Last night during BET’s 106 & Park, XXL released it’s annual "Freshmen Class" list and cover. Since its inception in 2008, the cover has become an equally coveted and controversial sampling of artists the magazine sees as the future of this thing we call hip hop. Notable alums such as Wiz Khalifa, Kendrick Lamar, Kid Cudi and Macklemore (yup) have leapt off the page and into success, fame and thriving career opportunities. Others...not so much. Jumping head first into the subjectivity-laced conversation that #XXLFreshmen14 is, let’s look at the list and judge everyone based on our own personal and deeply biased views.
Chance The Rapper
No surprises here. Having arguably one of the hugest breakout years for an unsigned artist in recent memory, the Chicago native became one of the biggest stories of 2013 with Acid Rap, a lucid, open, and undeniably listenable take on his version of life. The mixtape has garnered him high profile features and tour slots with the largest names in the game, which is why he has openly stated that he would not sign to a major label until the time is right. Dice rolls are working in his favor... for now.
Check: “Everybody’s Something”
Obviously Chicago is going through a renaissance as of late, able to boast four artists on this list that all bring a different slice of the Windy City’s music scene. Though Mensa is closely related to Chance The Rapper, both being part of the Save Money collective, he managed to seamlessly sidestep Chance’s tidal wave and build his own buzz with the release of last fall’sInnanetape. It showcased a wholly unique sense of self and style and, with a developed management team, he has already received the press and tour looks that artists several years in have yet to attain.
Check: “Orange Soda”
Rich Homie Quan
The 24-year-old Atlanta native’s inclusion on the list has me feeling no particular way at all. It’s easy to parlay popularity and a good cosign into a magazine cover, but when it comes down to brass tacks...you need hits. RHQ has, at the very least, 2 certifiable smashes to his credit (His solo breakout single “Some Type Of Way” and the infectious hook for YG’s “My N*--a”) and as he looks to solidify a major label deal, should have some more lined up for the coming summer months.
Check: “Type Of Way”
A cosign will get you absolutely nowhere if you can’t deliver. Ask every rapper ever. A year ago, Isaiah Rashad was just another kid in Chattanooga with a dream and a Notes app full of raps. Today, he is the fifth member of Kendrick Lamar & Co.’s Top Dawg Entertainment to land on the Freshmen cover. His Cilvia Demo proved him a worthy addition to the label’s star-laden roster, but whether or not he will be able to carve his own lane in the crowded highway to mega-tardom remains to be seen.
Check: “I Shot You Down”
Ty Dolla $ign
Again, strictly about the hits. “Paranoid” has been a staple on the radio and club playlists for the better part of the last year, and the L.A. resident’s effortless croon and universal appeal should carry him into the next level of BBQ jam dominance.
Wading thru the sea of dreadlocks, finger-gun-laden posse videos, and menace that has characterized much of the Chicago street music scene as of late is a grand challenge for any YouTube viewer. Breaking out of the scene will likely prove to be a bigger challenge for Durk. He found a great stride and a hit single with “Dis Ain’t What U Want”, and is now trying to find a strong second-wind as he prepares for his Def Jam debut.
Check: “Dis Ain’t What You Want”
Possibly the most encouraging inclusion on this year's list, the Baton Rouge storyteller has a grasp on crafting songs that hit equally as hard in a crowded club as they do on a lonelydrive. His work ethic might be his most impressive trait though, as he’s already released three projects in the last calendar year alone.
In undeniably the toughest market in Hip-Hop, Brooklyn’s Troy Ave has managed to muscle his way onto New York’s heavily scrutinized and guarded mainstream radio playlists with a tireless work ethic and unapologetic level of braggadocio. He is dead set on being the torchbearer for the next era of New York, whether it’s handed to him or not.
Check: “Show Me Love”
One more entry for the 'City of Wind,' Bibby’s style is less derivative of the chant-based, legion-hoarding, sound of the drill music that was at the forefront of Chicaho resurgence. His sound is much more defined in a direct, gun-to-your-neck, sense of urgency that he manages to ride with a quiet confidence that suggests he may very well be the one holding it.
Check: “For The Low”
Flint, Michigan is no place for the weak. Jon Connor’s blue collar approach has only helped increase his presence and output since he first stepped onto the scene nearly a decade ago. His six releases over the last two years were enough to garner the attention and confidence of this little-known producer named Dr. Dre, who signed Connor to a deal with the storied Aftermath imprint last year. Good sign of the possibilities, as Dre’s track record with Michigan artists also included another little know- artist named Eminem. Maybe there’s something there.
Check: “Judge And Jury”
There’s a “Who?” every year on the Freshmen List. Jarren Benton, who was selected as XXL’s ‘The 10th Spot’---given to an artist based on fan support and votes----can confidently raise his flag on that hill. Benton’s Funk Volume record label, has managed to find success garnering a devoted (and quietly massive) following by strategic touring and social media planning. The independent label also boasts two previous XXL Freshmen graduates, Dizzy Wright & Hopsin.
Check: “Gimme The Loot”
Traditionally, the controversies surrounding XXL’s Freshmen selections are rooted in the ability and popularity of the finalists. This year’s most discussed inclusion is Louisiana’s August Alsina, who’s addition to the list hasn’t been objected due to his lack of ability and popularity, but more so his lack of, well...rapping. To be fair, Rich Homie Quan and Ty Dolla $ign, also imply that XXL made a conscious decision to include R&B (and its many iterations) into the fold. Maybe it’s a sign of the blurred lines that are further defining the genre’s boundaries. Maybe his label, Def Jam, is just doing a great job helping him promote his album, Testimony. Or maybe, just maybe, we all are taking these rap lists way too seriously.
Check: “I Luv This Sh*T”
Ugi Ugwuomo is a music and culture writer based in Brooklyn, NY. You can follow him on Twitter @rLfNowhere. No, he won’t listen to your demo. Sike, yes he will.