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Billboard’s Greatest Pop Stars of 2022: No. 8 — Jack Harlow

todayDecember 13, 2022

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For this year’s update of our ongoing Greatest Pop Star by Year project, Billboard is counting down our staff picks for the top 10 pop stars of 2022 all this week. At No. 8, we remember the year in Jack Harlow — who built on the momentum of his previous couple years and made the leap to full-on pop stardom.


Jack Harlow possesses a disarming self-awareness of his charm, his moment, and his detractors. In his 2020 single “Rendezvous,” the Kentucky rapper unloads on the idea that he hadn’t earned his status: “Kills me when they act like this was overnight/ Like we didn’t do a tour in a tiny van.” The couplet documented life in the short time after the release of “What’s Poppin,” his breakout single that helped propel him into the mainstream consciousness. It basks in stark contrast to an epiphany buried in his “First Class” line, “They say, ‘You a superstar now,’ damn, I guess I am.” Two years after the release of his debut album, That’s What They All Say, Harlow is an undisputed commercial hip-hop force, dictating when and where lightning struck in 2022. 

Billboard’s Greatest Pop Stars of 2022:
Introduction & Honorable Mentions | Rookie of the Year: Steve Lacy | Comeback of the Year: Sam Smith | No. 10: Nicki Minaj | No. 9: Future

In January, Harlow captioned an Instagram post, “More inspired than I’ve ever been…never had a better pen…never felt truly understood until now….I knew I was a star but I finally got the evidence.” As this year unfolded, it became increasingly clear that the crux of Harlow’s star power isn’t how brightly he beams but his inclination to remain part of a constellation. He clocked his first career No. 1 on Billboard’s Hot 100 chart in October 2021 alongside Lil Nas X for “Industry Baby,” simultaneously nominated for a Grammy and targeted by homophobes. Harlow promptly shot down any notion that he shouldn’t have aligned with an LGBTQ+ artist: Black members of the hip-hop community warmly welcomed him, a white rapper whose fan base is shouldered by Black women, so it was unsurprising to see him wear a Lil Nas X graphic tee to June’s BET Awards to protest his friend’s snub.

February netted Harlow a deal with New Balance, a start in the NBA Celebrity All-Star Game, and the release of “Nail Tech,” his first solo drop since That’s What They All Say. The ostentatious single earned praise from Kanye West, a childhood idol of Harlow’s, and found Harlow again venting about his inbetween position in the first verse, “I love music and stress ‘bout it,” and second, “I’m not on top of this s–t yet, but I’m that guy, though.” The single wasn’t as sticky as the quotable lyrics and TikTok tease promised, however. “Nail Tech” spent one week on the Hot 100 at No. 18, and it was something of a distant memory by the end of March. 

Harlow was cast in the remake of White Men Can’t Jump, ambitiously tackling Woody Harrelson’s iconic 1992 role as his film-acting debut – but “First Class” will be remembered as his leading man turn. The TikTok snippet racked up 69.2 million views, the first rock in an avalanche that ended with “First Class” debuting at No. 1 on the Hot 100 chart dated April 23 with the biggest streaming week of the year (54.6 million total). The lavish earworm’s backbone is the sampling of Fergie’s 2007 No. 1 smash “Glamorous” featuring Ludacris. Harlow, as he told Jimmy Fallon while co-hosting The Tonight Show in October, went from wanting to perform “Fergalicious” for his fifth-grade talent show to performing “First Class” with Fergie to open August’s 2022 MTV VMAs, which he also co-hosted with LL Cool J and Nicki Minaj.

Suddenly, it felt as if Harlow had been around forever, but there were endearing reminders that the spotlight was new to him. To start May, he ended a red carpet interview with Emma Chamberlain at May’s Met Gala by awkwardly saying, “Love ya!” Come Home The Kids Miss You was given a lukewarm reception by critics struggling to put a finger on Harlow’s identity. Arguably, the 15-track sophomore offering serves as a transparent portrait of Harlow as he works through that very question.

