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It was back in 2007 that hip-hop bible XXL launched its first ever Freshman Class, a list of ten up-and-coming artists poised to change the rap game for good. The last decade has seen more than a hundred stars spotlighted as part of the list and its accompanying annual cover feature, but this year features a history-making entry: Stefflon Don.

The talented star has already built a strong reputation for herself in the UK; her unique blend of hard-hitting raps and smooth, dancehall beats has galvanized the scene, earning her critical acclaim and a series of impressive chart positions. Now, she seems ready to achieve the unthinkable: global stardom. Earlier this year, her infectious hit “Hurtin’ Me” – featuring former XXL Freshman French Montana – ascended the Billboard charts, peaking at no. 7 and confirming her US fanbase; but could she truly become the first artist to crack the US? And, more importantly, why has it taken so long for UK rappers to achieve Stateside success?

Almost twenty years ago, the future looked bright for the UK’s grime and garage artists. It all started in 2002, when Ms. Dynamite released her game-changing debut, A Little Deeper, an expansive, eclectic album which soon received a US release. Just a year later, Dizzee Rascal followed in her footsteps when he exploded into the music industry with Boy In Da Corner, a sonic masterpiece whose uptempo production, incisive lyrics and infectious hooks travelled across the globe. Dizzee looked set to break into the US, and he did to an extent – his American fandom came out in force for an electrifying 2016 New York show, during which he performed the whole album to frenzied fans, who greeted him with an uproarious reception.

But Dizzee’s career began to lose traction as he switched up his sonic blueprint, experimenting with pop music formulas. His follow-up album, Showtime, shifted less than 20,000 US units (compared to its predecessor, which sold almost 60,000), indicating that America seemingly forgot his impact and swiftly closed the doors on any hopes of a UK rapper breaking into the mainstream.

Since then, victories have been few and far between. After a decade-long period of silence, the last few years have seen minor signs of change. First came the US release of Skepta’s excellent Konnichiwa, which – despite the ‘Americanization’ pointed out by some reviewers – failed to make a dent on the US charts. It entered the Billboard 200 for just one week (at #160) before dropping off permanently.

More recently, Drake seized his opportunity to showcase the best of British work on his 2017 ‘playlist’ More Life, enlisting the skills of Walsall-born vocalist Jorja Smith as well as London rap veteran Giggs. His memorable verse on “KMT” earned him an online roasting, with Noisey penning an article filled with reactions from bemused Americans and DJ Akademiks writing the verse off as “wack.” Unsurprisingly, some fans made memes mocking the UK rap scene more generally, spawning an online pile-on which Giggs later responded to. But Drake’s growing affiliation with BBK didn’t go unnoticed, nor did the 2016 #Grime4Corbyn election campaign, reported on by CNN.

Stormzy experienced a similar flicker of success when his Gang Signs & Prayer album earned him a handful of US live slots, but it seems that things still aren’t changing – but why? We asked a series of US rap fans, all of whom work in the music industry, to try and explain the problem, but most were just as bewildered as we are.

“I honestly have a hard time understanding why the crossover hasn’t happened,” explains Briana Cheng, who works in A&R at 4AD. “Most of the hip-hop I listen to comes from UK rappers, but I think that rap music is so much about representing the artists’ cities and cultures, so I think that’s what makes it difficult for American fans to relate. It’s definitely changing though – the music is increasingly welcomed.”

This is a plausible explanation; everything from the anecdotal lyrics to the thick, regional accents of UK rappers could realistically make it difficult for US fans to truly embrace the artistic output, but the recent rise of foreign-language pop – especially K-Pop – seems to indicate that cultural differences expressed through music are more celebrated than ever. Online reaction clearly shows that UK rappers and their depictions of culture are received with skepticism by US fans, but this is only part of the pushback.

For Nancy Lu, founder of Fancy PR, culpability lies partially with the media. “Hip-hop is extremely saturated right now – media coverage is often limited to just a handful of heavy-hitters, which makes it tough for anyone on the rise to gain greater recognition.” She argues that the comparative lack of coverage afforded to UK rappers makes it difficult for them to earn the tag of ‘authenticity’ so often romanticized in rap: “We want to champion the underdog, and perhaps that’s a story that UK rappers haven’t gotten across yet.”

It’s also worth highlighting that US radio is relentlessly dominated by genre. UK rappers are admirably genre-fluid, oscillating effortlessly between EDM, afrobeats, house, and pop, making their output difficult to define. Stefflon Don’s own work exemplifies this mishmash, making her inclusion on the XXL list even more notable.

“I do think there’s a feeling here that rap is an inherently American art form, and that rap from other countries feels like a pale imitation of the real thing,” explains Noah Jackson, Social Strategist at Premier Music Group. “I also don’t think American audiences know where to place UK hip-hop because it frequently crosses genres; while American hip-hop definitely pushes boundaries in terms of sonic innovation, I feel like the hybridity inherent to UK urban music can make it hard for US audiences to grasp.”

Luckily, charts worldwide have been revolutionized by the Internet and its sense of musical democracy. Now, we don’t need to wait for industry gatekeepers to green-light a track for radio; we all have a whole world of music at our fingertips, a fact which can only benefit artists like Stefflon Don. It seems reductive, especially in 2018, to highlight this, but Don’s success is even more groundbreaking as a woman in hip-hop. The XXL Freshman Class has been criticized on numerous occasions for its lack of gender diversity; even this year, Don won out over other worthy contenders like Saweetie and Rico Nasty, whereas UK star Little Simz last year seemed poised for a victory but ultimately fell short.

This year’s list is also worthy of critique, with Jackson pointing out a series of shortcomings: “The accolade is becoming all the more meaningless,” he argues. “Most of the artists on the list – Ski Mask, Lil Pump, and Smokepurrp in particular – have already experienced massive organic success, so calling them ‘freshmen’ feels unreflective of the actual rising stars of the rap world. Stefflon Don has already received massive support from Spotify and Apple, including billboard slots, so the XXL cover doesn’t seem like the catalyst for mainstream success she’s seeking.”

This is a fair point. Like most UK rappers, Don is relying on hard work and word-of-mouth to cement her success. It’s a blueprint which recently worked for Ms. Banks, whose guest slot on the “Yu Zimme” remix earned her a co-sign – as well as a tour opening slot – from Nicki Minaj, whereas the likes of Lady Leshurr and Nadia Rose routinely rack up millions of views on their videos.

Still, the cover spot does show that attitudes might be shifting, even if past critique of the lists highlights that XXL might not exactly have its finger on the pulse when it comes to talented women in rap. But more international heavy hitters than ever are co-signing UK stars, and the democratization of music through social media means that US fans are consistently consuming the creative output of UK rappers. Now, it’s time for this fact to finally be reflected; after twenty years of false starts and missed opportunities, it’s about time that UK rap talent gained the Stateside recognition it deserves.

If you haven’t already, check out our breakdown of this year’s crop of ‘XXL’ Freshmen right here.

Words by Jake Hall
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