Freshman Adjustment: Reactions To The 2014 XXL Freshman Class

XXL's list was sure to spark some controversy, but a little healthy debate about rap is always a good thing. What do you think about it? Sound off in the comments below.

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

RELATED: XXL 2014 Freshman List Revealed [News]

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28 Comments

  • Real hip hop

    No Rittz, Riff Raff, Sic Ill, Iamsu, Problem..smh...

  • Anonymous

    What a joke...but this is what it has come to.

  • Fuckthewack

    All wack as shit and do not deserve to be labelled as Hip Hop, XXL is a fucking joke of a magazine.

  • michael eng

    they know snow had the most votes but they still leave her out this some rigged stuff right here

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  • wouzi

    troy Ave is the only nigga fucks

  • Kick-A-Doe

    Rich Homie Quan should not be on the list...he can not rap, he can not sing...All he does is hollar and talk on Auto-Tune...I do not understand why he made the list...

  • Anonymous

    how long can you still be a freshman? Jon Connor the best spitta of the lot but been around for a minute.

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  • Anonymous

    flatbush zombies.

  • Ether Q

    In my opinion this list has the most established artists compared to prior lists. Granted none of these guys are superstar famous like Wiz, Kendrick, Macklemore, etc but they are all pretty known in the hip-hop community. Whether you like the artist or not they all have a pretty big following and buzz. As far as who I think they left off there's a few. I know Rittz has been in the game for a while but this list has included vets before like French Montana and Crooked I and I think Rittz deserved to be after his album last year. Since obviously this is the year of my city (Chicago) I think Lil Herb has just as much of a buzz as Bibby. I know he hasn't produced much music but it surprises me that Rockie Fresh was never on the list. Earl Sweatshirt would've been a good candidate too. And it was criminal to leave Rapsody off. Also surprised they didn't include Riff-Raff. I'm not a fan of his music but it seems like that would be a controversy move getting them more views. They could've left off the two singers and added two more emcees easily. I'm a huge fan of Chance, Isaiah Rashad and Vic being on there since they can spit but more importantly in today's climate they can make good songs. Kevin Gates makes some of the most honest music out right now. Troy Ave, Jon Connor & Jarren are all spitters and even Bibby has bars for drill/trap type music. It's a pretty solid list in my opinion. Interesting that EVERY TDE rapper has been on this list. Shows you the talent of that label.

    • Ether Q

      That's true I forgot Dizzy was on there. Well other than SwizZz but since he's more of a hypeman with no albums I wouldn't consider him eligible anyways. Either way both awesome labels

    • Justin Hunte

      Every Funk Volume artist's been on there, too. Shows you the talent of that label. Awesome comment. Thank you.

  • @officiallyrp

    Chris Rivers (son of Big Pun) should of been on this list! Dont believe me see it for yourself www.youtube.com/taktikal201

  • DaPhatSpotRusher

    Jody Highroller?!?!!

  • Champagne Papi Life

    First of all, Rapsody and Vince Staples should have been on there. Kick out some of these wacker dudes like Lil Bibby and Lil Durk. They should have been barred just for using "Lil'" in their names. Second of all, "There really is no common denominator, no mayor of Rap to guide the flock in one particular direction". That's some bullshit. The mayor of hip-hop is Drake. Whether you like him or not he is. Since he first dropped Room For Improvement back in 2006, people have slowly been incorporating elements of "Drake" in their music. Even Hov is singing hooks now (and butchering them). You can see elements of Drake in Chance The Rapper, Vic Mensa and Isaiah Rashad, all of those dudes can spit, but they all sing hooks and melodies all of the fucking time. Whether anybody wants to admit or not (my guess is predominately not), people bite Drakes style all of the time. The way Drake structures songs has changed the hip-hop landscape forever. Drizzy is a game changer.

    • iLLz

      The singing hooks have been around forever...remember 50,shit...remember Ja Rule,remember 808s and heartbreaks...which some have argued influenced so far gone and everything that followed along with Lil Wayne's experimental auto tune period, not saying Drake isn't a major influence on dudes, but its not like he was doing anything brand new

    • Anonymous

      Drizzy changed the game for the worst! Fuck celebrating that!

    • Bangem

      As far as your opinion that drake is the mayor of rap and your reasoning's I been saying the same thing for a while. Its like people love to hate him for some reason. People swear up and down they dont like his music but their favorite rappers be sounding like his children. Either they bite the production style he/40 uses or the flow or singing their hooks the $hit is ridiculous.

  • theeginn_soriano

    Jon Connor and Isaiah Rashad are the only two i fuck with. That Cilvia EP was a real solid project and Jon Connor is just a straight up beast on the mic.

  • Anonymous

    Should have a reaction page about the reaction to your site's comment section going to shit

    • Justin Hunte

      We would, but the response would be obvious. We're working on it, actually. First of a few major steps were implemented today, actually. But you're 100% correct about that. Thanks for the feedback.

  • Slum

    Outta all the fresh dudes that are out, you got all the ones at the top of my list good job this year.

  • Anonymous

    chance is a fucking fruit boy

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