It was such a cliché way of finding out if I’d made the 8th grade basketball team: coach posted the final roster outside the gym at 2:30 on a Friday, almost to say, “Hey guys, I watched High School Musical last night, and that’s how coach did it there!” Everyone charged toward the 8x10 piece of paper like the stampede in The Lion King, fighting for position to view the sheet that would dictate 8th grade popularity. Once the masses cleared, I made my way. I guided my finger down the list as I whispered to myself, “He made it?…His shot’s trash…That dude’s lame,” but by the time I got to the bottom, I couldn’t find my name.
Waiting to find out if you made a team is a long, nerve-wracking process. You’ve fully dedicated yourself physically and emotionally, magnifying the tryout’s result—if you made the team, you feel seven-feet tall with two dicks; if you didn’t, you go throw on some Dido and cry yourself to sleep while clutching a body pillow to your chest. Not saying that’s what I did after I didn’t make the 8th grade team… Rejection’s bite stings worse with the relative magnitude of the desired spot. At the time, getting cut from the middle school team was like someone ripping out my heart, but hindsight illuminates its ultimate insignificance—I was never going to the NBA. For aspiring rappers, I can only imagine how rejection plagues their confidence and psyche—this is their livelihood.
It’s that time of year again: time to decide the 2017 XXL Freshman class. XXL’s selection certainly isn’t the exclusive indicator of one’s future success (does anyone know who Donnis is?), but their reputation elevates their input value. It’s a badge of honor to claim one of these limited roster spots.
Perusing the eligible candidates elucidates this year’s stiff competition. With the internet increased individuals' exposure, and decreased barriers to entry, 2017’s talent pool is impressively deep. Part of this increased competition results from XXL’s limited emphasis on breaking promising unknowns, and increased focus on widening relatively established artists’ exposure. A little counterintuitive, no? I just don’t see how LA’s KR or Brooklyn’s Kota The Friend stand any feasible chance against guys like Kyle, MadeinTYO, Xxxtentacion, or Young MA. Also, the term “freshman” is agnostic to typical prerequisites for the moniker: some of the artists have been circulating for nearly a decade (i.e. Boldy James), and others just became relevant within the past year or two (i.e. Aminé); some contestants are in their mid 30s (i.e. Conway), others can’t legally drink (i.e. Ugly God). The talent pool is a Hip Hop melting pot, mixing individuals with drastically different aesthetics, backgrounds, experiences, and locations. However, two cities seem to have the deepest talent offering.
For the past several years, Chicago and Atlanta have been Hip Hop’s most reliable plug—the latter especially. Names like Chance The Rapper and Vic Mensa, and Young Thug and 21 Savage, have developed into music fixtures through their efficient output and brand power. 2017’s XXL candidates foreshadow this trend’s continuation. Atlanta boasts 18 applicants, and Chicago claims 12; the next closest cities are Brooklyn with seven, and Miami with six. And it’s not only the exceeding quantity from these major Hip Hop hubs, it’s the quality. Some of Atlanta’s better applicants include: 24hrs, Kodie Shane, MadeinTYO, Playboi Carti, and YFN Lucci. Chicago’s brighter ones are: Taylor Bennett, Joey Purp, Towkio, Famous Dex, Montana of 300, Noname, and Saba. These artists have already tasted mainstream success—Joey Purp’s critically-acclaimed iiiDrops ranked #36 on Complex’s top-50 2016 albums. So I repeat: how are guys like KR and Kota The Friend supposed to compete with these artists? They’re in a different league. Sure, it’s an honor to even be selected, but it just seems like XXL is giving some of these kids false hope, and setting them up for failure. But I digress—back to the topic. Combing through this list and selecting the ten most deserving artists is so difficult.
First off, how do we define “deserving”? There are many different metrics—quantitative and qualitative—that factor into the selection process: social media presence, streaming numbers, brand power, talent, potential, age, co-signs, style, personality, etc.
