Recapping Past XXL Freshman Classes + Our 2018 Predictions
By: Jalen Nash
Like the cyphers from the BET hip hop awards or a new summertime hit from Drake, the XXL Freshman Cover has become something that ignites our hip-hop culture every year. Since 2007, panelists at XXL have annually selected the best new “freshman” artists in rap game. Some of these artists, like J. Cole, Kendrick Lamar and Big Sean, have proven to be hits. Others (mentioned below) failed to meet up to expectations.
With hindsight being 20/20, we will take a trip in the time machine and re-cover each XXL Magazine Freshman cover.
2007: Saigon, Plies, Rich Boy, Gorilla Zoe, Joel Ortiz, Lupe Fiasco, Lil Boosie, Crooked I, Papoose, and Young Dro.
2007 was an important year for rap music. Looking back at some of the successful albums from that year- Kingdom Come (Jay-Z), Graduation (Kanye West), The Cool (Lupe Fiasco), T.I vs T.I.P (T.I.), Finding Forever (Common) and Like Father Like Son (Lil Wayne and Birdman), you see tremendous diversity going on within the genre, musically, regionally and lyrically. This freshman class did not do a great job of reflecting this diversity. While the rappers on this list come from different regions, with the exception of Lupe Fiasco, they all carry a similar persona of the street, hustling, tough-guy rapper. Plies, Joel Ortiz, Lil Boosie, Crooked I, Papoose and Young Dro each had successful rap careers but their crossover success was limited by their style and image.
If I were to re-choose the artists on the 2007 XXL Freshman cover, I would keep Lupe Fiasco, Lil Boosie, Papoose, Young Dro, Plies, Papoose, Joel Ortiz and Crooked I. Rich Boy, Saigon and Gorilla Zoe are on the chopping block. They’ll be replaced by Soulja Boy, DJ Khaled and Tyga.
2009: Wale, B.o.B, Charles Hamilton, Asher Roth, Cory Gunz, Blu, Mickey Factz, Ace Hood, Curren$y, and Kid Cudi.
2009 marked the year hip hop began pushing its way into mainstream popular culture. Songs like Heartless (Kanye West), Dead and Gone (T.I.), Best I Ever Had (Drake), Empire State of Mind (Jay Z) and Boom Boom Pow (Black Eyed Peas), shot to the top of not only the rap charts, but the pop charts too! This year’s freshman list attempted to reflect this trend by featuring crossover artists like B.O.B., Kid Cudi, Wale and Asher Roth. Outside of these three rappers, however, with the exception of Curren$y, Ace Hood and maybe Cory Gunz (shout out to Lil Wayne), none of the other artists on this list managed to make any notable impact with their music.
If I were to re-select the artists on the 2007 XXL Freshman cover, I would keep B.O.B., Wale, Kid Cudi, Ace Hood and Curren$y. I would take off Charles Hamilton, Blu, Mickey Factz, Asher Roth and Cory Gunz. While Asher Roth and Cory Gunz did achieve some level of success, they surely did not live up to the expectations set by the labels, the fans or themselves. I would replace these four with Drake, Nicki Minaj, Waka Floka Flame and Rick Ross.
2010: J. Cole, Pill, Nipsey Hussle, Freddie Gibbs, Big Sean, Wiz Khalifa, OJ da Juiceman, Jay Rock, Fashawn, and Donnis.
Musically, rap music in 2010 was a continuation of 2009. Led by superstar artists like Kanye, Eminem, Lil Wayne and Ludacris, this year made even further inroads towards reaching mainstream pop culture status. Aiding this process was the emergence of Drake as a pop/r&b/rap superstar. Unlike the 2009 list, the 2010 XXL Freshman cover did not feature “crossover” artists like B.O.B. and Asher Roth, instead it featured more lyrical and relatable rappers like J. Cole, Nipsey Hussle, Freddie Gibbs, Big Sean, Wiz Khalifa and Jay Rock, who rapped about everyday things like the grind to be successful, chasing the girl of your dreams and smoking weed. Their lyrics were genuine and honest, traits their fans love them for.
If I could re-pick this class, I would keep J. Cole, Nipsey Hussle, Big Sean, Wiz Khalifa, OJ da Juiceman, Jay Rock and Freddie Gibbs. J. Cole is the best rapper out right now. Wiz Khalifa had a respectable and influential career. Big Sean has one of the coldest flows in the game. Jay Rock, Freddie Gibbs and Nipsey Hussle have all lasted for over five years, and still make good music today. Before writing this I had never heard of Pill, Fashawn or Donnis. That said, these three would be replaced with the Weeknd, Yo Gotti and Bruno Mars.
2011: Meek Mill, Big K.R.I.T., Cyhi the Prynce, Lil Twist, Yelawolf, Fred the Godson, Mac Miller, YG, Lil B, Kendrick Lamar, and Diggy Simmons.
