On April 28 2023 Louisville Kentucky rapper Jack Harlow released his surprise album Jackman, this album had no promotion, no lead singles and a photo of Jack shirtless on the cover in front of garbage cans and a basketball net. The album contains 10 songs and they’re mostly straight introspective braggadocious vulnerable rapping. The project was released after his previous album Come Home The Kids Miss You, which despite being commercially successful, was critically panned by fans and critics alike and was seen as a mediocre pop rap exhibition and an attempt at sounding like Drake.
Jackman was Jack Harlow proving to the world that he really is a rappers rapper and that he wants the crown of best rapper just like all the greats that came before him from Eminem to Drake to Nas, Jay, Big and Pac, this project was created to show that he cared about hip hop and emceeing and as someone who was never really a fan of Jack Harlow, I thoroughly enjoyed the project. Jack Harlow is someone who grew up rapping on the internet and It’s clear that he really loves rap and he’s actually really good at it.
The line on the album that generated the most controversy was Harlow saying he was “The hardest White boy since the one who rapped about vomit and sweaters” referring to Eminem. This line received a response from another White rapper in MGK who dissed him by saying he stole Drakes style and that he was not the best white rapper at all, this created a lively debate online about who the best white rappers of all time are, and names ranging from Mac Miller, Action Bronson, Paul Wall, and John Cena all came up with many unanimously agreeing that Eminem is the greatest white rapper of all time.
This is where the conversation gets interesting because it begs the question, why did Jack Harlow feel the need to make the distinction? Why didn’t he just claim to be the best rapper? Are white rappers different to other rappers? Are all white rappers inherently wack simply because they’re white?
I have been an Eminem fan my whole life because I’ve always been a fan of rap, and as a little kid Eminem was the biggest rapper in the world. I sang smack that for show and tell in 3rd grade, some of the first music videos I remember watching were My Name Is, Without Me and Lose Yourself. As I got older my friends put me on to songs like When I’m Gone, Toy Soldier, Stan and Mockingbird and I was truly in awe of Eminem. I remember being in the 6th grade when Not Afraid came out and despite not being a rehabilitating drug addict, the lyrics and the song resonated with me in a way few songs ever had up to that point and that’s when Eminem really became one of my favourite rappers. Kanye has always been my favourite artist but for years Eminem was my favourite rapper. I watched 8 mile, I listened to every unreleased verse, I even bumped relapse.
As a black kid i grew up arguing with everyone I know from siblings to friends about why I think Eminem is dope because a lot of black people really don’t like Eminem. Past just being a white rapper, which many black people feel is enough reason to not listen to him, a lot of Eminem’s most popular content is unrelatable to black people, he talks about fantasizing about killing his mom, taking drugs like lsd and suicidal ideation. Even though I didn’t grow up in a trailer park, as a suburban kid I related to a lot of Eminem’s angst, his imagination in his lyricism was insane and because I too used comedy as a coping mechanism, Eminem instantly made sense to me and was my favourite rapper, I didn’t even view him as a “white rapper” when I was a kid, he was just Eminem the guy that bodied Jay Z on renegade & Kanye, Lil Wayne and Drake on Forever, in my 9 year old opinion.
As I got older, rap started to play a different role in my life. As a teenager I started listening to J Cole and Kendrick Lamar because their lyrics mirrored what I saw as wrong in the world, I was attracted to their socially conscious lyricism and that’s when they became my favourite rappers, but Eminem was always in my top 5. I always viewed Eminem as an elite lyricist, and I would even put him, Cole and Kendrick on the same list, if you had asked 14 year old me about Trinidad James, Gucci Mane, or Waka Flocka, I would have probably told you that was music for stupid people.
The older I got, the more I got into trap music, and street rap. Growing up in Toronto, I was in high school with rappers and people in the streets, I started partying and that was the music that would be playing and it exposed me to a whole other side of what this culture really was. After seeing what hip hop really was, my entire opinion on Eminem, and what rap is changed.
What kid me didn’t realize is that hip hop isn’t about who has the best verse, it’s not about who has the best flow, or beats, it’s not about who’s the best wordsmith, it’s not about who created the coolest dances, had wittiest punchlines, or wore the nicest clothes, it’s literally about making poor black kids money, and keeping them out of the streets, at its most fundamental level, the way they originally achieved that is through a block party that featured breaking, djing, emceeing and graffiti, but the main goal was to get some bread, stay out of the streets and have some fun. Then it becomes about music, lyricism, and art, it became a social movement, a spiritual movement, but it’s not just about who can rhyme words the best, and that’s something I didn’t really understand as a kid.
