If there’s one thing rappers love more than Hellcats, rhyming “models” with “bottles,” and dissing that one substitute teacher who never believed in them, it’s naming songs after NBA players. Lil Wayne gifted Kobe Bryant with an epic ode in 2009. Steph Curry received a criminally underrated eponymous Soulja Boy song. And Kevin Durant can lay claim to inspiring one of the best diss songs of all time, Lil B’s “Fuck KD.” In the same way that it’s a make-or-miss league, Drake either has your jersey number forever etched onto his skin or he doesn’t. Securing the devotion of a wide-eyed rapper is what separates superstars from role players. So it was only a matter of time until the NBA’s reigning pale prince received a signature song to mark his coronation.
On Wednesday, Jack Harlow announced the release of “Tyler Herro” by sharing a photo of him swapping jerseys with the guard. Herro’s jersey was naturally from the Miami Heat, but as of publication time it’s unclear what team had drafted Harlow. Nevertheless, from the moment that “Tyler Herro” was teased to the world, it was clear that Harlow was beside himself. He’d throw caution to the wind faster than he uploaded his strip club photo with Lou Williams to Instagram.
In fairness, the allure of Herro was likely too great to resist. The rookie became one of the breakout stars of the NBA bubble by averaging 16 points per game in the playoffs, going off for 37 points in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference finals, and making Celtics fans wonder how their team somehow missed out on the next great white hope. Why would Harlow—hip-hop’s breakout white star in 2020—have Roddy Ricch croon about the 6-foot-5 shooting guard first or Pusha-T compare his cocaine to Herro’s skin tone? (Even if it meant the Louisville rapper would have to betray his hometown and write about a former Kentucky Wildcats star.)
“Tyler Herro” is a perfectly fine and at times great rap song. The flute-driven beat by Boi-1da and Scott Storch is supreme. Harlow is charming and knows his way around a catchy single. He’s a chameleon who can approximate DaBaby’s flow one minute and then borrow Drake’s the next. But like most Harlow songs, the narrative becomes grating once it’s placed under scrutiny. There’s a basic understanding in hip-hop that’s been forged out of necessity: White rappers should never rap about the plight of being white rappers.
So when Jack Harlow’s new song immediately begins with a fallacy, “The ones that hate me the most look just like me,” it’s hard not to roll one’s eyes. For those that are unaware, Harlow is a baby-faced, curly-haired, major-label wunderkind. In comparison, my beard, ability to achieve waves, and parentage put me squarely in the category of people who don’t resemble Harlow and, by his estimation, should love him. And while I don’t hate Harlow and generally wish him the best, it’d be disingenuous not to admit that what he represents—a talented if inoffensive rapper whose success is indebted to a system that was built to market to fans who look just like Harlow—is generally irksome. If there’s anything Harlow lacks, it isn’t a sizable white fan base that’s as enticing to a major label as it is to New Balance (the athletic brand heavily featured in the “Tyler Herro” video).
The 22-year-old Harlow’s brand isn’t new, just merely repurposed for 2020. He’s cribbing the same playbook used by his forefathers (Eminem, Lil Dicky). Part of the passé humor of white rappers is based in stereotype. Their existence is predicated on circumventing expectations. They are Billy Hoyle in White Men Can’t Jump, and the music-consuming public are the easy marks on court. So in the “Tyler Herro” music video, when Harlow is surrounded by a crew of look-alikes like a scene plucked from Eminem’s “The Real Slim Shady,” it’s supposed to be a moment of clever fourth-wall breaking. If Harlow skewers himself decked in designer shades and a Gucci jacket, we don’t have to. The song’s chorus pulls the same move. “I brought a gang to the party with me / Five white boys but they not ’N Sync,” Harlow raps as a boy band called “Thotboy” appears on screen to oversell the punch line.
“Tyler Herro” is the most enjoyable when its humor is unintentional. The highlight of the video—and the song—is when Harlow raps:
My homeboy Tyler, he play in South Beach
He told me this summer he gon’ fix my jumper
I told Boi-1da that we might got a thumper (Yeah, yeah, yeah)
I been tryna pop, now I’m on like Shumpert
Herro looks like a deer in the headlights trying to pose in a rap video, despite being the youngest player to start in an NBA Finals since Magic Johnson. From there, Harlow claims he told Boi-1da that this song is a “thumper,” which is exactly the type of thing Harlow would say to one of the best producers in the world. Finally, in a forced “I’m on”–Iman play on words, Harlow compares the current state of his career to Shumpert, which is unfortunate considering Shumpert was last seen playing 13 games last season for the Nets, who waived him when Wilson Chandler returned for a PED suspension. Currently, Jack Harlow is not rap’s Iman Shumpert, but there are still two months left for him to make that a possibility.
“My homeboy Tyler, he play in South Beach. He told me this summer he gon’ fix my jumper”— Bleacher Report (@BleacherReport) October 22, 2020
Jack Harlow on his new song “Tyler Herro” pic.twitter.com/tnJrRWXtqw
Origin stories are seminal to most rap careers. 50 Cent was shot nine times. Kanye West’s mouth was wired shut after a car accident. Eminem grew up in a trailer park. Jack Harlow’s origin story has always been more quaint. As the story goes, a 12-year-old Harlow asked his mom, “How do I become the best rapper in the world?” His mom responded by telling her son he’d have to rap for four to five hours on a daily basis until he was 18, or at least that’s what she learned from Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers.
No one can ever say Harlow lacks the motivation to be a great rapper. And to his credit, “Tyler Herro” is far more enjoyable than it has any right to be. But what Harlow is missing—and the namesake of his latest song is not—is knowing when to make it seem effortless. At a certain level of play, working hard is a given. It’s when it looks easy that the conversation changes.