When XXL first started picking its rap freshmen a decade ago, none of them owed anything to the internet. Today, that’s a tough thing to imagine; it’s like hearing that your parents grew up with three channels of black-and-white TV. Rap music is the internet; it pulls all its energy from split-second switches and 20-second Twitter videos and obscure arguments. But back when the people at XXL first had the idea to round up a bunch of surging young rappers and photograph them all in a room together, all these guys had to find their fame through slimline CDR’s sold in bodegas and out of car trunks. They built reputations playing seedy inner-city clubs throughout the South, not holding down the 2PM main-stage slot at EDM festivals. They had thick-ass accents and regional-ass sounds.
Look at these guys. None of them became galactically famous. Plenty of them were flame-outs. Saigon and Papoose and Gorilla Zoe are a long way from relevance. (Shout out to the Turtle-becomes-a-rap-manager Entourage storyline.) Young Dro and Lil Boosie were supposed to become dominant hitmakers, and they became influential underground figures instead. (Boosie maybe could’ve made the transition if he hadn’t spent most of the past decade in prison.) Rich Boy made a great album and then pretty much disappeared. Joell Ortiz and Crooked I had to form a group together to avoid dropping off the face of the Earth. Lupe Fiasco did become something like a star, and he’s the anomaly there. He’s also the guy who would become the model for XXL Freshmen to come: Young, restless, sharp, raised on the internet, given to proclaiming his own mold-shattering brilliance, ultimately unfocused. And so many like him would follow.
It’s the next XXL Freshman issue, the one where they first started calling them Freshmen, that really resonates as a moment, and maybe as the beginning of a new era. It’s not that the 2009 freshmen did any better. A couple of them (Wale, Kid Cudi) linked up with established stars and became quasi-dependable B-listers. (Dependable is a hard word to use for Cudi, but he’s been famous for a while now, so give him credit.) A couple more (Curren$y, Blu) continue to serve as underground stalwarts. But most of them, sooner or later, burned out spectacularly: Charles Hamilton, Asher Roth, B.o.B., Ace Hood, Cory Gunz, Mickey Factz. What a parade of failure! And yet it’s not these guys that mattered; it’s what they represented. These were all bright, curious, lightly experimental, marketable types, and even though most of them fucked things up in grand fashion, they all helped inaugurate a long, continuing stretch where most of us would learn about rap from whatever social network we’re using at the time. They were the internet children. It’s been nothing but internet children since.
The XXL Freshman 10 issue, once a misbegotten marketing idea, somehow became an institution. XXL hasn’t grabbed every major rap figure in the past decade for those Freshman 10 covers; they famously missed out on Drake and Nicki Minaj. They didn’t get Young Thug or A$AP Rocky, either, and for some reason they’ve refused to put groups like the Migos or the Odd Future kids up there. But they got most of them. J. Cole, Big Sean, Wiz Khalifa, Kendrick Lamar, YG, Meek Mill, Mac Miller, Travis Scott, Chance The Rapper, Kevin Gates — they’ve all been XXL Freshmen. The 2012 issue alone had Future, Macklemore, Iggy Azalea, Danny Brown, and French Montana; you’d have to imagine that was the last time all those people were in a room together. (Cocaine Blunts blogger Noz used to do absolutely fucking hilarious roundups of the rappers on those covers whenever they came out; his 2012 post, which sadly no longer appears to be online, was a classic.) But it’s last year’s issue that once again cemented a moment, partly because the most prominent of its rappers seemed to like being around one another and partly because many of them seemed somehow united against the old-head masses who were determined to write them off as mumble-rappers.
Every year, when XXL brings all these guys in for the cover shoot, the magazine also gets as much as it can out of the arrangement, filming freestyles and interviews and other assorted internet-based attention-grabbers. And with that group last year, they somehow captured two pieces of art that would outlive the cover itself. The first of those was Desiigner’s hushed, incantory a cappella version of “Timmy Turner,” probably still the greatest thing that Desiigner has ever done.
And the other — the one that has more to do with what I’m talking about here — is the freestyle cypher that featured Lil Yachty, Lil Uzi Vert, Kodak Black, 21 Savage, and odd man out Denzel Curry. I’ve written about this before, but that video, to me, cemented the idea that these guys were all in it together, that they were going to support each other in the face of a rap establishment that considered them curios at best, apostates at worst. Yachty, Uzi, 21, and Kodak all rap exceptionally badly in that video, but they all buoy each other, adding ad-libs to each other’s verse and acting almost like a group. As far as I know, that had never happened before. At least in my mind, the video bonded these guys together, despite their very real aesthetic differences, as a holistic movement.