2011 was the year that the rappers we now consider at the top of the game started gaining recognition. Projects like Section 80 (Kendrick Lamar), Finally Famous (Big Sean), Sideline Story (J. Cole), Take Care (Drake) and Watch the Balloons (The Weeknd) all dropped to critical acclaim. Freshman artists like Meek Mill, Big K.R.I.T. and YG began to bubble regionally, cultivating a massive following in their home cities. Mac Miller saw a lot of success this year, a lot of it stemming from his hit songs/music videos on YouTube. Lyrical artists like Cyhi the Prince and Yelawolf became more popular as they affiliated themselves with rap legends Kanye West and Eminem (respectively). Lil B and Diggy Simmons are two artists on this list whose fame surpassed their musical catalog, as time progressed they became more-so celebrities than serious recording artists. Nonetheless, these artists all proved they had talent and could survive in the music industry.
Redrafting this list I would keep Meek Mill, Big K.R.I.T., Cyhi the Prince, Mac Miller, YG, Lil B, Diggy Simmons and Yelawolf. I would replace Lil Twist and Fred the Godson. Lil Twist was the youngster on Young Money who never really caught on, and outside of a freestyle with Funk Flex, I have never heard Fred the Godson rap. These two will be replaced with Frank Ocean and Jay Electronica.
2012: Future, Kid Ink, Danny Brown, French Montana, Macklemore, Don Trip, Machine Gun Kelly, Hopsin, Iggy Azalea, and Roscoe Dash.
The leaders of this class were Kendrick Lamar, Iggy Azalea and Macklemore. While Kendrick claimed the status of one of the best rappers in the game this year, Macklemore also cruised up the music charts with his hit songs, “Thrift Shop” and “Can’t Hold Us”. Macklemore sold so many records (over 1 million) that he controversially won a Grammy for best rap album of the year OVER Kendrick Lamar… smh. In 2012 Iggy Azalea was still searching for her hit song, but once she found it, she took off as a chart-topping star as well. Outside of these three, with his radio hit “Shot Caller”, French Montana began to become a recognizable name in mainstream hip hop culture. Roscoe Dash was riding off the decent verse he had on the hit song “No Hands”. Machine Gun Kelly tried to distinguish himself as the energetic, hype rapper as the group. Future began his journey of revolutionizing hip hop with his auto tuned raps about trapping, lean and percocet’s.
Redrafting this class, I’d keep Future, Kid Ink, French Montana, Iggy Azalea, Danny Brown, Macklemore and Machine Gun Kelly. While not all of them achieved the level of success that Future or French Montana saw, they each had a solid moment in the spotlight. Hopsin and Roscoe Dash had some level success, but looking back, I cannot remember any popular songs they had without the help of another artist. Don Trip is another artist on these covers I’ve never heard of, but his album “Christopher” released last Friday so check it out. That said, I would replace these three with Asap Rocky, Childish Gambino and Tyler the Creator.
2013: Schoolboy Q, Trinidad James, Joey Bada$$, Ab-Soul, Logic, Action Bronson, Kirko Bangz, Travi$ Scott, Dizzy Wright, Angel Haze, and Chief Keef.
The three most impactful rap albums to drop in 2013 were Yeezus, Magna Carta Holy Grail and Nothing Was the Same. Yeezus revolutionized the genre with its electronic, symphonic beats. Magna Carta Holy Grail changed how we thought about music distribution and Nothing Was the Same paved the way for the hip hop/r&b fusion that is so popular today. Under this musical context, this class of freshman rappers embodied the theme of being unique to push the genre forward. Logic, despite his skinny-white appearance, could go bar for bar with almost anyone. Action Bronson, despite his fat-white appearance, spit bars reminiscent of Ghostface Killah. Joey Bada$$ brought back lyricism and an old-school feel to New York hip hop. Travis used auto-tune to begin pioneering a fusion between rap and r&b and Chief Keef, at sixteen, became one of the hardest rappers in the game.
Redrafting this class I would keep Schoolboy Q, Trinidad James, Joey Bada$$, Ab-Soul, Logic, Action Bronson, Travis Scott and Chief Keef. Kirko Bangz had the song “Drink in My Cup”, which was good, but I’m struggling to find his second hit. Angel Haze is an artist I’ve heard of, but whose music never reached me. That said, I’d replace these two with all three members of the Migos and Sage the Gemini.
Outside of 2014 Forest Hills Drive, a few singles from Drake, and the emergence of YG, this was a pretty down year in terms of notable album releases or dope songs. For some context, this was the year “Happy” by Pharrell and “Fancy” by Iggy Azalea were played everywhere, all the time. Despite the shortage at the top of the charts, I remember a few up-an-coming rappers who really stood out from this class. Chance the Rapper was selected to this class off his 10 Day and Acid Rap mixtapes. He was different and weird, with a unique rap style and a comforting way of addressing his drug abuse. Isaiah Rashad had the Cilvia Demo which was another solid mixtape filled with reminiscing and introspection. August Alsina, Ty Dolla $ign and Rich Homie Quan had hit records on regular rotation on every hip hop radio station. Lil Durk and Lil Bibby both came out of Chicago to gain tremendous followings on every corner of the country.
