While many will charge that “print is dead,” XXL still still commands hip-hop fans’ attention when they roll out their yearly Freshman Class announcement of burgeoning stars in the genre. With past prognostications for the success of the likes of Lupe Fiasco, Kid Cudi, J. Cole, Big Sean, Freddie Gibbs, Wiz Khalifa, J. Cole, Kendrick Lamar, Big K.R.I.T., Macklemore, Danny Brown, and ScHoolboy Q, the publication has notably been off the mark on several occasions as well. The designation is a proverbial push in the right direction for artists, but with major label weight already behind most if not all of them, this is certainly not an “I made it moment.”
This year’s list is comprised of Chance The Rapper, Rich Homie Quan, Isaiah Rashad, Ty Dolla $ign, Lil Durk, Kevin Gates, Troy Ave, Vic Mensa, Lil Bibby, Jon Connor, Jarren Benton, and August Alsina. It’s hard to nitpick when it comes to an editorial staff’s opinions, but there are certain things to note that could determine the hip-hop sphere for years to come.
Chicago is a hotbed for talent
Prior to this year, Chicago had only been represented on the list twice (and once on the actual cover thanks to Chief Keef’s incarceration). 2014 boasts a whopping four names with Chance the Rapper, Vic Mensa, Lil Durk and Lil Bibby all carrying the torch for the Windy City. Here’s a prediction, Chicago will get another name on the list next year: Alex Wiley.
The South continues to deliver experimental artists
Jarren Benton may not be a household name just yet despite his intentions to do just that with his debut album My Grandma’s Basement, but the Decatur, Georgia native seems to embody a creative spirit from the region and is cut from a similar cloth as Andre 3000, Goodie Mob, Bone Crusher, Killer Mike and B.o.B. While an eclectic array of voices, they all harness the ability to go against the grain while not completely abandoning boom-bap sensibilities.
There are lofty expectations for Isaiah Rashad
The pressure is certainly on TDE member Isaiah Rashad given Kendrick Lamar and ScHoolboy Q’s impressive debuts. Between the two, they share platinum accolades and the distinction of debuting number one on Billboard’s Hot 100. While Ty Dolla $ign calls Los Angeles home, there’s no denying that his affiliation with Taylor Gang Records lacks the regional connotation that Rashad and TDE have. There’s certainly a new West, but it remains to be seen if he will be a driving force or merely sitting in the passenger seat.
Rappers who can sing continue to be a hot commodity
While Drake may not have invented the vocal wheel, he certainly brought duality to the forefront of hip-hop with his ability to both sing and rap. Past XXL Freshman like Future continued this trend to commercial success – although his debut album didn’t quite deliver like many suspected that it would. This year’s continuation of the trend comes in the form of Kevin Gates – the multifaceted, Baton Rouge-bred rapper/singer who turned down a deal with Cash Money in favor of one with Atlantic who said of the decision, ““I listened to Birdman talk about how it got it out the mud and how it took him 20 years to build his brand. That inspired me,” he said. “I don’t want no handouts, I want to get it out the mud.”
There’s only one breakout star
Ladies and gentleman, Chance the Rapper. While we’ve discussed his plans for the future before, he seems poised to be the real breakout success from a class that lacks crossover appeal. Having already linked with Justin Bieber on a song, his style is refreshing and catchy while still managing to deliver material for the more traditional hip-hop purists. Having joined Macklemore and Ryan Lewis for their European leg of their tour in 2013, he’s already been introduced to a wider audience than his fellow classmates. While Macklmore has drawn ire for his “calculated attempts” at capitalizing on soapbox rap, Chance’s Acid Rap was proof that you could speak volumes about the state of Chicago’s South Side without explicitly crafting a pop record.
Nearly half will never pan out long term.
The Freshman Class initially boasted ten artists when it debuted in 2008 and would stay that way for the next three years before slowly morphing to eleven and now twelve people per year. While it’s easy to pick out who has segued to stardom, and the mention of certain people’s names recall singular hit songs from yesteryear, the numbers don’t lie when it comes to success. Of the 62 past inductees, only twelve artists have gone on to produce one or more Gold records. The next crop have gone on to have viable careers, but their success rate is almost 50/50 with the final grouping that has all but faded away. For every Lupe Fiasco the list contains equal parts Mickey Factz, Charles Hamilton and Cory Gunz who struggled to even put out a single record.