N.W.A’s debut album, Straight Outta Compton, sold notoriously well in the suburbs. Such was the strange commercial reality of a genre rooted in the streets but destined to become the most popular and influential music in the U.S.
By the late 1980s, hip-hop escaped its formative scenes in New York and Los Angeles and proliferated all across the U.S. The rappers were often young Black men from distressed neighborhoods in big cities, but the fans could’ve been anyone, anywhere. There were rappers, such as the Fresh Prince and to some extent LL Cool J, whose music seemed designed to accommodate the broadest possible audience. But even the gangsta rappers, such as N.W.A, built a commercial stronghold in the suburbs. It’s easy enough to understand the genre’s appeal there. The suburbs are a culture of conformity and hip-hop is a culture of rebellion. Plus, the music’s just that good.
There are still subgenres dominated by so-called street rappers, but the mainstream now sustains a variety of stars with explicitly suburban sensibilities. Take the latest rap star in this lineage, Jack Harlow.
The first thing you’ll learn about Jack Harlow is that he’s white. He’ll be the first to tell you that he’s white. He’s unsurprisingly self-conscious about this fact. In songs and interviews he’s often big-upping the Black “gatekeepers,” namely his benefactors DJ Drama, Don Cannon, and Leighton Morrison at the record label Generation Now. Jack Harlow is a mild-mannered kid hailing from a nice neighborhood in Louisville, Kentucky. He didn’t emerge from live-action Nickelodeon or the Mickey Mouse Club, but he quite plausibly could have. A great deal of commentary about Jack Harlow emphasizes his race, and nothing but his race, as the novelty in his stardom. This is mostly harmless and sometimes funny.
Last year, Chet Hanks famously proclaimed a “white boy summer,” a supposed stylistic apotheosis of the good, cool white boy as judged by the standards of hip-hop. “I’m not talking about Trump, you know, NASCAR-type white,” Hanks clarified. He instead named Harlow, the ’90s R&B star Jon B, and, of course, himself. “White boy summer” was a silly prediction that at least clarified a very real archetype: a white boy with a well-calibrated swagger, influenced by Blackness but never crossing the line into race comedy (Hanks notwithstanding). Harlow certainly fits the bill.
Ultimately, though, “Jack Harlow is white” isn’t a very novel or interesting observation about Jack Harlow. It’s not a strong basis for understanding his current standing and significance in hip-hop. It’s not a strong basis for understanding the state of hip-hop in general. The genre is too old and too diverse at this point to tokenize every white rapper who emerges on the Hot 100, and anyway Harlow isn’t all that different from J. Cole or Drake. He’s the homecoming king with a heart of gold, songs full of straight-to-the-league posturing, and a phone full of first-world problems. He’s still the furthest thing from, say, Eminem.
If anything, Eminem provides a crucial contrast with Jack Harlow. Eminem wasn’t just white. He was self-described white trash from Detroit. He was broke, busted, traumatized, antisocial, unloveable, untouchable. He lived on the “wrong” side, by which I mean the right side, of hip-hop’s urban-suburban dynamic. The climactic freestyle in 8 Mile is a neat illustration. The white rapper B-Rabbit, played by Eminem, eviscerates his Black rival Papa Doc, played by Anthony Mackie, with a series of insults about his upbringing. Papa Doc’s real name is Clarence, his parents “have a real good marriage,” he attended the private school Cranbrook, and so on. B-Rabbit tosses the mic to Papa Doc but he has no reply. This is depicting the battle rap scene, but it’s also reinforcing the real-world credibility of Eminem. He’s white, but he’s still got more in common with Busta Rhymes than Papa Doc. That kinship, in addition to Eminem’s skill, appeased the gatekeepers—those same gatekeepers might’ve side-eyed Clarence from the 1980s through the 2000s.
Throughout that period, there have been exceptions to the rule of street rappers in hip-hop. There’s Kanye, son of the late Chicago State University professor Donda West. There’s Drake, the successful teen actor on Degrassi. Their origin stories were tame compared to their respective mentors, Jay-Z and Lil Wayne. That’s not to discount the struggles of any rapper raised above the poverty line. Kanye grew up with a single mother in a modest home on the South Side of Chicago. But he was middle class with a collegiate sensibility, recording skits about the societal pressures to obtain a degree. As a “backpacker with a Benz,” in his own words, Kanye was the odd man out on Roc-A-Fella Records, a hip-hop label otherwise dominated by the cocaine cowboys Jay-Z and Cam’ron. The title of his debut album, The College Dropout, underscored this tension; Kanye was at once crass and middlebrow, populist and pretentious. He was in a different class.
Drake was even weirder in this regard. He reveled in suburban adolescence. Smoking weed under star projectors / I guess we’ll never know where Harvard gets us. He was one of several significant hip-hop suburbanites in the 2010s, including Cole, Childish Gambino, and Tyler, the Creator. But Drake, more than anyone else in the past couple of decades, was the standard-bearer for the suburbanization of hip-hop. The common dissent against Drake was ostensibly about his being “soft,” but really it was about him being so shockingly, nakedly, and shamelessly suburban. Sure, he’d adopt a Caribbean accent every now and again and start blurting out mafioso clichés. But chiefly, Drake played the homecoming king at a nice high school dance. He simply didn’t care to obscure the urban-suburban dynamic in hip-hop any longer.
Now the hip-hop middle class takes center stage. The middle class rap star became less of a novelty. That’s the real shift and the real story with Jack Harlow. Yes, he’s white, but more importantly he’s Clarence. OK, he’s not a one-to-one comparison; Papa Doc was a bully and Jack Harlow is by all accounts a nice guy. But that’s the novelty in itself: the nice guy, with a nice story, on top.