One would be hard-pressed to say that rap is not currently the most popular genre in music. Rappers have become cultural icons through both their music and social media. The rock stars of the past have become the rappers of today. Rappers embody this spirit by promoting their extravagant and eccentric lifestyles and channeling that into their music. Rappers have also struggled a lot to get to the high points of their careers. These struggles are defined through regional styles of rap such as Houston freestyle rap, British grime and Southern trap.
The rise to the top has come with hardship for many rappers, which have conversely inspired them to create their art. XXL has been tracking these rappers’ rise to the top and has been bringing new ones to the public eye since 2007 with their XXL Freshmen lists. Every year, XXL posts a new freshman class highlighting the top new artists of the year. Though the past couple years have been marked with controversy with thoughts of rigging the voting process and a general public belief that the new artists are what make XXL popular in the streaming age and not the other way around, the freshman list is still a highlight in every hip-hop fans’ year. Here are the top XXL Freshmen classes.
5. 2019 Freshmen Class
Each freshman class has its star rappers and as well as its rappers that don’t perform anymore. Many of the classes that didn’t make this list have a couple of rappers that are still popular and making music to this day, however most are practically unheard of at this point. The 2019 XXL Freshmen Class has potential stars, but without time, the general opinion of each rapper isn’t developed because they themselves aren’t fully developed. Being the most recent class, announced in June of this year, no rapper on this list has truly gotten to prove themselves yet.
It seems every year the rappers on the XXL list get more diverse in rap style, region and fashion sense. The year 2019 is the peak of this trend so far, bringing in the most distinct class of rappers. This year in hip-hop hasn’t been defined by one specific type of sound and the list reflects that. Lil Mosey and YK Osiris are auto-tune rappers, both Rico Nasty and Comethezine have aggressive, distinct styles of rapping and Blueface represents the West Coast with his off-beat take on the genre.
However, rappers such as DaBaby, Megan Thee Stallion and YBN Cordae seem to make a bit more traditional rap music, infusing their own personal styles and experiences into their sound. Through this, these rappers truly found their own image in the rap community. Gunna is separate from this class of rappers because of his already established fan base and public image. It would be hard to call him a freshman aside from the name.
Tierra Whack also stands out on this list as an extremely underrated rapper. Her debut album, “Whack World” is a sleeper hit with an interesting concept: 15 songs that are 60 seconds long. Whack currently has a growing fan base and distinguishes herself by combining traditional rap and R&B. She also has been rapping since she was a teenager and is a major part of the underground rap scene in Philadelphia, her home city.
4. 2016 Freshmen Class
The year 2016 might be the most notorious class of rappers to date. Rappers such as Lil Uzi Vert, 21 Savage and Lil Yachty highlight this list. However, other rappers such as Lil Dicky, Kodak Black, Denzel Curry and Anderson .Paak are all still extremely well-known in the rap community and each have dedicated fan bases.
Each of the rappers on this list have their own image and have musical inspirations from various genres of music and niche sub-genres of rap. Denzel Curry and 21 Savage both make aggressive music, but through their subject matter and musical fluidity, the two rappers couldn’t sound more different. Denzel has had great success since his XXL appearance; his album “TA13OO,” which released in 2018 and his album “ZUU,” released this year, have become cult hits.
Anderson .Paak started out with more traditional rap, but in his past two albums, “Ventura” and “Oxnard,” Paak has been combining gospel music, R&B and rap to serenade a wide range of listeners who probably weren’t fans of rap before listening to him.
In one of the freshman cyphers for this year with Lil Uzi, 21 Savage, Lil Yachty, Denzel Curry and Kodak Black, the rappers combined their styles and made a distinctive song that is still popular to this day. The cypher is a staple to every XXL Freshmen list, where rappers collaborate on a song that is released and seen by tens of millions of fans.
