If being laid-back, charismatic and contagious were elements of Jack Harlow’s success story on his 2020 major label debut “That’s What They All Say,” with this week’s “Come Home the Kids Miss You,” those virtues reveal themselves as the rapper-songwriter’s golden stock-in-trade. From there, Harlow builds upon his bedrock strengths and finds a heady musical elixir for his new album, a vibe more potent, direct and swaggering than on his first major label outing.
With slightly less laughs and fewer basketball jokes than offered in 2020, “Come Home the Kids Miss You” has its eye toward something more romantic, but cutting, and its ear toward something more nuanced, yet bolder.
Part of the reason for the latter stems from the fact that this time out, Harlow has a hand in his album’s co-production with Angel (BabeTruth) Lopez and Rogét Chahayed. Their unified vibe gives the listener a closer sense of what his sonics are — as opposed to that of his first album’s array of producers — and allow the sensually curvaceous chords of “Side Piece” and “First Class” (Fergie “Glamorous” sample and all) ample breathing room without losing his debut’s lightness or savoir faire. In the center of this is Harlow’s charmed sing-song-y flow, one that maintains its Southern drawl, albeit lower and flintier and with a newly refined sense of emotional phrasing.
Starting with a woozily looped piano, “Talk of the Town” is Harlow’s state-of-the-union address, an autobiographical stroll through old neighborhoods and allegiances with a hint of braggadocio (“We used to have the same drive, you in park now”). Sticking with the piano as his guide, Harlow welcomes unannounced guest Snoop Dogg to “Young Harleezy.” Here, Snoop lends liquid honey to the clip-clopping track (along with a “Jack is the mack” hat tip), while Harlow concentrates on “being enough.” That insecurity, as well as his occasional self-deprecation, is a doubling down of his charm offensive, and one of the rapper’s most winning qualities
Not every guest makes sense within the context of the album. “Movie Star,” with featured co-producer and vocalist Pharrell Williams, is a minor-key electro-squelch that’s cute, but its voices never mesh, and the track seems more spiteful than soulful. One of Harlow’s heroes, Lil Wayne, appears on “Poison” in mellow, super AutoTune mode for a song that, while good, lacks necessary energy.
What does work is Harlow’s pairing with fellow Southerner Justin Timberlake, another purveyor of blue-eyed soul appropriation, on “Parent Trap.” After Harlow’s sweet rap tackles the self-acknowledgement of “the top being where they like to see you get embarrassed / Especially when you charismatic,” together they acknowledge the pitfalls of fame. So, too, does “Churchill Downs,” Harlow’s quietly odd pairing with Drake. Backed by a weirdly flute-y loop and a slow, infectious click, the team of mentor and mentee throw humble compliments at each other when they’re not offering cutting, pragmatic commentary. In particular, Drake’s lyrics about life in the limelight are some of the best he’s come up with since 2020; the next Drake record is something to really look forward to, if this is where he’s going.
What’s best about “Come Home the Kids Miss You” isn’t its guests, thankfully. It’s Harlow ruminating on his own, marinating in his own self-created soundscape. Harlow’s “Dua Lipa” trap track may seem like a silly fanboy plea (“Dua Lipa, I’m tryna do more with her than do a feature”), but instead concentrates on the leaps of faith an artist makes anytime he lays a lyric down. Behind Harlow on the track is a mesmeric, twinkly melody and a bridge that crushes.
Nothing is catchier on “Come Home,” though, than “Like a Blade of Grass” and “Lil Secret,” both co-written with his production team. Between the former’s lyrics’ shifting perspectives and both tracks’ swirling melodies and their nearness to a Michael/Quincy R&B moment, these songs are perfection.
If “Come Home the Kids Miss You” feels like Harlow’s “Off the Wall,” could his “Thriller” be very far away? Thankfully, Harlow is the type of artist that warrants that question.
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