the former). Even so, Harlow's life hasn’t been all smooth sailing and flirty interviews. In the eight days between his album release and our interview, BuzzFeed News called the project “self-serious and generic,” and Rolling Stone declared that Harlow “doesn’t seem interested in much beyond dominating the charts.”

The toughest blow came from Pitchfork, which rated the album a 2.9 and delivered such digs as “without much to grasp with [Harlow’s] music, it’s easiest just to stare.” The author gets personal, referring to the rapper’s “honking diamond earrings” with disdain — though, in person, they look pretty normal-size to me.

“I’ve been so validated by the world over the last year and just put on a pedestal and loved. To experience a taste of the opposite, I think it’s good for my growth,” Harlow says. “It teaches you not to put too much stock in either because the world is finicky. But I’m proud to say my confidence and my thoughts on my trajectory haven’t been shaken. A lot of it has been a big surprise to me, after I caught wind of some of it. I’ve been able to do a good job of stepping away.”

I ask if he’s seen any valid points in the criticism. “That’s a good question,” he replies. After a beat, he sounds notably more passionate. “I haven’t seen a lot of good points because, you know, most of the noise isn’t written eloquently. My music, to me, is without a doubt getting better. Some of my earlier stuff, since I wasn’t in the position that I’m in [now], it was easier to be like, ‘Yeah, slide him his props.’ But once you’re up there, it’s a saltier feeling in your mouth. It’s seasonal, I’m telling you. It’s fashion.”

Jack wears an Alexander McQueen jacket, K.ngsley top, Koché pant, and Versace shoes.Ally Green
Ally Green

But critics can’t deny the success of the Fergie-sampling single “First Class,” which exploded at number one on the Billboard charts. Even my mom likes the song, I tell Harlow, though she isn’t fond of the line in which he raps about drinking pineapple juice to “give her sweet, sweet, sweet semen.” He laughs. “My parents have let go of that," he says. "I used to be a little more distasteful. My whole career was sweet semen.”

When I ask about Harlow's favorite moment on the album, he shifts in his chair, deep in thought. Such pauses are a recurring theme in this conversation. Each word sounds painstakingly intentional. “You can decide what’s written later,” he tells me. “All the decisions are made for me right now.”

He comes down to earth 10 to 20 seconds later, stone-faced, with a revelation: “One of my favorite lyrics on the album was, ‘Imma f*ck the earrings off of you.’” On a more serious note, he adds, “The album wasn’t necessarily safe. To me, ‘safe’ would have been 15 trap beats. I think there’s a community of people who would’ve appreciated that. But one of the reasons I feel so good coming out of this, this is the music I love. There’s nothing I could read that could convince me this isn’t great music.”

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As in the earrings line, women are a frequent subject in Harlow’s music. But he doesn’t just rap about them, he also listens to their music. He gives props to City Girls, with whom he’ll tour this fall, and nods to the prospective viral song of the summer: “There’s this new song, ‘FNF,’ by GloRilla [and HitKidd].” He’s also been bumping Rosalía’s Motomami. His favorite track is “Saoko,” which he may not understand, but finds “crazy” for its reggaetón-meets-trap approach.

Since Harlow opened his personal floodgates to non-English music, he says he’s also open to collaborating with fellow heartthrob Bad Bunny, who dropped a surprise album the same day as his. “I saw him at the Met Gala. We talked about working,” Harlow recalls. So much for “Tryna come the same day as Jack? Rethink it,” I joke. “That was a power play,” he says. “We were laughing about it [at the Met]. I had to give him his props. He’s humble too. I like him a lot.”

For Harlow, another memorable interaction at the Met Gala — in addition to his viral rapport with Emma Chamberlain — was meeting his first crush, Vanessa Hudgens, during a red carpet interview. Harlow says it was a “bucket list moment.” Fans might have expected him to unleash more of his signature charm, but he deliberately kept it cool: “I didn't want to do nothing; she was trying to work.”

Jack wears a K.ngsley top, Calvin Klein archive pants courtesy of David Casavant, and Camper shoes.Ally Green
Ally Green

A person’s public-facing brand can’t encapsulate everything about them, but anyone familiar with Harlow can see that he’s marketed himself as a ladies’ man. His viral Chicken Shop Date with Amelia Dimoldenberg has amassed over 10 million views and thousands of comments to the effect of “this dude got me sittin’ here smilin’ like i was the one on a date with him.” 

In a recent appearance on The Breakfast Club, his jaw went slack when host DJ Envy revealed that his wife didn’t orgasm for the first 10 years of their relationship. I cite this as grounds for my next question: Is it important to Harlow to prioritize female pleasure? I’ve caught him off guard (“Is this okay for Teen Vogue?”), but he doesn’t completely dodge me. “I’ll say this,” he answers. “I’m getting more selfless by the day.”

Jack wears a Stone Island jacket, Dior top, Prive Revaux glasses, and Ami pants.Ally Green

It seems easier for Harlow to discuss sexual encounters in the context of his art. Though he’s broken the mold of hip-hop’s misogynoir in notable ways, his lyrics about women often adhere to age-old tropes many of us have grown desensitized to. What would he tell someone who feels lines like “Ain’t no girl in my hometown that I can’t have now” strip women of agency? “I’d tell them I’m very open to the way they’re thinking,” he says, not breaking eye contact. “I’d love to keep learning more.” 

As great as it would be to explore this further, Harlow is on a tight deadline tonight: He’ll head straight from our interview to a surprise performance at Fat Joe’s daughter’s sweet 16. He decimates a plate of chicken teriyaki and the conversation moves along.

I had assumed Harlow would take some time off before embarking on his next tour in September, but he says he’s about to film the reboot of White Men Can’t Jump, which is how he’ll spend the duration of his summer. It’s his debut acting role and he’s working with a coach to prepare, which he’s found incredibly challenging. “She’s just so brilliant and pushes me in ways I didn’t expect,” he explains. “I’ve spent so much of my life trying to be taken seriously as an artist, gaining respect, and I think I avoided embarrassment. This movie’s a good opportunity for me to feel embarrassed, I think.”

A few moments pass in silence. Harlow plays with the garnish on one of the dishes we’ve been served, breaking off pieces and putting them on another plate. “I feel like I went to school with a girl like you,” he says. What does that mean? “She did her homework."

Jack wears a Stone Island jacket, Dior top, Ami pants, and Louboutin shoes.Ally Green
Ally Green


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