If we’re talking sheer popularity, then these artists with six-figure followings come to mind: A Boogie Wit Da Hoodie, Famous Dex, Kyle, MadeinTYO, Nav, Playboi Carti, PNB Rock, Ugly God, Xxxtentacion, and Young MA. These individuals have cultivated cult-like followings at a commercial-like level, making them serious threats to other XXL contestants. However, I think only Ugly God deserves a spot thanks to his sonically pleasing cloud music, and eccentricity. Kyle has “iSpy” and MadeinTYO has “Uber Everywhere,” but I’m hard-pressed to find further evidence of their talent. Xxxtentacion’s popularity has exploded, with his SoundCloud songs averaging in the tens of millions, but he makes my ears bleed, and he allegedly beat his pregnant ex-girlfriend. So, sorry X—you’re not making my list.
If we’re talking sheer talent, then I’d have to select these artists: Boogie, CJ Fly, Duckwrth, Joey Purp, Montana of 300, Noname, Saba, SiR, Smino, and Towkio (honorable mention for Conway and Westside Gunn). These artist possess a high lyrical caliber, complemented by velvety flows to create rewind-worthy tracks that exceed most, if not all, of the aforementioned popular artists. Boogie should be selected purely off his “Nigga Needs” video; Pro Era’s CJ Fly is one of coldest guys coming out of NY; Duckwrth harbors a similar feel to André 3000; Joey Purp is going to be a superstar; Montana of 300 combines an intense, passionate flow with chilling street tales; Noname matches her masterful spoken-word style with lyrical depth; Saba is one of the game’s most intelligent aspiring artists who’s caught ears with his rookie release, Bucket List Project; SiR was recently signed to TDE; Smino’s flow and sound are intoxicating; Towkio is an integral member of Chicago’s renaissance, working with guys like Chance, Vic, and Kaytranada.
However, talent alone can’t be the exclusive identifier of an XXL Freshman; they need to have appeal as well. With that in mind, here is my 2017 XXL Freshman list (not necessarily who I want, but the artists who best combine the previous metrics): Boogie, CJ Fly, Joey Purp, Kap G, MadeinTYO, Noname, SiR, Smino, Ugly God, and, Young MA. The only person that I haven’t mentioned already is Kap G. Kap is quietly becoming a household Southern name, thanks to his Pharrell i am OTHER signing, features from veterans like Fabo and David Banner, and his current tour with Chris Brown. This list strikes a solid balance of talent, popularity, and potential.
Now, here is who I think XXL will choose: A Boogie Wit Da Hoodie, Famous Dex, Joey Purp, Kodie Shane, Kyle, SiR, Taylor Bennett, Ugly God, Xxxtentacion, and Young MA. This list prioritizes popularity while still emphasizing talent to a certain degree. I’m personally not a fan of A Boogie Wit Da Hoodie (that has to be one of the dumbest rap names) or Famous Dex, but their brand power and popularity are undeniable at this point; Kodie Shane is a strong female presence with a powerful cosign from Lil Yachty’s sailing team; Joey Purp, SiR, and Smino are fundamentally my favorite artists from this year’s list, and some of the most gifted; Taylor Bennett and Young MA are talented MCs who’ve become the poster children for Hip Hop’s LGBTQ community (plus, not taking away from his skill, but it doesn’t hurt that Taylor’s brother is Chano); go listen to “Bitch” by Ugly God and tell me he doesn’t deserve a spot; Xxx’s numbers and loyal following make him difficult to exclude from this year’s class.
It’s tough, man. The stiff competition, limited roster spots, weighted metrics, and sometimes puzzling, unforeseeable winners make this selection process particularly difficult. If a candidate isn’t selected one year, that doesn’t mean that they’re not worthy of a spot—Vince Staples wasn’t selected in 2014, but made it in 2015. Timing plays an important role here. To those artists who don’t make it this year, keep your chin up—I eventually made the varsity basketball squad. To those who win, congratulations! But keep grinding because this in no way, shape, or form guarantees future success.
Go vote for the 10th spot now, and check back in early April to see the winners.