Let’s Talk About The 2022 XXL Freshman Class

Let’s Talk About The 2022 XXL Freshman Class

Rap is in a state of disorder right now. Everything is in a state of disorder right now, so rap music is not unique. But in a big-picture sense, the genre might be even more chaotic and centerless than it’s ever been. Young Thug and Gunna are in jail. Drake is making house music. Jack Harlow continues to rack up big hits even though everyone seems to agree that his new album is butt. Kendrick Lamar is active once again, but he seems further removed from the rap conversation than ever. A$AP Rocky is still getting booked to headline festivals even though music seems to be less a vocation and more of a spare-time pursuit for him. Kanye West just dropped out of Rolling Loud Miami a week ahead of time. Rolling Loud, in what appears to be a passive-aggressive retaliation move, replaced Kanye with his ex-friend Kid Cudi. Everything is just goofy right now.

As rap’s ossified A-list goes through its weird little moment, we haven’t seen too many major stars emerge in recent years. With that in mind, the annual ritual of the XXL Freshman Class issue has become weirdly urgent. XXL knows this, since they’ve stretched Freshman Class season out to a full month, from the unveiling of the names to the moment when the last cypher video goes up on YouTube. Going back to look at past XXL Freshman classes is a trip, as these random assemblages of up-and-coming rappers becomes even more random in hindsight. Every year has its flameouts, its Charles Hamiltons and Troy Aves and Wifisfunerals, but the magazine has done a pretty good job at spotlighting future stars ahead of time. Last year’s class, for instance, looks pretty good, with people like Morray and Flo Milli on an upward trajectory. (It would look better if Pooh Shiesty and 42 Dugg weren’t in jail.)

When XXL unveiled this year’s Freshman Class a month ago, most of the online reactions I saw fit into two categories: (1) Oh no, I’m old, and (2) wow, they did a good job with this one. These reactions are not mutually exclusive. These names should be unfamiliar to most people. Rap is a vast and sprawling landscape, and it’s possible to become a star in one corner of that landscape while remaining a total unknown anywhere else. If half of the artists on the cover are already old news, then XXL isn’t doing its job. I like how this year’s cover pulls from different scenes that aren’t always linked to each other, and I like how many of these Freshmen are people who I barely recognize. They should be people who I barely recognize.

XXL never gets everything right. It can’t. Too many factors get in the way. The magazine relies on these Freshmen for a whole lot of content — freestyles, cyphers, different video clips that try hard to go viral — and anyone who doesn’t want to do all that will probably turn down the opportunity. That seems to be why someone like Yeat is absent from this year’s cover. XXL also can’t put someone on the cover if that person is in jail, so Kay Flock, the 19-year-old Bronx drill star currently locked up and awaiting murder charges, is absent. Memphis newcomer Glorilla presumably started blowing up after XXL already had the Freshman Class locked in place.

But given the group of XXL Freshmen that we do have, it’s worth taking a look at where some informed people seem to think the genre is going. A few of the rappers on this year’s cover fit into distinct categories — Memphis, Detroit, squealy post-SoundCloud rage beats stuff. But others stand out as true individuals, so let’s check them out one by one. Using the deeply imperfect method of monthly Spotify listeners, let’s discuss this year’s designated future stars, from the most currently popular to the least.

Cochise (5.8 million monthly listeners)

The easiest way for a young rapper to get famous is to sound a whole lot like a rapper who’s already famous, and Cochise has at least mastered that. Cochise, from South Florida, could never exist without the example set by 2017 XXL Freshman Playboi Carti. More to the point, Cochise is really into the squeaky-gibber style that Carti mostly abandoned a couple of years ago. Since the whole point of Carti is the livewire unpredictability, that seems a little sad.

Cochise’s whole thing works best for me when he has another, deeper voice in there to balance him out — someone like 2013 XXL Freshman Chief Keef or like $not, Cochise’s collaborator on the #64 pop hit “Tell Em.” But I’m probably just too old and/or on the wrong drugs to get what this guy is doing. If Cochise does manage to become a major star without adjusting his style, though, it means rap is about to get a whole lot more annoying. Maybe that’s what it needs? I don’t fucking know.

Nardo Wick (4.7 million monthly listeners)

The 20-year-old Jacksonville native Nardo Wick is the only artist on this cover with an actual monster hit already under his belt. Last year, Nardo’s viral snarl “Who Want Smoke?” made it to #17 on the Hot 100 — partly because of its great little boom boom boom boom boom “what the fuck is that” bit and partly because of the all-star remix, which has Lil Durk (class of ’14), G Herbo, and 21 Savage (both class of ’16) all mercilessly upstaging Nardo. Nardo continued to rely on established stars on his next single “Me Or Sum,” which featured both Future (class of ’12) and Lil Baby. These are not good signs! Nardo’s debut album is called Who Is Nardo Wick? Your first album should answer that question, not answer it.

