The XXL Freshman List is an interesting entity for many different reasons, There’s a lot of subplots embedded inside the main narrative of predicting who’s going to experience longevity in the future. Oftentimes, these subplots are much more interesting than the main objective. Being a part of the cover doesn’t guarantee longevity. If anything, XXL Magazine is mostly a reflection of who’s hot at the moment. Just by pure common sense, it’s virtually impossible for a major publication to make these selective decisions without each artist having at least one or two hits songs in their repertoire (Yachty with “1Night” for example, or Dababy with “Walker Texas Ranger”).
Sometimes, a rapper transcends expectations to the point of being too large for the cover. Juice WRLD hinted at this in a YouTube video where he shows off his massive crib as a symbol for his universal acclaim. In his case, being on the cover would be useless. By 2019, his status as a global superstar was already solidified.
The same could be said for overnight sensation Lil Nas X, who’s song “Old Town Road” shattered a record previously held by established legends and heteronormative pop stars. The extravagant outfits and ostentatious video ideas landed him Grammy nominations before having a full-length album (he still doesn’t technically!).
You also have certain guys that refuse the cover because they think they’re all it when they’re really not. Lil Skies fell into this category back in 2018 when he was selected as the tenth spot for the cover. He felt that the selection process is rigged, which is really just code for “Im not talented enough to do my own freestyles.” Frankly, his decision was the equivalent of calling out the lameness of a beat during a cypher because you don’t have a substantial rap worth sharing (ahem, Lil Mosey). Rich the Kid is another one who declined the cover, but for unknown reasons (though I believe it’s because XXL viewed him as a backup addition).
The freestyles, cyphers, and photoshoots have always been the heart and soul of the XXL Freshmen Class since 2011 (though the selection process officially began in 2007). And while it’s always interesting to hear someone’s wordplay, cadence, and delivery in a controlled setting, very rarely do we see these freestyles foreshadowing the future for a majority of the artists. Freestyles from Mac Miller and Travis Scott feel archaic at this point for obvious reasons. After hearing Dababy’s freestyle, you probably would’ve thought he’d be in the rap spotlight for the next ten years. Instead, fans have seemingly experienced fatigue from a stationary aesthetic that rarely leaves one cadence. But shit like this is why the freestyles are so fun in the first place. You truly never know.
The main obstacle for this process has ironically been the genre itself. Rap has evolved since the inaugural class of spitters that included anyone from Lupe Fiasco to Young Dro. In the beginning, the freestyles felt more like an actual competition. The atmosphere was dimly lit, and the location was reminiscent of an empty warehouse. Things started to change in 2016 though, when 21 Savage, Lil Uzi Vert, Lil Yachty, Denzel Curry, and Kodak Black performed in one of the most infamous cyphers of our time.
Sitting at 166 million views on YouTube, the 2016 XXL Freshman Cypher mirrors a yearly holiday that must be celebrated by everyone who’s a rap fan. It’s so notorious, that Ebro felt the need to throw jabs at Uzi and Yachty when they went on his show for an interview about lack of talent or staying power. Boy was he wrong in hindsight (Eternal Atake, Lil Boat 3, etc.)
From a “traditional” standpoint, no one did particularly well, as 21 Savage stumbled in the middle of his verse, and Lil Uzi substituted actual words for his sarcastic “Yeah” signature.
From an entertainment standpoint however, this was clearly one of the most eccentric “battles” in XXL history. For four enjoyable minutes, the freestyle felt like a group event. Everyone is seen smiling and laughing as Uzi twirls and tiptoes in front of DJ Drama’s equipment. 21 Savage raps about needing more soda. Kodak births the “who the fuck picked this lame ass beat” line that eventually slithers its way into Cyphers from then on out (none of them captured the immediacy or cleverness that Kodak did on that day though). Most importantly, this specific freshman class represents a shift in how these cyphers operate, and who they’re targeted for.
From 2016 on, we’ve seen more of an emphasis on capturing the endless versatility found within this massive genre. We’ve seen a larger female presence thankfully (something 2019 nailed in my opinion), and we’ve also seen more artists showcase their specific nuances without adhering to the structured concept of an XXL cypher (XXXTentacion stopping the beat for example has recently become a staple). Instead of blogs, Soundcloud and YouTube are dictating the talent search (and kids indirectly). Tik Tok will undoubtedly do this in the coming years as well.
The 2020 class represents this shift, with most featured rappers finding fame from YouTube videos, stylistic movements, and Soundcloud streams. The group as a whole is fine, but the magazine definitely missed the mark by not including any Detroit or west coast artists (no 42 Dugg or Sada Baby, or Shootergang Kony?!). Flo Mili would’ve been an obvious choice for me too, but her album Ho, Why is You Here might’ve been released after decisions were made. Still though, her initial hit “Beef FloMix” has been out since the summer of 2019. She’s been relatively known since then. Curious to see how that opportunity was missed.