Will the Freshmen from this year’s just-unveiled issue come up with anything comparable? We’ll find out soon enough. But for the first time, these 10 rappers all seem like they belong together. There are no up-from-obscurity underground figures on that cover, and there are no weird Lil Dicky-esque token inclusions, either. All of them are wearing black in the photo, which was probably a designer’s decision but which at least seems like it could’ve just happened organically. There are a lot of short dreads in that photo, and there’s a lot of hair bleach, too. The rappers who decided to smile all seem like they made the wrong decision. All of the rappers on the cover are, to some extent, known quantities; none of them are really surprising. Some of them already have massive hits; others already have massive followings. A few of them have been around for a long time, but that’s practically a XXL tradition; it’s something like the Best New Artist Grammy that way. All of them, in one way or another, come from the internet. None of them owe any fealty to New York boom-bap. Most of them work in the miasmic, synthetic SoundCloud-rap aesthetic, taking some sort of cue from Chief Keef, the guy I was planning on writing about this week before the Freshmen 10 cover was unveiled. (Fun fact: Keef was a Freshman in 2013, but he was locked up, so he missed the photo shoot.) Past Freshmen like Future and Lil B also seem to be heavy influences, as are the four horsemen of the rap apocalypse in that video above.
I’m not going to break down these rappers like I was Noz. But I did notice that this year’s Freshmen all fall pretty neatly into four categories. Let’s take a look.
The SoundCloud Insurgents
Playboi Carti, XXXtentacion, Ugly God, and MadeinTYO are going to be the ones who start the most fights, and they’re probably also the ones who will be the biggest stars a year from now. They might be the biggest stars now. They’re all weirdos to one extent or another, and they all blew up largely without outside cosign, thanks to whatever the SoundCloud equivalent of word-of-mouth is. All of them make music that could be dismissed as mumble-rap if you’re the type to dismiss things as mumble-rap. They all might be terrible rappers. All of them make me feel very, very old.
Of the three of them, Playboi Carti, from Atlanta, is probably the most traditional rap star, though that’s not saying much. He’s the only one who has an album, and he’s the most connected; established stars like A$AP Rocky and Lil Uzi Vert have been propping him up for a little while. I’ve been meaning to write a longer piece about Carti’s self-titled album for weeks now, but I just can’t think of anything to say about it. Its combination of dazed, shuddering beats and barely-there verses — Carti comes off more as a hypeman than a rapper, with the crucial difference that he’s not hyping up another rapper — just numbs me. It’s very close to being a full album of ad-libs, with no actual rapping. I listen to that album, and I feel nothing. But Carti is already huge, and in quick single-song bursts, he can be exciting.
Ugly God, from Houston, is less serious and more fun. For instance, he has a song where he raps about jerking off over a ringing iPhone tone for three minutes. He’s worked with Chicago cartoon character Famous Dex, who should arguably be on this XXL cover as well, and he’s constructed a just-as-silly persona for himself. Ugly God doesn’t have any albums or even any mixtapes. All of his individual SoundCloud tracks have fake-anime cover art. His two-minute song-sketch “Water” has a mind-boggling 90 million SoundCloud streams. I think I like him, but I definitely don’t understand him.
MadeinTYO, born in Hawaii but living in Atlanta, didn’t appear out of nowhere like those guys. He’s released a couple of proper mixtapes, and his songs tend to have structures and hooks. His biggest hit is a novelty song about Uber. It’s entirely possible that he’s only in this category because I don’t know how to pronounce his name. I don’t really expect him to stick around, but who knows?
In a lot of ways XXXTentacion, from Florida, is the most insurgent of the insurgents and the most deserving of a spot on this list. He’s the only one came up with his own completely sui generis aesthetic, one that owes more to ancient Memphis underground rap than to present-day Atlanta trap. (Most of these guys, whether or not they come from Atlanta, are making some variation on present-day Atlanta trap.) XXXTentacion’s songs are all murky digital distortion and slapped-together chaos. “Look At Me,” the ultra-grimy SoundCloud hit that’s become his signature, song is a lo-fi riot that reminds me of the early Odd Future days, when those kids still seemed mysterious. (The first time I heard of him was when he accused Drake of biting his “Look At Me” flow on the More Life track “KMT.”) XXXTentacion’s other songs draw on basement hardcore and Houston screw and four-track folk. His live shows regularly break out in fights. On the cover, he replicates the same zombie pose he makes every time there’s a camera pointed at him. He’s an original, and he should be an exciting figure. He should be maybe the most exciting figure on the whole cover.
Here’s the problem: When “Look At Me” was blowing up online, XXXTentacion was in prison for mercilessly beating up his pregnant girlfriend. He’s faced similar charges before, and he is, by most accounts, a disturbed and violent person. His on-record persona is full of that sort of violence, too — not the calm-and-composed rap kind, but the erratic and passionate and messy sort where it seems much less like a pose. In most cases, we can make some distinction between the art and the artist, but in this case, the terrible shit is inextricable from the whole of the persona. And while it’s easy enough to rationalize rappers who did things like sell drugs in their youths, beating up a pregnant woman belongs in an entirely different category. So we know he’s a piece of shit. We’ve known it since before he got famous. You should not be able to beat up a pregant woman and still have a career. We should not continue to make him famous. XXXTentacion should not be on this cover.
