Every year since 2008, XXL has released its landmark cover: a list of the best and brightest up-and-comers in Hip Hop, and every year the cover sparks a furious debate over whether or not so-and-so should have made it, how the selections were made, the criteria for the list, and whether or not the list is even relevant. This year is no different. So when XXL threw in the added wrinkle of two R&B acts into the mix things got dicey, and deservedly so.
The cover represents a stepping stone for the striving rapper making waves in the world. It brings prestige, and a sense that this crop of kids are the future. The one's to pick up the torch. But like American Idol, the results do not necessarily match the award. How many rappers have made the list and gone on to cash in on that talent, or that hit single, or that almost inevitable record deal? It depends on who you ask.
And then there's what the list says about Hip Hop itself. A majority of the dirty dozen is from the second city, with Chi-Raaq taking four spots on the list (Chance The Rapper, Vic Mensa, Lil Durk, and Lil Bibby), two are from True Detective country (Kevin Gates and August Alsina), two are from the city that 'Kast built (Jarren Benton and Rich Homie Quan), and the list rounds out with Isaiah Rashad from Tennessee, TY Dolla $ign from L.A., arguably the most lyrically gifted Jon Connor from Flint, and Troy Ave. rounds out the list from NY.
How they'll do in the future only time will tell, but in the meantime I asked for DX Editor-in-Chief Justin Hunte and DX Features Editor Omar Burgess to weigh in on the list, who got snubbed, and whether or not R&B belongs in a Hip Hop magazine.
What’s Your Initial Reaction To The 2014 XXL “Freshmen Class” List?
Justin: From a lyrical perspective—excluding King Los’ 2010 selections—this may be the most gifted XXL Freshmen list yet. Could a class consisting of Jon Connor, Chance The Rapper, Vic Mensa, Jarren Benton, Isaiah Rashad, and a couple of talented T-Pain’s hang in a cypher with 2008’s Lupe Fiasco, Saigon, Papoose, Young Dro and 50% of Slaughterhouse (Joel Ortiz and Crooked I)? Absolutely not. But this crop has stronger songwriters. Their ceiling is higher than the 2009's “Headcase Class” because they collectively appear to be infinitely less likely to get punched by a chick on YouTube, threaten a Complex staffer over the phone, claim J Dilla posthumously executive produced their project, toss their own unreleased debut album into the audience at Rock The Bells, or do anything Cudi would admit to doing on record. The 2013 class gives 2014 a run for its money, though.
Jon Connor will be the most interesting to follow. In the most complimentary sense possible, he is rocking all the trappings of the next Stat Quo. Connor either needs a strong man in his corner (a la 50 Cent, Paul Rosenberg or Top Dawg) to lobby for him or immediately dye his hair blonde and add chainsaw sounds to his rap repertoire if he ever expects Dre to release anything. At Aftermath, image is everything and a lack of one will lock an artist on the sidelines (although rocking his New Detroit Stamping uniform on the cover is a fitting beginning).
Andre: Rap is in a weird place right now. There really is no common denominator, no mayor of Rap to guide the flock in one particular direction. There are great albums every year, but there is no The Blueprint to show people, “Hey, this is what Rap is.” So we’re left with a really wide open field. There’s parity here, like the NBA in the ‘70s, so all these artists are just remarkably different. Most people in a more vanilla Rap climate would not have most of these guys together in a playlist, but here and now it’s more than common place to find your R&B Rap (Ty Dolla $ign) with your fun, teenage Rap (Vic Mensa), with your preternatural Rap (Chance The Rapper) and then the woozy, brooding R&B of August Alsina and this the great gift and curse of Rap right now. The sheer variety of it all. But only a few of these artists have made a project that one would consider cohesive and singular and this is the great mystery of this Freshman class. There’s a general sense that Rap should be click-baity, viral hits with a sing-song musicality accompanied by a tinge of off-kilter gruff, and for the promise of Lil Bibby’s “For The Low” and Jarren Benton’s sheer spitfire you think have Rap down and then K-Dot drops GKMC and everything you thought you knew turns to dust. This is, without question, a strong “Freshman” class, but it will be interesting to see if when suddenly thrust into the mainstream spotlight they wither or if their roots dig deep. But, for Rap’s sake, I hope they all find a lane to grow into, and label situations that allow them to win either because or in spite of the challenges they’ll be facing very soon.
Omar: No reaction. Magazines and websites create lists to generate conversation and sell ads. So to me, any mention of a “Freshman Class” or DX’s now defunct “Halftime” list puts both the participating outlets and the readers in a bit of an awkward position. What’s the new classification of an emerging artist? Is it someone who has yet to release an “official” retail project? How much do retail projects still matter in 2014? There are anywhere from six to 20 artists routinely referred to as “on the cusp” or “next to blow.” From Rapsody, to Fred the Godson, Young Thug, Vince Staples, and the list goes on and on. Going out on a limb to showcase a talented but not-quite-famous rapper is a exercise in futility if you’re trying to sell magazines or rack up pageviews. And featuring artists who technically already have released retail projects (Jarren Benton, August Alsina, Kevin Gates, Isaiah Rashad) draws the ire of every self-appointed Rap expert with access to a laptop and a decent wi-fi connection.