Despite a few head-scracthers, the list for the most part captures mainstream rap in its current mold. There’s emphasis on UK/Brooklyn drill (Fivio), blues rap (Rod Waveband Polo G), emo rap (24kGoldn), and southern trap (NLE Choppa, Lil Keed and Mulatto). There’s the one enigma who doesn’t want to participate in any of the events (Baby Keem). There’s also the random white guy that somehow always finds the spotlight (Jack Harlow). These are styles and dynamics that continue to headline the genre as we enter a new decade. Here is my ranking of the 2020 cyphers. Full disclosure: the raps were not that exciting this year.
11. Lil Keed
For whatever reason, the cyphers from Lil Keed, Polo G, and Jack Harlow were by far the least memorable out of any other grouping. It hurts me to say this (especially as someone who’s included Keed in my roundup), but Keed did not bring it. He looked stiff on stage, and his verse was way too short. The addition of his patented “woo-woos” only further emphasized his limitations as a rapper too.
Thankfully, i don’t think this is reflective of his actual talent. Keed is at his best when showcasing the full depth of his vocal inflections. It’s virtually impossible to showcase this in a small freestyle. His new album Trapped On Cleveland 3 gave me reason to believe he can follow his own path without Young Thug’s shadow.
10. Fivio Foreign
Similar to Keed, Fivio is only great when rapping in a particular environment. For him, that’s UK drill. Mulatto’s infatuation with him may have shook his confidence a little too (We’ll get there). To be honest, watching his freestyle made me miss the days when guys like August Alsina would add a chorus to the mix. I feel like Fivio could’ve injected life in this cypher with a hard-ass chorus, because energy is clearly his greatest strength as an artist.
As for his career, Fivio hasn’t impressed me outside of “Big Drip.” He may have one or two hits left in him before the gas runs out.
9. Jack Harlow
The lyrics about a woman knowing how to cook for Harlow just rubbed me the wrong way. Ir’s such a regressively dumb flex. The Jetsonmade beat is very similar to “What’s Poppin,” so Harlow rides that same flow flow. The result is a mindless shrug. This dude’s got one-hit wonder written all over him.
I haven’t really delved into this guy’s music because I truly don’t find it to be that interesting. He just seems unimpressively present. His freestyle did little to move the needle for me. He rides the hard-hitting beat well, but succumbs to the corny “shout everyone out” method during his freestyle to add space. Uzi did this in 2016, but with more pizzazz. I’ll pass on this one.
7. Lil Tjay
One thing that disappointed me was the lack of passionate singing in these cyphers. Tjay, Rod Wave, Chika, and Calboy all have unique registers, yet all of them held back. Jay hides his singing ability during his first freestyle, and he does it again during the cypher.
6. NLE Choppa
NLE Choppa’s transition from hard-nosed street spitter to zenned-out soothsayer is admirably bizarre. His cypher features lyrics that you would hear in any NLE song (grew up around the killing, and all the dealing, and all the drilling”) , but I’m putting him in this spot because I think there’s a grander plan he has in mind. This freestyle feels like an end of a chapter for him. I can’t wait until he starts rapping about how alcohol is the equivalent to being possessed by a demon. This could be one of the great upset stories in rap history.
Calboy produced some insightful storytelling in his cypher, but it’s his drip that really sold me. Too many rappers forget that image is still a big deal in the genre. If you’re coming out with trench coat similar to Sherlock Holmes, then you have my full attention. Carboy does just that.
Holding the tiny dog as she raps was a nice little touch performance-wise, and she switches the flow enough to show versatility. I also like that line about her transitioning from sweeping floors to rolling blunts. Very solid all-around. Curious to see how her motivational raps pan out in the mainstream.
3. Polo G
Polo G is by far my favorite rapper out of this bunch, and honestly his cypher would’ve been number one or two for me if not for the ridiculous a Capella. I don’t know why, but when a rapper asks for the beat to stop during a cypher, it just feels like a cop out. I mean, isn’t the freestyle already a way to show your a Capella skills?
2. Rod Wave
The way in which Rod Wave can tell a story in such a short period of time is distinctly impressive. In this particular cypher, he darts between anecdotes about being kicked out, living with his cousin, and trapping in the streets with his closest friends.
He’s one of the only rappers who injects detail in his rhymes, talking about the holes in his mattress during some of the coldest nights in December. Wave is definitely one of the more talented practitioners.
Name controversies aside, Mulatto’s cypher stood out the most for me. She carried a calm and collected aura that resonated with the rest of the rappers who stood beside her. The Fivio bar was the best out of the bunch, because it subtly rattled the competition without shouting him out in a corny way.
It’s funny to think Mulatto was the winner of Jermaine Dupri’s rap show contest The Rap Game. I guess in a weird full circle kind of way, that experience helped her gain immense recognition as a clear talent. I now have to take the show a lot more seriously than I originally intended. Kudos to you Dupri.
Rap song of the week
Baby Plug – “Float On”
Rapping over Modest Mouse while interpolating Lupe Fiasco? I’m in!