When Jack Harlow asks if there are any real Jack Harlow fans in attendance for his performance here at The Track at New Balance, a giant new multisport facility and event space in the sneaker brand’s native Boston, it feels a bit like a rhetorical question. Harlow, a tall man of charming Kentucky drawl and cherub curls, gets his response anyway. The crowd cheers, weaving along with him through the deeper cuts and leaning in as close as they can for the hits from the setlist.

He has more fans on the perimeter of the venue, where footwear execs watch the show, Harlow still looking huge at that remove thanks to a set of jumbo screens broadcasting the concert from high on the walls.

It’s easy to interpret this phase in the rapper’s career as a leveling up, between the brand deal with New Balance, the recent Donda 2 feature, and his upcoming sophomore album, Come Home the Kids Miss You. But Harlow believes any perceived shift is more external than internal.

“Maybe in the eyes of people,” Harlow says when asked whether he’s reached a new plateau in recent months. “There’s just been some confirmation, some validating moments. I’ve seen it for myself. Now I think people are like, ‘Maybe he’s for real.’”

Beyond the packed bleachers of screaming fans at this brand event, there is plenty of evidence that Harlow is, in fact, for real. It’s there, across the street, at New Balance headquarters, where he recently signed a deal; it’s out in Hollywood, where he’s landed a leading role in the reboot of White Men Can’t Jump; and it’s on the Billboard chart that he’s currently topping with “First Class.”

He and his team felt that song was going to be special, but didn’t anticipate it setting records like it did. The Fergie-sampling “First Class” has given him his first Hot 100 No. 1 as a solo artist and also a different outlook on dropping snippets before letting full songs go—something he was previously averse to.

“I just like the element of surprise,” Harlow says. “I like for people to feel it the first time it comes out. I don’t want people to have any idea what it’s going to sound like.”

The rapper has not completely abandoned that inclination to keep work guarded until it’s ready for the world. When discussing New Balance, he offers no hints in terms of a possible Jack Harlow sneaker collaboration and asks that mention of another project he has coming with the brand be kept off the record. He’s loyal to the brand, wearing New Balance 550s while being showered with slime on Nickelodeon, donning the same shoe on the cover of his upcoming album, and putting on a 990V5 for his Steve Jobs cosplay in the “Nail Tech” video.

Large play button icon

Before his show, we talk in a suite above the indoor track while a soundcheck in the background threatens to keep the whole interview off the record, the blaring Drake tunes bouncing around the facility rendering regular conversation not so fluent. He’s affable, but there’s a sense that he’s conserving his energy for the concert ahead. Still, Harlow shares what he can on his relationship with New Balance, his newly established connection with its biggest endorser in the NBA, and more.

We followed up that conversation from last Wednesday’s event with another brief one over email; the two have been spliced together here and edited down a bit for length and clarity.

It seems like a good time to be Jack Harlow.
Yeah, it is. I’m enjoying life.

Do you feel like things changed in the past couple of months for you? In terms of trajectory and your career, where you’re at?
Maybe in the eyes of people. There’s just been some confirmation. Some validating moments.

Stuff you’ve been working out for a long time and now the public realizes?
Yeah. I’ve seen it for myself. Now I think people are like, “Hm, maybe he’s for real.”

It seems like you have a lot more things going on though, too. Especially with the New Balance deal. You’ve been involved with New Balance for a few years now, but now you’re officially signed to them. How did that change?
I think they probably could feel my energy going up. I’ve been wearing New Balances since I was in high school, since I was young. A lot of people weren’t rocking them when I was in high school, at least in Kentucky. And so I was just trying to set myself apart and be different. And so I put them on, and it became something I identify with, and people could see on me and they knew that’s what he rocks. And now it’s become even bigger. It’s official now.

Rapper Jack Harlow with New Balance CMO and SVP of merchandising Chris Davis at the opening of the New Balance Track in Boston
Harlow with New Balance CMO and SVP of merchandising Chris Davis. Image via BFA

Do you feel like there’s a responsibility now that you’re officially signed to the brand? Are you doing your homework in terms of learning more, the history of certain sneaker silhouettes, and things like that?
Yeah, it’s coming natural, though. Just getting more informed as I learn. And I meet with the brand and find out how things were done, how things were put together. I just naturally get informed. It’s nice.

New Balance has factories for assembling sneakers here in the US. Have you gotten a chance to visit those facilities and see how the shoes are put together?
I’ve been to the headquarters a couple times but I’m looking forward to visiting the facility and seeing how those beautiful shoes get put together.

Does Jack Harlow bring a lot of sneakers on tour? How many wears for a single pair do you put in before moving on to the next one?
I used to rock my sneakers til they were beat to death. But now I see a couple blemishes and donate them hoes to Goodwill, then tell the plug it’s time for another round.

Have you noticed your fans starting to wear New Balances because of you? Do you look out into an audience and pay attention to that?
I definitely would say a massive yes to both of those questions. It’s definitely not the same as it was in 2017.

Have you seen New Balance have a resurgence in Kentucky specifically now that you’re putting on for it? Or is that something that you haven’t been able to notice just yet?
Yeah, I think so. Just from the young kids probably seeing me in it, maybe they’re putting it on more. But in general, I’m just seeing New Balance surge. It’s not what it was four or five years ago. When I used to wear, people thought it was ironic.

Jack Harlow wearing New Balance 550
Harlow wore the New Balance 550 for his performance. Image via BFA

I feel like you’ve got a big opportunity too on the sneaker tip to do something with New Balance when it comes to White Men Can’t Jump, because that’s such a sneaker movie. There’s so much sneaker history connected to that. So when you come back with that, if you have the right shoes on, that’s a moment.
We’ll see what they allow. It’s hard to say. You know there’s technical stuff in there, but that’s what I would like to have happen.

How was the audition for that?
A breeze. But I prepared. I care a lot about it.

Are you nervous about that, though? Because it seems like a totally different skill set from rapping and being onstage.
I’ve been putting a lot of work in, making sure I’m prepared when I get there. It’s not something I think I’m going to just fall into and do perfectly. I’m really focused.

You’re a student of the school of Woody Harrelson? Natural Born Killers?
I like Woody.

When you come here to the New Balance headquarters, are you paying attention to what’s coming out a year, 18 months down the line? Are you asking to see what’s going on with that?
Yeah, I’m curious about the future. And they’re cluing me in, so I don’t have to ask. They show me, but I like to know what’s coming down the pipeline.

Jack Harlow and Storm Reid pose at the opening of The Track at New Balance
Harlow and fellow New Balance ambassador Storm Reid. Image via BFA

What else do you like to do here in Boston?
I hear the shopping is elite, and I’m a Celtics fan. So I’d like to catch a Celtics game.

How did you turn into a Celtics fan?
KG, Garnett. I like Garnett.

What about Kawhi?
He’s the shit. I met him for the first time the other day.

Did you guys talk basketball, sneakers?
Just talked life. I was curious about what his life’s like. He was curious about mine. Told him about the movie I’m preparing for. He told me I need to get my layup package together because it’s ass.

You getting some pointers from Kawhi for White Men Can’t Jump?
I think so. He’s chill as hell. He’s cool as hell. Super cool.

Is that legitimately going to be part of your preparation for the movie? Basketball drills and stuff like that?
Definitely. I got to sharpen up. My left hand for sure.

There are a lot of moments recently that feel like they’ll be milestones when you look back on them—meeting Kawhi, that album cover shoot for Come Home the Kids Miss You. Do you keep the sneakers from those times as mementos?
There are definitely several pairs I attach to big moments in my life and plan to have forever. Hopefully my daughters have the same shoe size as me.