Who’s do you think is the biggest omission from XXL’s 2014 Freshman Class?
Justin: Rapsody. Rap’s She Got Game was critically acclaimed in 2013. Check some of the ratings below:
Plus last week XXL listed Rapsody as one of the 20 Best Female Rappers Of All Time (ALL TIME!) which means that in 2014, it’s possible to be one of the greatest lady lyricists ever and still not be one of the year’s 10 most promising emcees. Iggy Azalea was also listed in that all time top 20 and graced last year’s Freshmen cover (presumably as the “People’s Champ”). Rap got robbed.
Andre: There are a few glaring subtractions from this list that would have made the group more 1996 Kobe and A.I., and less 1998’s promises and Vince Carter since they’ve already got some critical acclaim under their belt. Sage The Gemini’s Remember Me got a strong shoutout from the New York Times’ Jon Caramanica as well as twerk princesses the Vine world over, and Childish Gambino’s Because the Internet was an impressive, sprawling abstract allusion to Los Angeles with the web acting as seductive mistress. But it’s the non-inclusion of Rapsody that makes you whole-heartedly want to say “come on, son” if only because the lady Rap lane is as diverse and populated as it ever was. And only because (as previously mentioned above) she was just put on the list of best female rappers of all time.
Omar: Snub? See above. But I do like the idea of artists bringing in platinum plaques before even releasing a proper retail project—if those are still even the way we’re judging rookies, rising stars, freshman or whatever the hell you call a new-ish rapper. So it would’ve been dope to see Sage the Gemini get some shine. Sage essentially went platinum off of women gyrating their asses to his music on 15-second Vine clips. Turning that kind of random, organic viral success into tangible sales is what makes media outlets attempting to find the next star nearly impossible. I’m not even saying I really like Sage’s music, but he’s definitely one of the best representations of what happens when those of us who reside in traditional media try to shoehorn new media artists into some sort of pecking order. As soon as you think you’ve got a pulse on what’s happening someone new like Drake or Kendrick, who the vast majority of tastemakers missed the first time around, changes the game.
What are your thoughts on The R&B artists included in the list?
Justin: I think it’s the least interesting diversification the series has shown since 2010 boasted two Next Snoop Doggs (Nipsey Hussle and Wiz Khalifa). But Ty Dolla $ign and August Alsina are talented. During his recent appearance on Revolt Live, Refined Hype’s Nathan S suggested that the male R&B lane is wide open at the moment. Chris Brown is still battling his demons. Miguel is still a step short of full buy-in from the buying public. Sure, Ursher just released a new metaphor for fallatio, but he’s clearly in the OG phase of his career. August and Ty are ushering in a new R&B aesthetic and are definitely worthy of the recognition. I’m not mad at the inclusion.
Andre: R&B artists on a list distinctly reserved for Hip Hop certainly does make you raise an eyebrow. R&B have always been tenuous bed fellows with rap especially since the lanes between the two genres have grown increasingly blurry, and Rap purists simply don’t want to see any other genre fudging with wordplay, cadence, and flow. But in a climate like ours where some rappers suddenly make better R&B than some actual singers you have to tip your hat to XXL for recognizing that the two may not have made it official on Facebook, but you see them everywhere together and we’re pretty sure R&B pays some Rap’s bills. Even in the magical Rap world of ‘90s Hip Hop, R&B made her presence felt on some of the biggest tracks of that decade. And, although it almost always felt weird (Meth and Mary notwithstanding) you can’t deny the appeal. Maybe now they can both change their relationship statuses and their friends can officially invite each other to brunch.
Omar: Remember when Q-Tip said, “I’d cold be the man if I pulled the plug on R&B?” Or how about when De La Soul used R&B as an acronym for Rap and Bullshit? Hip Hop and R&B make strange bedfellows. Teddy Riley is a resident Rap demigod. He’s got credits with Slick Rick, but he’s also responsible for “New Jack Swing.” And Pharrell. My long-winded point is that people have been mixing their R&B with their Hip Hop for a long time. Some do it better and thankfully in a more masculine fashion than others, but it’s still Rap and R&B. Wu-Tang Clan did joints with Mary J. Blige, SWV and Mariah Carey. Nate Dogg was an integral part of Death Row. I think the line between Hip Hop is continually getting blurred—for better or worse. It’s funny that Hip Hop purists want to get their panties in a bunch because Ty Dolla $ign and August Alsina are on the cover of XXL (presumably because XXL has the perception as a strictly Hip Hop magazine). But that placement is nothing but a reaction to what’s been happening the last 15 years.
Justin "The Company Man" Hunte is the Editor-in-Chief of HipHopDX. He was the host of The Company Man Show on PNCRadio.fm and has covered music, politics, and culture for numerous publications. He is currently based in Los Angeles, California. Follow him on Twitter @TheCompanyMan.
Omar Burgess is a Long Beach, California native who has contributed to various magazines, newspapers and has been an editor at HipHopDX since 2008. Follow him on Twitter @omarburgess.
Andre Grant is an NYC native turned L.A. transplant who’s contributed to a few different properties on the web and is now the Senior Features Writer for HipHopDX. He’s also trying to live it to the limit and love it a lot. Follow him on Twitter @drejones