I used to think Eminem washed Jay Z on renegade because Nas said it and because Eminem’s flow and content on the song was cooler to me as an angsty suburban kid, also Eminem made the beat, as an adult black male I listen to Jay Zs verse and recognize that’s some of the realest shit I ever heard and that’s why Jay Z is one of the best rappers ever. Jay Z successfully made it out of the streets and transitioned into a billionaire entrepreneur by using hip hop, and then he used his lyrics to tell people about how he made it out of his struggles and how they to could make it out, while creating hits for everyone to party and dance to, and employing various people around him.
There is a difference between white rappers and black rappers, and it’s not just a socioeconomic factor like the movie 8 Mile tried to depict, it’s a cultural difference. Eminem is one of the greatest white rappers ever because he ingratiated himself in the culture, he mastered the mannerisms and fundamentals and he made the genre his own, a lot like the beastie boys, a lot like Vanilla Ice, a lot like Jack Harlow. White kids have always been the largest consumers of hip hop, and they probably love it the most, there’s black kids right now who can’t name 5 albums from the 90s but they’re automatically hip hop whether they want to be or not simply because it’s cultural, it’s unavoidable, as opposed to someone like Eminem that has listened to every classic album ever, studied all of the greats and wanted to emulate them, which is extremely admirable, but it’s also why he has to be classified as the greatest white rapper ever, and he can never really be the greatest rapper ever.
Playboi Carti is fundamentally a better rapper than Eminem. Eminem fans will try to kill me for this but Em will probably agree. Playboi Carti isn’t as wordy as Eminem, but he is the epitome of hip hop, he also happens to make incredible music with lyrics that are true and relatable to the demographic creating hip hop more than the demographic consuming hip hop. This isn’t to say street rappers are the only people eligible to be the best rappers, even though that does play a part in it because hip hop was funded, sponsored, endorsed, manufactured, shipped, and consumed thanks to street money and gangsters trying to clean up their money.
A lot of the “fuck mumble rap” crowd that happen to intersect with the Eminem fanbase seems to think that because Eminem can rhyme words together and rap really fast, that he’s inherently deeper than someone like Carti, but if you listen to albums like Self Titled where, aside from having the greatest musical production in the modern day, Carti talks about money, hoes, clothes, guns and blunt smoke coming out the nose, every single one of those things can seem vain, materialistic and stupid to the untrained eye but everything that has been happening in Atlanta over the past few years is proof of why there’s a difference between black rappers and white rappers and why a white rapper can never be the greatest rapper ever.
All of my favourite rappers are dead or in jail because of the life they were trying to escape through hip hop, the pieces, the clothes, the jewelry, the flexing, that’s a true tale of Glory and Sin, they’re representations of freedom, in a world of concrete designed to break you, you’ve blossomed and grown through the cracks, Carti is shining despite what the world wants from him and thats legitimately deep. Rappers are more than just musicians when you get down to it, the way black kids looked at Tupac, the way they looked at 50 Cent, the way we look at Jay Z, Lauryn Hill, NBA Youngboy, The Migos, Meek Mill, Gucci Mane or Lil Boosie, these people are superheroes, they’re our cowboy stories, our gunslingers who said fuck the oppressive system, talked their shit, wore fly clothes, and still succeeded while waving a middle finger to society, and some died in the process of living this dream.
People like Biggie Smalls, Tupac Shakur, Juice Wrld, XXXTentacion and Pop Smoke literally lost their lives just trying to live this life. Eminem is expected to succeed, and he did, and that’s just not as interesting or inspirational, and that’s the case for the white rapper which is why we only accept a few every decade, and they really have to know their shit, and respect the culture if they plan to stay, it’s way harder for white rappers to be accepted by the hip hop demographic, but it’s very easy for them to blow up and go mainstream as seen with Post Malone, G Eazy, Iggy Azalea and various other people who rose to pop stardom through hip hop. People like Jack Harlow, Action Bronson, & Eminem, are people who have studied the culture, love it, and can probably rap better than a lot of people if you’re talking word count, they’re probably a superhero to their fans, but they’re not the hip hop superhero, and they never can be.
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