SlateWhy Is This Song No. 1?

Hip-Hop Has Had a Rough Year. Is This Really Its Great White Hope?

2023 saw rap’s longest drought in decades. Is Jack Harlow the man to save it?

The biggest story in rap this year was all about the past. Hip-hop’s 50th anniversary—timed to a DJ Kool Herc rec-room party in the South Bronx in August 1973, a somewhat arbitrary but reasonable musical marker—was a fine excuse to celebrate the culture of rap. Critics, including your friendly Slate chart columnist, have been arguing for some time that the so-called Rock Era, which began in the mid-’50s, gave way to a Rap Era several decades ago, as hip-hop style and production tropes overtook all of popular music. Right through today, even on hits that aren’t rap, from Taylor Swift to Morgan Wallen to SZA, hip-hop’s sonic hallmarks—its trap beats and syncopated cadences—are all over the radio and Spotify.

But the sad irony in this year of #HipHop50 was that the music—i.e., current rap—had a pretty lousy year, both creatively and on the charts. Regarding the creative, theories abound: Cardi B’s second album is still long overdue. Kendrick Lamar has been busy on tour. Ice Spice does well as a supporting act but has yet to front a big hit by herself. Travis Scott is back and selling tons of albums, but he didn’t generate an undeniable banger this year. Kanye West self-imploded. As for the charts, for the first 36 weeks of 2023, not one rap song topped Billboard’s Hot 100, as hits by Swift, Miley Cyrus, Wallen, and a parade of improbable country hitmakers took turns on top. In fact, the rap drought started even earlier, in August 2022: After a one-week chart-topper by Nicki Minaj tumbled out of No. 1 that summer, it took more than a year—54 weeks—for a rap song to hit the top again. Billboard reported that it was rap’s longest ousting from the top of the pops since the early-’00s era of boy bands and post-grunge.

The song that finally ended the 2022–23 rap gap was Doja Cat’s “Paint the Town Red,” a salty boom-bap rant by the biracial singer-rapper that rides a very prominent sample of Dionne Warwick’s masterful 1964 hit “Walk on By.” Since Doja hit the top in September, rap has come back at No. 1 a handful of times—a week here, a week there—mostly in one-off tracks by Drake. As usual, anything the aging Drizzy drops is guaranteed a week of heavy streaming—yet Drake’s short-lived No. 1s “Slime You Out” (featuring SZA) and “First Person Shooter” (featuring J. Cole) have not caught on at radio and are already out of the Top 10.

But now, there’s another rap joint sitting atop the Hot 100—and unlike those fleeting Drake hits, it’s growing in both airplay and streams. It’s by Jack Harlow, the 2020s’ premier white rapper and would-be hip-hop heartthrob, whom many wrote off just a few months ago. It’s a combination of tongue-twisty bars and a fat melodic hook. And as it takes over No. 1—probably for only a week or two, before Mariah Carey returns with her Christmas perennial—Doja’s infectious banger “Paint the Town Red” sits alongside it in the Top Three, suggesting that maybe the answer to rap’s hitmaking drought is that old saw: “Don’t bore us, get to the chorus.” It’s the hooks, stupid.

Riding a sumptuous ’90s house beat, “Lovin’ on Me” is Harlow’s first chart-topper in over a year and a half—since “First Class,” which I covered in this Slate No. 1 hits series, rang the bell in April 2022. In the intervening 19 months, the curly-haired, flirtatious Louisville native has clocked several milestones in his quest to become a hybrid Internet boyfriend–slash–new Eminem: appearing on Saturday Night Live as both host and musical guest, dropping two albums, and even starring in a cinematic reboot of the 1992 Wesley Snipes–Woody Harrelson basketball comedy White Men Can’t Jump. The problem for Harlow is that none of these career moves was an unqualified success. Both ratings and reviews for his SNL double-duty episode were so-so. The movie, which premiered on Hulu six months ago, earned solid viewership but mostly savage coverage of the why-does-this-exist variety, though some critics said Harlow was charismatic enough to be a saving grace.

Perhaps most worrisome, the last two album releases suggested that Jack Harlow was like fetch: No matter how hard the music biz tried, he was never going to happen. After the Fergie-sampling “First Class” not only topped the Hot 100 in the spring of ’22 but debuted at No. 1 with massive streaming numbers, its parent album Come Home the Kids Miss You was naturally expected to open big as well. Reviews were not great, and the LP had bad timing, coming out the same week as a Bad Bunny album that wound up being 2022’s top LP, but none of that would matter if Harlow’s disc opened strong and hung around awhile. Come Home instead debuted at a ho-hum No. 3—even if there’d been no Bad Bunny album, Harlow would not have opened on top—and it was out of the album chart’s Top 10 after a month. It also spun off no followup hits after “First Class.” One year later, in a deliberate word-to-the-streets reset, Harlow dropped a followup, Jackman, that felt more like a rap mixtape, with a washed-out cover photo of a shirtless Jack chilling in a broke-ass Louisville alleyway. Jackman debuted at No. 8 in May 2023 and was off the Billboard 200 entirely in three weeks. Given that it lacked a pop crossover track, its modest commercial performance may have been semi-intentional.

What this mixed picture did not suggest, at all, was that Missionary Jack would come back with a super-pop-friendly track in the fall of ’23, see it debut on the Hot 100 at No. 2, and, one week later, oust Taylor Swift’s “Cruel Summer” from the No. 1 spot. “Lovin’” clearly has traction, not only connecting with Jack superfans (the Harlots? I’m just riffing here…) but more casual listeners. In its second week, the song’s radio audience jumped by more than 70 percent, Billboard reports, while its already-strong streams also grew modestly. For the song to grow at all is remarkable—unlike the typical hit by Drake (to whom Harlow is most often compared), the song didn’t launch at No. 1, egged on by the fan army, then plummet. When “Lovin’ on Me” launched at No. 2 last week, I low-key thought it might be a one-week wonder. I was wrong.

