By Timmy Chong
Since its inception in 2007, XXL Magazine’s “Freshmen Class” has highlighted 10 up-and-coming American hip-hop artists each year who they predict will soon explode in the music scene. XXL features freestyles, cyphers, profiles, and interviews with these artists, and provides them with a formalized introduction platform.
In today’s society, the Internet Age has reshaped hip-hop, ushering in a Renaissance era for the genre. This allows for artists to easily collaborate on and share their music, and for fans to publicly support and discuss it.
“I think the Internet is really strong right now in the sense that the Internet is completely deciding who’s famous and who’s not, and what songs are crackin’ and what’s not,” says 2017 Freshman Kyle in an interview with XXL. “I feel like this cover truly represents this era of hip-hop and what these kids are listening to on a daily basis, who they’re fans [of] right now. There’s power in that.”
The XXL Freshmen franchise has become a highly regarded and anticipated group of artists who are selected based on their talent, style, and hype— it’s the most illustrious stamp of legitimacy that a relatively new hip-hop artist can put on their resume.
“It’s almost like with this XXL cosign, regardless if people want someone like me mattering to hip-hop, they don’t really have a choice,” says 2017 Freshman Ugly God in an interview with XXL. “I feel like this opened the door for me to come in and keep doing this, keep being like, ‘I don’t need to fit the stereotypes, I’m going to just do me unforgivably.’”
This year’s Freshmen Class consists of Kyle, A Boogie Wit Da Hoodie, Aminé, Playboi Carti, Madeintyo, Ugly God, XXXTentatacion, PnB Rock, Kap G, and Kamaiyah. The group reflects the diverse landscape of today’s hip-hop genre, along with its stark digression from traditional rap music.
As recently cited by Nielsen, for the first time in history, R&B/hip-hop has overtaken rock music to become the most popular genre in the nation based on its volume of sales and streams.
“The sound and direction of hip-hop is almost reverting back to what it was in the 90s,” says University of Maryland senior computer science major Mahdi Kibria Malik. “The stuff people hear for like five years straight eventually gets boring so people start to bring back the old sound in an attempt to produce ‘new’ music.”
Malik cites Jay-Z, Joey Bada$$, and J. Cole as mainstream rappers who are keeping the old-school style alive.
While exceptional hip-hop lyricists like Kendrick Lamar, Drake, Logic, and Jay-Z have topped the Billboard album chart in 2017, the rise of new wave trap music shows how the focus of modern hip-hop is gravitating towards an overall combination of sound (beats, melodies, and flow) as opposed to simply lyrical substance. Of the rappers in this XXL class, Playboi Carti’s self-titled debut album epitomizes this notion.
“These new wave artists are just riding the beats,” says senior computer science major Derek Farley. “It’s like, in old traditional hip-hop, the beats were usually minimal and the song relied on the artist… Lyrically, hip-hop [has] been falling off.”
Although this XXL class is mostly void of the kind of lyrical masterminds that have been featured in past classes, the group represents the bulk of modern hip-hop that fails to appear on the Billboard charts today— the rappers who came up on SoundCloud, gained exposure through their mixtapes, and who a lot of hip-hop fans are bumping in their cars and talking to their friends about.
A variety of featured hip-hop styles, from new wave trap to R&B to pop, along with unique uncategorical rappers, such as Ugly God and XXXTentacion, make this group one of, if not the most, unique Freshman Class in XXL history.
“Overall, I feel like this pledge class as a whole doesn’t have any complete projects to solidify their reputation as rappers, aside from a few,” says senior computer science major Michael Nguyen. “I think last class had more definite rapper ‘identities,’ and this class is still in the midst of finding that.”
Nguyen views the 2017 class as ambitious and unproven.
“I think it’s going more in the direction of artists trying to be recognized without putting in enough work into their craft… [There are] a lot of one-hit artists compared to the last class,” he says.
While this year’s XXL Freshman Class may be regarded as relatively weak compared to recent years, this does not mean that there are no artists worth listening to. I highly recommend the freestyles by Aminé and Ugly God, and the cypher featuring Kyle, A Boogie Wit Da Hoodie, and Aminé.
Aminé’s freestyle is all about the melody, and his warm vocals mesh well with his sing-rap centered on his family and home life. He takes the freestyle in his own unique direction, similarly to how Anderson .Paak did in 2016. The end result is smooth and fantastic.
Ugly God undeniably has the crispest bars in his freestyle. He does what he’s always been doing: he injects humor into his verse amidst urban vernacular and clever rhymes, delivering the best rapping freestyle of the 2017 class.
The Kyle, A Boogie Wit Da Hoodie, and Aminé cypher is relatively the best of 2017. All three artists are known for incorporating singing in their raps, but on this cypher, they stick to emanating waterfalls of lines, along with bursts of sound patterns and wordplay. They each reveal who they are in their lines— Kyle embraces his lisp, A Boogie Wit Da Hoodie raps about being a corner boy in his youth, and Aminé uses Biblical language on several occasions.
The standouts from the other two cyphers are Kap G, who delivers rapid-fire bars with outstanding syncopated flow, and XXXTentacion, who delivers a dark acapella verse on bended knee at the end of the trap cypher— though it’s lyrically compressed and very much his own sound, it’s unbefitting of the vibe and the context set by the other artists.
The fact that XXL chose this take of the cypher over the other ones (as footage from the interviews showed XXXTentacion rapping on the beat in a similar vein to the other artists) makes it seem as though XXL’s priority was to create a publicity stunt.