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WPGM Commentary: XXL Freshman List – Losing Credibility & Relevance?


Since 2008, XXL puts together an annual “Freshman Class” list of the top new artists to watch out for in the upcoming year. These are the new crop of artists who are about to blow, but I miss the days when you didn’t really know anyone on XXL’s Freshmen list – maybe on or two. I look at the 2014 Class and there are only two rappers that I don’t know of. This makes me wonder if the list even matters anymore.

What are we looking for in an emcee classed as a ‘Freshman’? A Rapper who is attention-grabbing, he is peaking at the right time, doesn’t have a established track record yet but has a local or growing fan base. For XXL, the Freshman Class is the editors pick of new acts who are predicted to go on and have an impact in the music game. They could have a hit single out already, or are still mixtape grinding, they could be independent or signed to a major label. The criteria for the list seems to be changing, it’s not really about the unknown or emerging artist anymore but is more so, a prediction of who will go on and have successful careers.

Think about years like 2008 & 2009. A lot of people didn’t know about Lupe Fiasco, Wale, B.o.B, Kid Cudi (shame on them), or Joell Ortiz before they appeared on the Freshman List. I think XXL looks at the hype rather than those who have a mix of buzz and skill. From my perspective, I want the list to be more an illustration of what rap audiences are about to listen to, than who they have been already listening to. XXL plays it safe with not a lot of bold selections.

There are no females on this year’s list. What happened to Rapsody? Her 2013 mixtape She Got Game garnered critical praise, but she still is unheard of to some and her non-inclusion is disappointing. XXL did however name her as one of the 20 Best Female Rappers Of All Time, a week before the Freshman List was announced. That makes me think, if being on the list really matters for her. 2014 could be her year, but then again, she should have been recognized as this year’s 10 most talented rising emcees.

Sage The Gemini should have got some shine as well. He’s definitely someone I could class a “Freshman”. He has released only two successful singles, “Red Nose” and “Gas Pedal”, but there are still people who don’t know about him that should. He went platinum essentially from girls twerking to his songs on vine. If you are able to become popular by new kinds of media like Sage has proven, you are definitely changing the game and have potential for longevity.

What about those on the 2014 list? Although not quite household names, Chance the Rapper, Ty Dolla $ign, and Rich Homie Quan have been buzzing for some time now. I was bumping “Type of Way” all through Summer last year, even Ty Dolla $ign said he thought he was going to be on XXL’s Freshman list in 2013. What is the categorization of a ‘rising artist’? Is it an artist who has yet to put out an official retail album? Not for XXL, because Isaiah Rashad, August Alsina, Kevin Gates, and Jarren Benton have all already released retail projects.

Heavy hitters like Kid Cudi, Kendrick Lamar, and Wiz Khalifa didn’t need the list when they were on it, most of us knew before they made the list, how big such names would be become. Most of us had been following them long before the list came out. Or what about artists who don’t make the list, or decline to be on it like Drake and Nicki Minaj did. There case is another example of XXL being late. Both were asked to be on the 2010 list but turned it down. By then, they didn’t need the cover, they were already proven to be successful.

If we already know about the artists, does the XXL Freshman List really matter? We’ve already made the decision about who we like or don’t, is the list really going to change our opinion? Only about the ones you haven’t heard about, as these are the ones you’ll be inclined to listen to. From the 2014 Freshman Class, that’s only two artists for me.

XXL creates this list mostly to generate conversation and debate. Debates will continue to circle around the cover and who’s on it. Does this guarantee an emcee will have a long lasting music career? How is one considered a Freshman if he’s been in the game for a while? What is to be said about those who didn’t make the list? XXL are successful at stirring conversation, however at picking the year’s 10 best up and comers? I’m not too sure. They should not rely on safe, predictable options, but do more homework and cater to more independent artists. Then and only then, will the list have more credibility.

Words by Chenae Rodrigues // Edited by Ayo Adepoju

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