3. 2010 Freshmen Class
The 2010 XXL Freshmen class has the most of the “OG’s” of the current rap scene. Freddie Gibbs, Nipsey Hussle, J. Cole, Big Sean, Wiz Khalifa and Jay Rock highlight that era of rap and inspire the current class of rappers and defined the state rap is in now. If Snoop Dogg is the “doggfather” of stoner rap and Dr. Dre introduced the world to the style seen on “The Chronic,” Wiz Khalifa is definitely the son of stoner rap.
Since the 2010 XXL Freshmen release, J. Cole and Big Sean have went on to have extremely successful careers and have become superstars at this point. J. Cole’s lyricism and dedication have placed him in a class with the greats. Detroit rapper Big Sean is a key figure in GOOD Music, a label run by Pusha T and created by Kanye West, whose influence in rap and culture is known worldwide.
Freddie Gibbs and Jay Rock are both extremely underrated rappers who both combine complicated wordplay and deep storytelling in their raps. Both rappers also have top albums that have cemented them as pioneers in the rap game. Jay Rock, part of Top Dawg Entertainment, had a hit album last year titled “Redemption,” which many people in the hip-hop community say was the best album of 2018. Freddie Gibbs, a rapper with an extremely long career, explores his former life as a drug dealer in his hit album “Bandana,” in which he collaborated with Madlib. Gibbs raps with and over classic samples while he reminisces about the past, transporting the listener into a distant place.
2. 2013 Freshmen Class
Out of every XXL Freshmen class, 2013 truly holds lyricism and the spoken art of rap to the highest degree. They brought to light extremely technical rappers such as Schoolboy Q, Joey Bada$$, Logic and Action Bronson. Among this class, other rappers to highlight are Travis Scott, Ab-Soul and Chief Keef.
Travis Scott may truly be the most popular rapper currently; in fact I see someone on campus everyday wearing Travis Scott merch and I used to hear about Astroworld, the album or the music festival, almost every day. Scott had his blow-up hit with his mixtape “Days Before Rodeo” and then his debut album, “Rodeo.” In these albums and subsequent music, Scott brings listeners to faraway worlds with his psychedelic-like vocals and atmospheric beats.
Chief Keef is an extremely interesting rapper from this class. Keef, from Chicago, has made some of the most popular rap anthems of all time. Keef is a known inspiration for almost all upcoming rappers and his song “Love Sosa” is known by many. During the release of this freshman issue, Keef was a pretty controversial inclusion in the list due to his incarceration. In fact, Keef was unable to participate in any of the freshman cyphers or even talk about his inclusion.
1. 2011 Freshmen Class
The year 2011 has to be the top freshman class with legends such as Kendrick Lamar, Mac Miller, Meek Mill and YG. Each of these four rappers went on to have renowned success, each highlighting a different style of rap.
Kendrick Lamar is a rapper that needs no introduction. To many the “GOAT” of rapping, hailing from Compton, California, Lamar tells deep stories and touches on actual issues within the black community. Kendrick won a Grammy for his third studio album, “To Pimp a Butterfly,” an album that combined spoken word poetry and creative rapping styles with funk, soul and jazz instrumentals. His fourth studio album, “DAMN.,” was the first non-classical or jazz album to win a Pulitzer Prize for music. If you haven’t heard either of these two albums, give them a listen; they will change your outlook on music.
Before the unfortunate death of Mac Miller in 2018, Miller was known to be one of the most influential white rappers, breaking barriers within the hip-hop community. Miller was dedicated to the craft of music, being obsessed with its creation since he was young. Miller made different kinds of rap music touching on themes normally not explored in the genre. While some of Miller’s rap focused on drug influences, Miller also created happy rap, in which he satisfies listeners with his singing and unusually positive vibes.
While the XXL Freshmen lists have a big impact on rap culture and introduce many listeners to new artists, XXL doesn’t define people’s opinions on artists. There have been many rap artists that have not been included on the XXL Freshmen list or have declined being on the list, such as Drake, A$AP Rocky, Nicki Minaj, Young Thug, Post Malone, Juice WRLD and Lil Skies. Ultimately, it is up to the listener to decide the careers of these artists, especially the 2019 XXL Freshmen, and it is hopeful that each of these artists will have a successful career.