XXL Magazine's annual freshman list is an outdated, desperate plea for relevancy
Traditions by their very nature are rooted in our history. They exist as a representation of what shaped our present and remains important and influential to this day. But when do traditions become archaic? When are our traditions no longer a representation of the past, the present, and the future as some sort of fluid line, but rather as a broken cycle or a desperate plea for things to be the way they once were? When this happens, do we cut them loose and let them die with respect, do we adjust them towards a point of cohesion with current societal trends, or do we drag them along in desperation, tarnishing their reputation along with those of all who ever participated.
One of these seems outstandingly negative, and it would seem such an answer to the question is obviously incorrect to all; all except for the leaders of traditions - religious pundits who spread their influence and power through old-world expectations and holidays, politicians who accept money in order to halt progression, organizations that farm dog meat for the sake of nationalism, and magazine editors who profit from an outdated, irrelevant series. These pushers of traditions that are no longer aimed in the direction of modernity hold society back psychologically, morally, and culturally.
In a desperate plea at relevancy and we-told-you-so-ism, XXL Magazine continues to force its annual so-called freshman class down our throats, and every year, it becomes more tasteless and less refreshing.
Let’s start by addressing a very important point: It's not the music. Music changes with the world and will always exists as a mirror of the times, allowing us to live within an era of the past or present of our liking. Quality exists only in the world of opinion and no man’s opinion alone can rightfully judge art. Regardless of how you may feel about a current music scene, the true evil lies in those who try to exhibit new music as they once did the old. As music has expanded to never-before-seen reaches thanks to technology and the internet, hip-hop has perhaps seen the most extensive of growths. It is no longer a well-defined sphere of artists, but a labeling that helps to define part of the sound heard in the approach of many varied artists across an ever-changing music spectrum.
The practice of collecting these artists, many of whom exist in the grey areas between hip-hop and other out-of-date genre labels, and putting them on display not as the future of music, but of hip-hop alone, while celebrating not their uniqueness, but their similarities, is an unnecessary, desperate, and failed stab at relevancy. Which is ironic because, with XXL’s reach and history, their Annual Freshman List series is perhaps the thing that most noticeably diminishes their relevancy in modern music.
Though the first Top 10 Freshman List wasn’t published until 2007, it’s a tradition that should have died with the Lil’ Wayne era of 8-feature, Khaled-produced, T-Pain-on-the-hook megahits sometime before 2012 where the modern hip-hop scene really began to take a form inconsistent with the previous decade. Believe me when I say that XXL is aware of that fact and only continues to push The Freshman List in the way that they do in order to establish a foothold in future hip-hop and to make money.
There are not many similarities between the current hip-hop scene and those of the past. Just like the generations before, separated by generational misunderstandings, different socioeconomic driving forces, and creative discrepancy, the last era of hip-hop dominance and the current waves of hip-hop, melodic, lyrical, and otherwise, differ drastically in every way.
For example, many hip-hop artists today test the waters of their vocal ranges, while many modern R&B artists occasionally flex their ability to drop bars. The same can be said for artists across the spectrum of music, with musicians from rock, to jazz, to electronic all seeing further influence from hip-hop and incorporating the style into their own, while hip-hop artists do the same in the opposite direction. In effect, hip-hop, along with the very idea of genre, has outgrown itself and through it, most artists, including those whose sound is most reflective of traditional hip-hop, exist in some sort of blurred multi-reality of genrefication.
Sure, we can make the case that an artist like Lil Wayne dabbled in vocals at certain points in his career, but it was rarely his focus and he utterly failed when trying to incorporate other stylings, most notably rock, into his sound. Artists of the new era however, from Anderson .Paak to Russ to Future and everywhere in between, focus a tremendous amount of time and effort into the vocal aspects of their music. Yes, they’re hip-hop artists, but their rap ability and frequent use of hip-hop production are only small pieces of their musical range. An artist like Anderson .Paak also belongs to the rock, R&B, jazz, funk, and electronic genres so while taking his wide talent, cutting him off from all of his other sounds and inspirations, and claiming him to be one of the most exciting, young acts in hip-hop is accurate, it’s deeply shortsighted. Anderson .Paak is one of the most exciting artists in all of music and exhibiting his talent in a limited frame is in bad taste.
