The most important performance in the history of the XXL Freshman Cypher was three years ago. Lil Uzi Vert was grouped together with a crew of likeminded young rising stars: 21 Savage, Lil Yachty, Kodak Black. (Denzel Curry was in there, too, rapping better than anyone else while seeming like he wanted to be anywhere else.) Uzi’s actual rapping in the cypher is loopy and imprecise, but he makes up for it, flashing bazillion-watt grins and shouting out all his assembled peers. When the other rappers take their turns, Uzi never stops. He throws ad-libs on their verses. He cackles at their jokes. He bails out 21 Savage when 21 Savage comes up with one of the dumbest lines of all time. (“You a old nigga! Man, you washed up! Young Savage, man, I got my car washed up!”) And through the sheer force of his presence, he elevates this ridiculous little exercise and makes it feel important. Which it was. All the rappers in the room that day became vital figures — even Curry, the wallflower in the room. Uzi made them look, however briefly, like a team — a united front of young rap stars who did not give a single fuck about the generations before them.
The second-most important performance in the history of the XXL Freshman Cypher was two years ago. XXXTentacion is trapped in a room full of goofballs: Playboi Carti, Madeintyo, and Ugly God, all of whom are attempting to stage a low-stakes version of the previous year’s mutually supportive Uzi/Yachty/Savage/Kodak summit. XXXTentacion lurks in the background, motionless, unimpressed. When it’s his turn to rap, he silently glides to the center of the room, and the beat suddenly cuts off so that he can rant a few seconds of uninterrupted à cappella goth slam poetry: “And if the world ever has an apocalypse, I will kill all of you fuckers / Fear will be bountiful, death will be plentiful, I will spare none of you peasants.” The other rappers in the room look confused, maybe even frightened, at a total loss for how to react to this kid. XXXTentacion, already a deeply troubling figure who really shouldn’t have been granted that platform, comes off as a both a star and an inflection point, someone who was ready to alter the entire course of rap history. That’s exactly what he did, even though he was dead less than a year later.
The third-most important performance in the history of the XXL Freshman Cypher was eight days ago. DaBaby, the young Charlotte bobcat who has already emerged as 2019’s biggest and best new rapper, patiently waits his turn, standing taciturn as Lil Mosey and Megan Thee Stallion and YK Osiris all do what they do. And then he takes over. The Cypher is four minutes long. DaBaby raps for two of those minutes. He raps his ass off. He raps like a man possessed. He builds up to crescendo after crescendo, working in theatrical flex after theatrical flex — a giant knot of cash dropped on the floor, a dramatic haircut reveal. “The next nigga that come play with me, I’ma send him to go ask 2Pac for a pic.” “I don’t care bout this motherfucking chain / But I still bust your motherfuckin’ brain / Just got head on a motherfucking plane.” “Every time I hit one of my moves, all the bitches go crazy, they like how I do that / I keep one in the head, if I don’t let off first, I’ma dive to the side when I shoot back.” Yeah, he came like Blade in this bitch.
The XXL Freshman Cypher is one of those fun and silly annual rituals — a print magazine keeping itself relevant by rounding up a bunch of promising young rappers once a year. There are always severe problems with it. (Where, for example, is NLE Choppa among this year’s crop?) A good many of the rappers who show up on the cover will inevitably never go anywhere. But those problems are never worth getting upset about. The Cypher is merely a fun exercise: Throw a bunch of young rappers into a room together make them all rap, see how they all react to each other. It doesn’t mean anything unless one of those rappers decides that it means something. And then it can mean everything. It can signal a moment, a changing of the guard. That happened with Uzi. It happened with XXXTentacion. It’s happening with DaBaby.
In this year’s Cypher, we get sketches of ideas about who these rappers are. We get quick little impressions and make judgements. Lil Mosey: clearly impatient to get back to total obscurity. Megan Thee Stallion: crisp and efficient, mentally calculating some lucrative new deal even as she’s rapping. YK Osiris: wildly overconfident of his own singing abilities, rightly reverential of DaBaby. Rico Nasty: stunningly energetic and freakily fast. YBN Cordae: tremendously gifted but already more adult than he needs to be. Blueface: lovably big-brotherly in his interactions with Rico and Cordae even though those two are clearly much better at rapping than he is. (Blueface’s movie-star charisma is real, and it’s spectacular.) Comethazine: extremely committed to selling his unstable-dirtbag character. Roddy Ricch: calm and professional and not especially excited about the act of rapping. Tierra Whack: ambitious, self-impressed, unwise enough to attempt a repeat of the XXXTentacion no-beat trick. Gunna: apparently too important to participate at all. These impressions are valuable. They tell us things.
With DaBaby, we didn’t really need to learn anything. DaBaby is already the biggest star of this bunch. He has spent literally all of 2019 on a vertiginous rise. “Walker Texas Ranger,” the viral hit that first found DaBaby an audience outside of North Carolina, hit YouTube on New Years Day. I’d never even heard of him before that. After “Walker Texas Ranger” hit, I wrote a piece about DaBaby and discovered that he was the answer to an existential riddle that I’d never thought to ask: What if circa-2001 Ludacris was an authentically terrifying figure? DaBaby has a lot of things going for him: comic timing, unapologetic silliness, energy, physicality, libido, wild levels of technical precision. And he’s also brash and violent and possibly dangerous. (I wrote that piece after the Wal-Mart shooting but before the Louis Vuitton store beating.) But none of that past violence has even come close to hindering DaBaby’s career. He is now a pop star.
