Music, Trends

Jack Harlow, TikTok, and the App to Rap pipeline

It’s not as happenstance as you think.

words by: Kayla Carmicheal
Apr 2, 2022

Doesn’t it seem like Jack Harlow came out of nowhere, and now he’s everywhere? Like, in the last two years alone, he’s climbed to No. 2 on Billboard’s (Billboard!) Hot 100, collaborated with Lil Nas X, landed an XXL Freshman Class spot, Forbes 30 Under 30, Variety dubbed him “Hitmaker of the Year,” and “Jack Harlow Day” is a thing in Louisville, KY. The success really makes you shake your head and think, “That’s the power of TikTok.”


But seriously, how did this happen so fast? And isn’t it interesting how many Gen Z stars are made overnight with the app?


To Harlow’s credit, he was rapping before he made waves on the app for being a little redhead with bars. But I find it compelling just how fast it happened. And it makes me wonder how.


A masterclass in going viral

Always wanting to become a rap star—and quickly—Harlow originally opted for the Soundcloud route as a teen. You may recall of a time when teens took to Soundcloud when it came to finding new rap juggernauts. For example, Chance The Rapper, Tyler, The Creator, Odd Future, Juice WRLD, and so many more started on Soundcloud.


So for Harlow, it was a no-brainer that was where to go to become viral. Armed with a Guitar Hero mic and Garage Band-esque audio software, he got to work. A few years later, after being gifted an actual mic, and with a little bit more internet savviness, he really hit the ground running.


Harlow wasn’t just on the orange cloud app. He was also on YouTube—and found major success. In 2017, he earned millions of views with “Dark Knight,” catching industry eyes. A deal from a subsidiary of Atlantic (Lil Uzi Vert, Lil James) soon followed.



What’s interesting about my generation, Gen Z, is that we know the only way to get anywhere so fast is to go viral. And we’re good at it—the internet raised us. Perfect example is Harlow. He knew he needed virtual hits from the jump if he wanted to stand out. Social media first, music second. “I knew what could go viral, and I knew what had to happen to build an audience because I saw other artists blow up,” he said.


So with a building audience and burgeoning internet fame? He was going places. Places like Forecastle, Bonnaroo, and SXSW. Keep in mind—this was all before TikTok.


If nothing else, it makes a little more sense that “What’s Poppin'” gained the traction it did on the clock app. (Over 30 million views). Harlow already had the experience of performing and the knowledge of how to market himself on the internet—run by his generation. And at this point, what we say, goes.


The Harlow Appeal

So let’s talk about his appearance, the other part of being a viral rapper.


If I had to guess, I’d say a lot of his fans see themselves, or who they want to be, in him. He’s conventionally good-looking. He has swag, says the right things, is accepted by peers. Unlike Post Malone, he looks like he bathes. And, let’s face it, white dudes in hip-hop are naturally going to be looked at with a softer eye by the public (and a more critical eye in the game). But ultimately, he’s a white guy who passed the vibe check.


I wouldn’t be surprised if by next year, he’s in a movie about life in Kentucky and becoming a rapper.


I’m not going to pretend like I’m listening to Harlow’s discography, but I can see the appeal. And it’s no secret that TikTok’s algorithm favors people of a certain skin tone. So I don’t think he’s the last rapper (who looks like him) to come from the app. I mean, how many Soundcloud rappers popped off before tragedy and over-saturation toppled that pipeline?


Like I said: We’re good at this. But accessibility to fame is a double-edged sword. Young people right now are seeing rappers like Harlow and think “If they could, I can.” And I think that’s wonderful. Because people with real talent, but little resources, can change their lives.


But we need to realize how young these teens are, how little is known about the industry, and how these factors can lead to exploitation or tragedy. I wish I had all the answers, but the suits have the power. And we know what they’re like when it comes to money. As for Harlow, I’m glad he figured out his niche.


An example of artist exploitation? Spotify. And since the Grammy’s are tomorrow, here’s a list of legends who’ve never won a Grammy.


Don’t forget to look for Harlow at Life Is Beautiful festival later this year.


Photo via Michele Eve Sandberg/Miami New Times