On the one hand, “Who Want Smoke?” is a legit banger. It’s a hard, brutal song that still became a major hit. Nardo’s got a thicky, swampy accent and a guttural, instinctive flow. But he hasn’t yet shown enough personality to really stand out; in his cypher performance, he disappears completely. And Nardo also has some cheesy crossover instincts; people who saw the Elvis movie apparently cracked up when Nardo’s voice showed up rapping over some old Elvis song on the soundtrack. Nardo got a major head start by showing up with a big hit, but he’s going to need to develop more of a unique presence if he’s going to stick around too much longer.

Saucy Santana (2.7 million monthly listeners)

Now here’s something intriguing. Rap music hasn’t shed its reputation for homophobia, but more and more LGBTQ rappers have been finding mainstream visibility, and few of them are quite as unapologetic as Saucy Santana. Santana, who comes from Florida via Connecticut, started off as the City Girls’ makeup artist before emerging as a supporting character on Love & Hip-Hop: Miami and then coming up with a few viral-challenge hits. Santana also survived a drive-by shooting that he says was probably motivated by homophobia. Santana is tough, and he stands out.

Saucy Santana’s style is pretty much City Girls-style ratchet dance-rap, and he’s good at it. His tracks are brash and catchy, and his charisma is huge. The mere fact that Saucy Santana can exist in a mainstream-rap context like this XXL cover says something good about where rap is going. And Santana has songs that sound like hits. His new single, for instance, has a feature from Latto (class of ’20) and the sampled horns from Beyoncé’s “Crazy In Love.” Even surrounded by all that noise, Santana cuts right through. I have no idea where his career will go, but I’m looking forward to seeing it happen.

SoFaygo (2.6 million monthly listeners)

SoFaygo is another Playboi Carti acolyte. I know there’s a whole world of post-SoundCloud kids out there who are really into the squeaky-swirl party music, and I don’t get it at all. SoFaygo sings a little more than Cochise, but he doesn’t have much in the way of presence or star power. He does, however, have connections. SoFaygo is signed to Travis Scott’s (class of ’13) Cactus Jack label, which would’ve probably been a bigger deal a year ago. SoFaygo also does a lot of work with Lil Tecca, who seems to be a respected elder among the squeaky-voice rappers even though he is 19 years old. Cole Bennett directed the video for SoFaygo’s biggest hit, and getting Bennett seems like a direct line to XXL Freshman status. I’m glad the kids have a thing that they like, anyway.

Doechii (1.9 million monthly listeners)

An obvious choice but a great one. The 23-year-old Tampa native Doechii got famous last year, when her 2020 track “Yucky Blucky Fruitcake” launched a TikTok trend. Since then, she’s signed to TDE, a label that really needs a new star, and gotten a showcase spot at the BET Awards. Doechii’s whole style is bright and colorful and expressive. Her songs have big, immediate hooks, and her videos are vivid neon showcases, but she can really rap, too. (She’s got the first verse on the first cypher, and it might be the best of any of them.) Doechii definitely seems like a future star about to happen. A million things could potentially derail that, but her potential is practically impossible to dispute.

Big30 (1.7 million monthly listeners)

Memphis’ Big30 came up last year as a guest on a bunch of Pooh Shiesty tracks, but when Pooh got locked up, Big30 kept rising. Unlike Pooh, Big30 doesn’t immediately stand out as a potential star, but I’ve never heard a bad verse from him. Everything that Big30 does is solid, and it fits right into that Memphis street-rap lane. He’s not doing anything new, but his music sounds great in a car. That solid dependability is a foundation. Yo Gotti spent years as a solid Memphis rap B-lister, and he’s now one of the biggest power players in rap. Moneybagg Yo took time to develop as a charismatic voice, but he’s sneakily become one of the most popular rappers out there. Big30 still hasn’t released a proper album, but there’s no reason why he can’t keep pushing upwards.

Big Scarr (1.5 million monthly listeners)

Like Big30, Big Scarr is a product of the Memphis street-rap underground. Like Big30’s friend Pooh Shiesty, Scarr is signed to Gucci Mane’s 1017 label. But Big Scarr doesn’t have the same kind of presence as those other Memphis guys. On 1017 posse cuts, Scarr just kind of disappears into the background, upstaged by labelmates like Pooh and Foogiano. Scarr also halfasses his cypher performance so hard that he might as well just not be there. Unless this guy develops a personality in a hurry, I just don’t see it.

Babyface Ray (1.4 million monthly listeners)

When Babyface Ray came out with his Face album earlier this year, I wrote a whole column asking whether he could become a national star. Six months later, the answer is: Sort of? Maybe? The idea of Babyface Ray as a Freshman is a little bit hilarious. Ray is 31 years old, and he’s been a standout on the Detroit underground for more than a decade. On the national scene, though, he’s still finding his footing.

In the context of the whole Detroit scene, Babyface Ray seems like a bit of an unlikely breakout. Detroit is full of huge, attention-grabbing personalities, but Ray’s style isn’t antic or theatrical. Instead, he raps with a low-key, conversational ease. (On this cover, I’d put him closer to Big30 than anyone else.) Ray hasn’t really made national hits yet, and maybe he won’t, but he’s thriving in his quiet way. I’m happy just to see him in the mix.