Baby On Baby, DaBaby’s debut album, came out in March, shortly after he’d inked an Interscope deal. It is not a major artistic statement. Instead, it’s a highlight reel, a calling card. The entire album is barely half an hour long. Every song on it is a zero-subtlety banger. Every song on it is immediately, overwhelmingly catchy. Baby On Baby has been sitting high in the top 10 since it came out. One song, “Suge,” is a major crossover smash, and it’s stuck around in the top 10, too. (It’s at #12 now, and it peaked at #7.) When I first heard Baby On Baby, “Suge,” with its frantic bounce-beat and its rambunctious death threats, didn’t even strike me as a potential single, but maybe that’s only because every song on the album was, and is, a potential single. DaBaby has only been in the national spotlight for eight months, and he’s already reached the point in his career arc where he’s securing major-label album releases for his friends. (Big 4x, the album from DaBaby’s similarly talented and funny Charlotte associate Stunna 4 Vegas, came out in May. It’s really good.)
In some ways, DaBaby is a throwback. It’s been a while since we’ve had a new rap star who was a street-rap comedian, rather than a manic-depressive face-tatted teenager with carefully curated loner-goth mystique. In his giddy energy, DaBaby recalls Busta Rhymes and Redman and Ludacris and Missy Elliott, glitzy jesters who made the world a little bit brighter. But DaBaby has executed his rise in an online-guerrilla age, operating by online-guerrilla rules. He’s gone nuts on YouTube, using the directing team Reel Goats and amassing a brilliant cartoon videography in head-spinning time. He’s played roles in those videos: Horny cowboy, horny mailman, horny plumber, horny record-label exec, horny Carlton Banks. Through sheer instinct and force of will, he’s made himself into a character.
But he’s also proven himself to be an absolute rap monster. Everytime DaBaby gets a shot in a high-profile situation, he hits it beautifully. He outrapped J. Cole on “Under The Sun.” He stunted all over Chance The Rapper on “Hot Shower.” (DaBaby is running out of overly insincere arena-rap legacy stars to wash. He should do Jay-Z next!) On Megan Thee Stallion’s “Cash Shit,” DaBaby showed himself to be the rare male rapper willing to get as raunchy as Megan on her own song. That’s a choice, and maybe not a wise one, but he pulls it off. On YK Osiris’ “Freaky Dancer,” he expressly admonishes strip-club DJs not to play his music when he walks into the place — another choice, and another thing he pulls off. “Cash Shit” and “Under The Sun” are both in the Hot 100 now, though neither was released or promoted as a single. That means DaBaby is now turning other rappers’ songs into hits merely by showing up.
DaBaby’s ascent has been fast, thrilling, and overwhelming. He was nowhere, and now he’s everywhere. Rap’s A-list is a hard, ossified little fraternity. It almost never admits new faces. But DaBaby has spent the past few months bulldozing his way in anyway. That Cypher verse — which DaBaby apparently already posted on Instagram in April, but whatever — was a statement of what we should’ve already known: This guy is here to dominate. It’s been inspiring to watch, and it still feels like he’s somehow just getting started.
1. Shoreline Mafia – “Free Drakeo, Free Greedo” (Feat. Bandgang Paid Will)
My friend Jeff Weiss has spent the past few months tirelessly covering the kangaroo-court murder trial of LA rap cult hero Drakeo The Ruler, and last week, a jury of Drakeo’s peers acquitted him of those murder charges, though he’s still facing some others. I love the idea of Drakeo riding home and hearing his name on an anthem like this.
2. Slayter – “Cold At Night” (Feat. G Herbo)
Hard-ass melodic street-rap blues from a New York newcomer and a young Chicago legend. Beautiful.
3. Montana Of 300 – “Art Class”
This guy has quietly been so good for so long that it’s almost stupid. This is just four minutes of relentless no-hook punchlining, and that’s exactly what it needs to be: “Established my name, stay strapped up while I’m stacking my change / Try not to get a tombstone like I was wrestling Kane / Squeezing at they fucking necks like I was snatching a chain / Two bulletholes in his throat, my gun got Dracula fangs.”
4. Saweetie & Hit-Boy – “No L’s”
Saweetie is starting to get that effortless towering sneer thing going. When a rapper finds that, you need to start paying attention.
5. MaxThaDemon – “4 Quarters”
I started playing this in another tab, then clicked over to see that the gravel-gargling demon I was hearing was a babyfaced white kid with bowl-cut bangs. What a time.
IT WAS ALL GOOD JUST A WEEK AGO
They’re posted up like it’s Buckingham palace 😭😭 pic.twitter.com/KJgm201XkQ
— Austin 🏁 (@kickzNkush) July 18, 2019