If you are not familiar with the XXL Freshman Class, allow me to explain the concept before going further into this article. The Freshman Class is a list of hip-hop artists put out by XXL magazine on a yearly basis. The artists are shown together on the cover of the magazine and given profiles in the publication. The artists also participate in cyphers and freestyles. XXL’s purpose in putting out the list is to highlight rising talent and predict artists that the publication thinks will shape the future of the genre. In previous years, the magazine has picked out classes that seemed to show a somewhat even balance of whatever was going on in the culture at the time.
However, this year’s freshman class missed the mark by a long shot. While I do agree with some of the freshman picks this year, the class is overall much less sonically diverse than previous years. The list seems to focus on the Florida Sound Cloud scene. And, while this sound is very popular at the moment, I feel that XXL is overlooking other emerging sounds, styles, and regions. So, I have decided to compile a list of my own.
A native of Prince George’s County, Maryland, IDK released one of my favorite albums of 2017- IWASVERYBAD. Since then, he has been releasing a stream of singles that have been making serious noise in the underground. Two of these singles are collaborations with previous XXL freshman, Denzel Curry. IDK brings emotion, storytelling, and a variety of sonic influences to all of his projects. Moreover, each has its own specific focus on a theme.
Born in Indonesia, Rich Brian made a splash in the American Hip-hop scene with his video for “Dat $tick” (originally under the name Rich Chigga) in 2016. He was almost immediately signed to 88Rising, a pan-Asian multimedia company, that Brian helped propel into a thriving up-and-coming hip-hop label. His initial stream of singles was characterized by songs that were aggressive, nocturnal, and short. Brian flexed his technical rapping ability through high speed and intricate flows. This style is even more impressive when you know that Brian taught himself the English language through watching YouTube videos. In 2018, he released his debut album, Amen, which made Brian the first Asian artist to ever get the #1 spot on iTunes. The songs on this album tended to lean towards the more ethereal and floral side, and showed a more introspective side to Brian’s character as a kid coming of age in the midst of internet fame.
Buddy is an artist from Compton, CA who has worked with super producers Pharrell Williams and Kaytranada. In fact, Buddy is signed to Pharrell’s label – i am OTHER. Buddy’s songs “Shine” (which is sunny and bright) and “Black (feat. A$AP Ferg)” (which is haunting and militant) show two very different sides of him as an artist. This complexity can be a great asset for him going forward. With two EPs out (Ocean & Montana and Magnolia), Buddy is still finding his sound. But, this kind of raw talent will be interesting to watch develop over time.
An Atlanta artist who is signed to J. Cole, with a unique voice and a break out project, is certainly poised to make some big moves. Unlike many artists currently coming up from the Atlanta scene, J.I.D is influenced much more by classic hip-hop artists like Outkast and Nas, than Jeezy or Gucci Mane. This resulted in JID’s debut, The Never Story, to be chock full of elaborate rhyme schemes, clever word play, meticulous flows, and a vocal inflection reminiscent of Anderson .Paak. In addition to this, JID raps over a variety of eclectic instrumentals, some produced by J. Cole himself.
Joey Purp could have been on last year’s list, as he has his roots in the same Chicago collective that spawned stars like Vic Mensa and Chance the Rapper. Joey Purp always seems one step away from mainstream stardom and has the music to back it up. Joey’s project iiiDrops spans an emotional gamut using a mix of clever and poetic lyrics and soul shaking beats. Songs like “Morning Sex” blend triumphant sample based production with a sermonesque delivery of lyrics about overcoming loss. Tracks like “Girls (feat. Chance the Rapper)” and “Photobooth” take a bouncing and irreverent tone that adds much needed levity to his discography.
Ski Mask The Slump God
Ski Mask is a Florida rapper who is moving the regional sound forward with a cartoonish delivery and lyricism. Projects like You Will Regret and BEWARE THE BOOK OF ELI show off his trademark rapid fire flows and hyperbolic silly humor. His contributions to Journey to the West – EP by the Chinese rap group, Higher brothers also showcased his unique energy and helped him to gain a growing international fan base.
The next rising star out of Chattanooga is YGTUT. He’s cut from the same cloth as Isaiah Rashad, pushing his regional sound further into tightly-knit autobiographical storytelling around the concepts of religious idealism and human folly. As Yoh Phillips from djbooth.net wrote, “[YGTUT makes] the kind of Southern rap that feels like old Cadillacs, smoky jazz clubs, and AriZona Iced Tea on your grandmother’s porch during the hottest summer months.” His last full project was his 2015 mixtape, Preacher’s Son. But, he has continued to build on his hype through more rambunctious singles, contributions to other Chattanooga artists’ projects, and a recent signing to the new Same Plate records.
Houston based rapper Maxo Kream has been putting out stellar work for years. His mixtapes are consistently dark and menacing in a way many up-and-coming rappers could only dream of replicating. This sound and subject matter come from a place of authenticity- his coming of age in Alief, Texas. On his most recent project, Punken, Maxo shows off more versatility than ever. The project’s structure encapsulates his multi-faceted persona by using each track to highlight a different piece of his human puzzle.
Also known as Peggy, Jpegmafia is a rapper/producer who made massive waves in the YouTube critic world with his project Veteran. His music is loud and abrasive, but also layered and politically aware. While he is part of a subgenre known as Noise Rap that was popularized by acts such as clipping. and Death Grips, Jpeg seems to be the first artist in this field to have the potential for any kind of mainstream success. His crossover appeal with certain lo-fi and SoundCloud fan bases might just be right place at the right time miracle.
St. Louis native, Smino burst into the scene and the ear buds of college students across the country this past year with his breakout project blkswn. His music is as fun and danceable as it is smooth and sexy. At first, obvious influences from André 3000 and Chance the Rapper stick out. But, with repeated listens, it is clear that Smino is really carving out a lane of his own.
Another promising rapper from Chattanooga, BbyMutha is an artist who’s unapologetic in a place where women often think they have to comply to certain standards. She is not afraid to rap about being the actual mother to two sets of twins, and just a few bars later, being completely open about being sexually active with as many men and women as she pleases. But, beyond her empowering content, she has the music to back it up. She seems to be putting out a constant stream of EPs like BbyShoe and GlowKit: BLKGRL. Each of these projects is full of bops that are perfect for the car like “Roses” or appear to be apropos for the strip club like “Rules.”