Both Kyle and Aminé already have massive hits to their credit, and both of them face the very real possibility that they’ll end up as one-hit wonders. (MadeinTYO might be in this category, too, if I knew how to pronounce his name and if his one hit had been bigger.) Kyle has been around since 2013, trying to do a dumbed-down version of the Chance The Rapper/Big Sean fussy-exuberance thing. He finally made it click by teaming up with Lil Yachty on “iSpy” (Billboard peak: #4), a reasonably charming song that belongs more to Yachty than it does to Kyle. Kyle already has two albums. He sucks. I wouldn’t expect him to last.
Aminê’s big hit “Caroline” (Billboard peak: #11) has no big guests and a giddy sense of fun inventiveness to go along with its caveman sex stuff. He’s been around for a while, too, releasing his first mixtape in 2014, but he hasn’t had labels behind him. In his “REDMERCEDES” video, he shows that he’s pretty good at sketch comedy, that he’s not too vain to go for it. He could disappear, too, but I think he’s got a better shot at sustained fame than Kyle.
The West Coast Representatives
Kyle is from Ventura, California, and Aminé is from Portland; they’re both technically West Coast. But both of them sound like they could be from anywhere. That floating regionlessness, in fact, is something that almost all of the rappers on this year’s cover have in common. Only two of this year’s Freshmen seem to actually belong to a region, and both of them belong to the West. Kap G, from Long Beach, sounds just as regionless as anyone else, and he spent much of his childhood in Atlanta. He sounds more like an Atlanta rapper than a California one. (He’s also been around for years.) But Kap G represents Southern California’s enormous Mexican American population, and he might be the biggest Mexican American rap star in more than a decade. That makes his existence, and his presence on this magazine cover, regionally and culturally important, even if his music isn’t especially. (It might be cool if XXL saw fit to honor a guy like Puerto Rico’s Bad Bunny, a standout in the surging Spanish-language Latin trap scene, but that’s apparently still too far afield for them.)
Kamaiyah, meanwhile, is a full-on West Coast rapper with a strong YG affiliation and a sound that builds on the classic Mob Music aesthetic of her Oakland hometown. She’s the only woman on the cover, but even taking gender out of it, she’s by far the most distinctive presence on there. She’s also my favorite, by far, which is not a coincidence. I don’t know whether she’ll become a star or not. It almost doesn’t matter. She is already great. Everyone else on that cover can only hope to get there.
Our only two East Coast representatives are A Boogie Wit Da Hoodie, from the Bronx, and PNB Rock, from Philadelphia. A Boogie is a sing-rapper, and PNB Rock is really just a singer who sometimes uses rap inflections. (There’s precedent there. In recent years, D.R.A.M., Ty Dolla $ign, and August Alsina have all been XXL Freshmen.) Both are pretty good. PNB Rock is well on his way to Ty Dolla $ign-style freelance-hooksmith omnipresence, though he hasn’t really made much interesting music on his own yet. I like his neck tattoos.
A Boogie has mostly been a homegrown New York post-Drake type, though “Drowning,” his hypnotic Kodak Black collab, shows that he could become something more. He’s part of a crew with Bronx hardass Don Q, and I like the combination they offer. But at this past weekend’s Hot 97 Summer Jam, he reportedly got a muted reception out on the parking-lot stage, which is not a good sign. Also, I don’t know who he’s trying to fool with that Lou Reed shirt on the XXL cover. He is not dark.
1. Mr. Lif & Akrobatik – “Hose Down” (Feat. Syne)
Two early-’00s underground stalwarts return, and it’s a best-case scenario: hard beat, tons of energy, vital sense of political urgency. And most importantly, the sense of purposeful fun that made the Perceptionists’ 2005 album Black Dialogue such an underrated gem is back. The chemistry has not died.
2. Alchemist – “Brother Jedidiah” (Feat. Action Bronson & Big Body Bes)
Charming ’70s-sitcom-theme funk full of formless good-life boasts. Anytime these guys want to stop filling out the Viceland programming lineup and make more music, I’m ready.
3. Mach-Hommy – “Nothin’ But Net” (Feat. Your Old Droog)
Mesmeric head-slap lyricism from the Newark enigma’s $77.77 album. The murky gurgle of a beat comes from Earl Sweatshirt, and after Hommy’s dense verbiage, it’s fun to hear Droog come in with his backpacker goofiness. This reminds me: Why weren’t Hommy’s friends Westside Gunn and Conway XXL Freshmen this year? Is it because they have no shot at becoming anything more than an underground phenomenon? Because “underground phenomenon” is still pretty good. Maybe the XXL people were just worried they’d eat everyone else up in the cyphers.
4. Cam’ron – “D.I.A.”
As a child of both ’80s wrestling and ’00s mixtape-rap, I will always have time for tinnily operatic Cam tracks that sample Ric Flair rants.
5. Denzel Curry – “Zeltron 6 Billion” (Feat. Lil Ugly Mane)
I can’t tell you how much it tickles me that the other guy from that Yachty/Uzi/21/Kodak cypher is out here making early-’00s super-scientifical backpack rap. And this is pretty good early-’00s super-scientifical backpack rap!
the 2017 XXL Freshman Class looks like they’re about to play before Mushroomhead on the Ozzfest second stage. https://t.co/xRdFR8wcZI
— Chris Weingarten (@1000TimesYes) June 13, 2017