Kali (1.0 million monthly listeners)

The 20-year-old Georgia rapper Kali has an obvious upside: She looks and carries herself like a star. Kali raps in an imperious purr. She’s not exactly high-energy, and she hasn’t shown a ton of personality yet, but I like her whole aristocratic countenance. If anything, Kali’s whole style might be a little bit too professional and camera-ready; there’s not that much room for exuberance or spontaneity in her records. Still, Kali is obviously being set up for big things, and all she really needs is a hit or two. It’s still early, but she could be somebody.

BabyTron (0.6 million monthly listeners)

My guy! I’ve probably written more about BabyTron than about all the other Freshmen put together. BabyTron’s whole style is extremely specific. He ended up on this cover because he won a fan poll; unlike the other featured artists, he doesn’t have a major-label deal or a big-star cosign, unless Cole Bennett counts. BabyTron’s style might be too Detroit to catch on in a big way, but he’s also got a gift for the kinds of ridiculous lines that could easily go viral.

I’m a little confused about BabyTron’s decision to pull a XXXTentacion and rap over no beat in his cypher verse, especially since he’s already made a whole thing about how he can rap over any kind of beat. He also makes so much music that it can be hard to keep track of it all. But I’m not about to tell this guy what to do. BabyTron is clearly winning right now. You can recognize his voice within about two words, and while that might not guarantee stardom, it does mean that he’s already found a lane. That’s important.

KayCyy (0.6 million monthly listeners)

Every XXL Freshman Class needs its Lil Mosey or its Coi Leray — someone who does such a shitty job in the cypher that their verse goes viral because of all the people dunking on it. This year’s group doesn’t really have any of those spectacular failures, but KayCyy dissolving into mumbles and giggles at the end of his verse might be the closest thing.

Maybe that’s not fair to KayCyy, who’s arguably more of a singer, or maybe a chanter, than a rapper. KayCyy comes from Kenya via Minnesota, and he’s probably just here because he had a couple of appearances on Donda. KayCyy has managed the non-superhuman feat of sounding good on a couple of Gesaffelstein beats, but I’ve already forgotten who he is.

KenTheMan (0.5 million monthly listeners)

I didn’t know anything about KenTheMan before she showed up on this cover, but she’s apparently been working on the Houston underground for a long time, and she definitely sounds ready for primetime. Ken’s got a booming voice and a hard, guttural delivery, and she sounds great on minimal 808 beats. On paper, Ken has a lot in common with fellow Houstonian Megan Thee Stallion (class of ’19), but she really never sounds like Megan, even if she does have the same kind of old-school chops. More than any other rapper on this cover, Ken sounds like she’s ready to punch you in your shit. I like her a lot.

So that’s this year’s Freshman Class. Some good rappers, some bad rappers, some rappers that are perfectly solid but not exactly revelatory. If past years are any indication, some of these rappers will become stars, some will disappear completely, and most will maintain perfectly respectable B-list careers. The cover represents a bunch of different types of rappers and personalities, and at least some of them — Saucy Santana, BabyTron, Doechii, KenTheMan — really don’t sound like anyone else. Some of them are going places. That’s encouraging if not exciting.

A quick note: This will be my final edition of Status Ain’t Hood. I’ve been writing some version of this column, which started off as Mixtape Of The Week, since I started at Stereogum more than a decade ago, and I’ve really enjoyed it. At a certain point, though, a middle-aged white guy should not be this publication’s main rap writer. I’ll still write about rap when it makes sense, but it won’t happen in a regular column. Instead, next month Stereogum will debut a new monthly rap column from contributor Jayson Buford, who knows what the fuck he’s talking about. Thanks for reading.

FURIOUS FIVE

1. DJ Premier – “Terrible 2’s”
The track from the new Premier EP that’s getting the most love is the Lil Wayne/Slick Rick collab “The Root Of All.” That one is cool, but I’m partial to this one, if only because it offers the opportunity to hear El-P rap on something that doesn’t sound like a Decepticon stepping on your face.

2. DJ Muggs – “Street Made” (Feat. Scarface & Freddie Gibbs)
It’s a good week for legendary ’90s rap-production auteurs. I wish we could’ve had a Cypress Hill/Geto Boys team up in 1993, but I will happily accept one today. Scarface and Freddie Gibbs are two great rap voices that sound great together.

3. Rhys Langston – “Afro-Eccentric Character Creation Screen” (Feat. The Koreatown Oddity)
“Delroy Lindo, Keith David, Clifton Powell/ Young, Black and gifted with infinite styles.” Why doesn’t Keith David get shoutouts on every song?

4. Your Old Droog – “The Return Of Sasquatch”
More cinematic Madlib beats for Droog, please.

5. Bobby Shmurda – “Hoochie Daddy”
On Friday, Bobby Shmurda’s old buddy Rowdy Rebel, the guy who I always thought was the superior rapper, came back with a boringly efficient New York drill album. Meanwhile, Bobby is out here making truly insane club music. I don’t even know if this is good, but I love how fucking weird it is.

IT WAS ALL GOOD JUST A WEEK AGO

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