If I could choose this class I would keep Chance the Rapper, Rich Homie Quan, Ty Dolla Sign, Lil Durk, Lil Bibby, Isaiah Rashad, Kevin Gates, Troy Ave, Vic Mensa and August Alsina. They are all still (somewhat) relevant today. Two rappers from this cover are not as memorable. I would replace Jon Connor and Jarren Benton with Young Thug and PartyNextDoor.
2015: Fetty Wap, Dej Loaf, Raury, Kidd Kidd, OG Maco, Shy Glizzy, K Camp, Vince Staples, Tink, and GoldLink
As a New Jersey native, Fetty Wap was THE GUY in 2015. While Jersey knew about him earlier than most, this is the year songs like “Trap Queen”, “My Way” and “679” completely took over. He was a shoo-in to the freshman cover. Outside of Fetty Wap, and more recently Vince Staples, none of these rappers have fulfilled their potential. This was the class of regional buzz. None of these other artists have received awards or had any bangers, but they remained highly popular around/near their hometowns.
Redrafting this list, for the sake of potential, I would keep Fetty Wap, Shy Glizzy, Vince Staples, K Camp, Tink, Dej Loaf and Goldlink. While none of them have “blown up”, the clock on their success hasn’t run out. There were a lot of talented young rappers who didn’t make the cut the first time. I would replace OG Maco, Kidd Kidd, and Raury with Post Malone, D.R.A.M. and Rae Sremmurd.
2016: Lil Uzi Vert, Lil Yachty, Kodak Black, Denzel Curry, G Herbo, Dave East, Lil Dicky, Anderson Paak, Desiigner, and 21 Savage.
2016 was a great year for hip hop. At the top, artists like Drake, Kendrick Lamar, Future, Kanye and Chance the rapper continued to make hits and lead the charts. Mid-level rappers like YG, Young Thug, Kevin Gates and Schoolboy Q released quality albums with a few sustained radio hits. An up-and-comers like Lil Uzi Vert, Lil Yachty, Kodak Black, G Herbo, Dave East, Anderson Paak and 21 Savage, all became notable players in the hip hop landscape.
Re-picking this class, I would keep Lil Uzi Vert, Lil Yachty, Kodak Black, G Herbo, Dave East, 21 Savage and Anderson Paak. They all seem to have a lot more in store for their careers. Lil Uzi has released multiple successful projects. His place is solidified. Yachty has become a semi-household name through his music, his persona and his business acumen. Dave East has also gained a lot of momentum in his career both inside and outside of rap. Seven of these artists have proven their ability to make hit records. Outside of these seven, I would replace Desiigner, Lil Dicky and Denzel Curry with Tory Lanez, Post Malone and Bryson Tiller.
2017: Kamaiyah, A Boogie wit da Hoodie, PnB Rock, Playboi Carti, Aminé, Kap G, Kyle, Ugly God, MadeinTYO and XXXTentacion.
Last year’s freshman class was a mix of semi-established rising stars and one hit wonders. Artists like A Boogie, PnB Rock, Playboi Carti and XXXTentacion took their strong online following into the class. Their early popularity called into question the importance of the XXL list in the first place. Nevertheless, alongside the artists who were already popular like A Boogie wit da Hoodie, PnB Rock, Playboi Carti and XXXTentacion, artists with one hit song like Aminé, Kap G, Kyle, Ugly God and MadeinTYO also got a place on the list. Thus far, none of the rappers in the latter group have made much of a dent with their music (although Ugly God is becoming more of a celebrity), while those in the former have excelled.
That said, redrafting this list I would keep A Boogie wit da Hoodie, PnB Rock, Playboi Carti and XXXTentacion. They have proven that they’re here to stay. Kap G, Kyle, Amine, Ugly God, Kamaiyah and MadeinTYO have not. I would replace them with 6lack, Cardi B, Famous Dex, Mozzy, YFN Lucci and Tee Grizzley.
Smokepurpp, Lil Pump, Trippie Redd, Rich the Kid, 6ix9ine, Jaden Smith, Tee Grizzley, Mozzy, Jay Critch, NBA Youngboy.
Each of these young artists have shown star potential this past year. Trippie Redd and Lil Pump tout an amazing amount of support among teenagers. Smokepurpp, Tee Grizzley and NBA Youngboy give you the hard, hype music you’ll want to hear at a party or at the gym. Mozzy provides you with the vivid lyricism and calm beats. The four stars of this class blend each of these aspects together: they will be Jay Critch, Jaden Smith, Rich the Kid and 6ix9ine.
Jalen Nash is a sophomore at Syracuse University. He writes for the Daily Orange, where this article was originally published, and The Executive Tea. He can be followed on Twitter @ja_nash3.