There are two bespoke chart patterns “Lovin’ on Me” is emulating, both prior Hot 100 No. 1s: last year’s Sam Smith–Kim Petras megasmash “Unholy,” and Doja Cat’s aforementioned “Paint the Town Red.” Like “Unholy,” “Lovin’” had an auspicious start on TikTok. And like “Paint,” “Lovin’” is a rap joint built out of a big, unmissable sample. However, Harlow’s hit tweaks the approach of both of these antecedents in interesting ways.

As I reported last year when it reached No. 1, “Unholy” arrived prefueled by a wave of TikTok hype. Somewhat unusually, this hype was driven by the artists themselves: An initial video of Smith and Petras jamming to their song in the studio drew millions of views and led to waves of user-generated clips that built anticipation before the single dropped. When it did, “Unholy” debuted on the Hot 100 all the way up at No. 3—notably high for both Smith and Petras—then kept climbing to No. 2 and then No. 1. This consistent early growth was also unorthodox, given current Hot 100 patterns where songs either debut at No. 1 or lurch around the chart. What “Unholy” proved was, for certain TikTok-sparked hits with strong artist visibility, the social audience is a base that can be built upon with more casual listeners; the Smith–Petras hit ultimately spent several months, off and on, within the Top 10. “Lovin’ on Me,” in its opening weeks, seems to be emulating this pattern. The original TikTok was by Jack Harlow himself, and like the Smith–Petras video, it was deceptively simple—Harlow half-rapping a few bars of his new jam, accompanied by a cute puppy.


Uh oh

♬ Lovin On Me – Jack Harlow

This TikTok has been watched more than 25 million times since it appeared about six weeks ago. As is the custom on TikTok—whose interface makes it easy to build a clip out of a commonly shared snippet of a song—it led to a dance challenge, focused on the song’s catchiest couple of bars.

This snippet wouldn’t have gone viral if it weren’t so oddly infectious—which is saying something, because on the page, the lyrics are … kinda dicey. There’s a sung sample (more on that in a moment): “I don’t like no whips and chains, and you can’t tie me down/ But you can whip your lovin’ on me, baby … ” This is followed directly by Harlow’s first few rhymes: “I’m vanilla, baby/ I’ll choke you, but I ain’t no killer, baby/ She 28, telling me I’m still a baby.” Is this song an ode to … light bondage? Erotic asphyxiation? (And you thought “Unholy” was freaky.) A dozen years after Rihanna and Britney Spears hit No. 1 singing about S&M, such allusions are less transgressive than they used to be. And anyway Harlow is notorious for lacing his rhymes with playful sexual braggadocio (e.g., on Lil Nas X’s 2021 No. 1 hit “Industry Baby,” Harlow’s featured rap includes the groan-worthy, “I sent her back to her boyfriend with my handprint on her ass cheek”). Honestly? For “Lovin’ on Me,” Jack was probably just finding catchy rhymes, and I choose to believe the segment went viral because those rhymes are irresistibly syncopated, and the sample is legit.

About that sample: It’s a sped-up snippet of “Whatever (Bass Solique),” a 1995 New Jack–era club track from Detroit R&B singer Cadillac Dale (born Delbert Greer). Dale never quite had a major hit, and “Whatever” was, at best, a regional success and a crate-digger’s track. In the case of Harlow’s new hit, the digger was Turkish-Swiss producer Ozan “Oz” Yildirim, who’d already helmed chart-toppers for Travis Scott and Drake. Oz cross-bred Dale’s freaky line about whips and chains with a beat reminiscent of Drake’s 2011 hit “The Motto” (whence came the acronym catchphrase “YOLO”). According to the Detroit News, the sample of “Whatever” on Harlow’s hit has changed the 56-year-old Greer’s life overnight.

Despite never being a big hit in the first place, the “Whatever” hook has the benefit of sounding familiar almost immediately—critics have compared it to vintage club music or old-school rap circa Too $hort—which gives it something in common with Doja Cat’s latest. “Lovin’ on Me” is mining the past just as much as “Paint the Town Red” is; it’s just that, for Harlow, R&B history came in the form of an obscure ’90s track, not a ’60s Dionne Warwick classic. Both Doja and Harlow have made headlines recently trying to reset their pop-oriented careers back toward rap. But in each case, the artist’s gravitational pull toward infectious melodic hooks makes their bars-dropping palatable for pop audiences. Each rapper may project toughness, but the music gives gloss.

For all the success of “Lovin’ on Me,” pundits are wrestling with what this No. 1 smash does for Jack Harlow’s career. Does it confirm that—in industry parlance—he is more of a singles artist than an albums artist? Will all his hits be one-offs while all his long-players are short-lived? I think it’s too soon to say. Even Harlow’s doubters admit the dude can flow, and if enough of the singles are bangers, the career glow will follow. People forget this, but for the first seven years of Rihanna’s career, she lacked a No. 1 album (her seventh, 2012’s Unapologetic, finally did the trick), and her early CDs tended to blend in with each other. (I still have trouble remembering which of her pop smashes came from Rated R, Loud, and Talk That Talk.) Mind you, I wouldn’t say Jack Harlow has recorded anything as great as “Umbrella,” “Disturbia,” or “We Found Love” yet. For that matter, he isn’t yet the automatic chart-topper Drake, his career model, is—and it took Drake a similarly long time to top the Hot 100 on his own. Jack Harlow is already a charmer and now, a three-time Hot 100–topper. Let’s give your boy time to figure out who he wants to be.

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