Come Home made up for that by yielding three 2023 Grammys nominations: best melodic rap performance (“First Class”), best rap song (“Churchill Downs” featuring Drake) and best rap album. This album’s (or any album’s) quantifiable success is not Harlow’s end game, though: As he expressed in his Rolling Stone April cover story, which announced Come Home The Kids Miss You’s impending May 6 arrival, he’s in it to become the best. He even quit drinking to ensure unobstructed clarity as he traded his real estate on the fringes of the mainstream for inescapable fame. Hits didn’t come beyond “First Class” this album cycle, but Harlow bolstered his foundation for the long game.

The rapper also earned co-signs from his formative heroes, such as Justin Timberlake, Lil Wayne, and Pharrell and Drake, via guest appearances on the Come Home tracklist. In particular, Harlow has proved himself Drake’s heir apparent as rap’s resident flirt – an idea illustrated by adoring fans swarming him and Aubrey at the Kentucky Derby, where the “Churchill Downs” video was filmed. Harlow had his whole team in his Churchill Downs box, including his childhood best friend-turned-photographer Urban Wyatt, comedian Druski and sports journalist Taylor Rooks. The aura around “Churchill Downs” solidified him as a main character who doesn’t suffer from main character syndrome. All Harlow ever wanted was to be loved by Louisville and put Kentucky on the map, and it was never more reciprocal than on that May afternoon. 

Harlow looked right at home on every stage he commanded through the back half of the year, tangibly executing his much-quoted “Industry Baby” bar, “I didn’t peak in high school, I’m still out here gettin’ cuter.” He didn’t miss a beat during a surprise performance of “First Class” at the 2022 Billboard Music Awards, and then his Generation Now boss DJ Drama welcomed him to the BET Awards stage to deliver “First Class” with Brandy (as well as Come Home deep cut “Poison” with Lil Wayne) in June. His headlining Come Home The Kids Miss You World Tour kicked off in July, upgrading to arenas from the more intimate 2021 Creme De La Creme Tour. Still, he wasn’t too busy to be there for his Louisville day-one EST Gee’s September single “Backstage Passes” and its Lyrical Lemonade video directed by Cole Bennett, who directed Harlow’s seminal 2020 “Whats Poppin” video.

Harlow’s mainstream glow-up hit its apex when he pulled double duty as host and musical guest on the Oct. 29 episode of Saturday Night Live. His magnetism radiated during a monologue aimed to again reclaim criticisms lobbed his way — comparing his signature curly hair and scraggly beard to Narnia’s Mr. Tumnus and joking about people who “have even gone as far as to accuse me of being white.” The vast exposure afforded him more opportunities to be transparent, and people couldn’t help falling in love with Harlow’s authenticity.

Harlow’s dad, Brian, “built houses with his hands,” and Harlow didn’t skip any steps in building his empire. En route to mastering his craft, he also mastered the art of manifestation: In January 2018, he played to an audience of seven in Madison, Wisconsin; next week, he’ll check off a bucket list item by playing Louisville’s KFC Yum! Center on Dec. 18. He named a Come Home track after Dua Lipa, telling The Breakfast Club he “admired her” then got her permission to release it over FaceTime. Seven months later, the Atlantic labelmates are reportedly romantically linked. Maybe Harlow doesn’t dictate how he captures the zeitgeist anymore – the final step of pop stardom initiation is to find your alleged love life in the tabloids, after all – but he’s never subscribed to outside noise.

The people rooting for the lovable underdog are complemented by the inevitable crowd watching for Harlow’s downfall. The relentless pursuit of power that Harlow detailed to Zane Lowe in May doesn’t figure to be his fatal flaw, because he thrives in sharing the wealth with his people — the day-ones, predecessors and peers. Harlow has always understood his place in hip-hop’s sprawling story, and if 2022 taught us anything, he won’t waste his turn with the pen.

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