The differences don’t stop there. Lyrically, rappers today vary greatly from the way that rappers attacked their craft when the confines of the Top 10 Freshman List were created. 2007 was a defining year for hip-hop. Graduation, T.I. vs. T.I.P., Kala, The Cool, American Gangster, Curtis, None Shall Pass, and Souljaboytellem.com were just some of the most notable mainstream hip-hop albums from that year. The Freshman Class from 2007 did a great job of reflecting the direction of hip-hop with artists who boasted a similar sound. The list was able to do so because stylistically, the entirety of the Freshman Class and the majority of mainstream hip-hop existed in a limited arena. The genre was better defined, experimentalism was limited, and the music and the artists meshed because lyrically, they could easily work with one another. Saigon, Plies, Rich Boy, Gorilla Zoe, Joell Ortiz, Lupe Fiasco, Lil Boosie, Crooked I, Papoose, and Young Dro though all possessing their own unique sound, don’t come close to the range of styles and more importantly the range of lyrical approaches found in today’s scene.
Hip-hop hasn’t only outgrown itself. It has split into many different subcategories. One of the most obvious challenges that XXL faces when putting together a list of hip-hop’s future stars is that what remains of the outdated hip-hop mega-genre is a constantly-growing collection of hip-hop inspired subsets whose sounds differ far more than they mesh. In result, when XXL does narrow down their list of so-called “leaders of the new school”, puts them in a room, and tells them to play nice over an outdated DJ’s beat, the results can be cringe worthy.
If you need proof, just watch the 2016 Freshman Cypher video where you’ll see artists like 21 Savage and Lil Yachty struggle to keep pace lyrically with a purer rapper like Denzel Curry. It’s because they don’t belong to the same style. It’s not 2007 when a collection of hip-hop youth pride themselves on their freestyle ability and look up to the lyricism of the Gansta Rap era; it’s 2018 when artists have a much wider range of influences and a much broader directive with their music than being a wordsmith. The melodically-focused side of hip-hop cares more about the overall sound and using their vocals as an instrument, while the lyrically-focused class is more reminiscent of hip-hop’s past. So, asking them to show off their talents in a field that only a small portion of them actually pursue yields the same results as if a collection of musicians who each specialize in different instruments were all asked to play a 30-second guitar solo. Sure, because they’re talented musicians, they could probably all stumble their way through it better than the average person, but the several guitar players of the group are going to blow everyone else out of the water.
Because the sounds of modern hip-hop are so vast and so varied and pull their inspirations from the entirety of the music spectrum, the thing that seems to differ the most among modern artists is their production. A decade ago, production was much simpler. DJ Khaled could put together an album with a collection of similar-sounding beats featuring his voice screeching in the background and tell every mainstream rapper to feature on it. It came together great. But as music has grown, hip-hop artists have come to the realization that their production should be much more complex and focused. Modern hip-hop producers are electronic composers capable of their craft without the feature of rappers and vocalists. They have a much deeper sense of understanding on music and a much more intimate relationship with the artists that they produce for.
In fact, today most hip-hop artists seem to be well-equipped with their own understanding of production and thanks to paths paved by artists like Kanye West and Travis Scott, the modern scene is arguably more focused on production that it is on lyricism or vocals. Again, it doesn’t make sense to take these production-focused artists and tell them to drop a freestyle to see how they stack up. And it certainly doesn’t make sense to have them do so overtop the production of an inferior producer like DJ Drama whose work can’t stack up to the modern artists building their craft around their ability to seamlessly blend production with their lyrical and vocal techniques.
Stylistically, vocally, lyrically, and in production, hip-hop has changed. It has grown. It has been bent, broken, and rebuilt from the foundations not only of its own past, but with scraps from the entirety of music. And through all of it, it no longer really exists. Not as a single genre anyway. Due to its wide berth, artists on opposite ends of its spectrum cannot mesh along a single aspect of music and asking them to do so is not only inconsistent with modern sounds, but displays a lack of understanding of the existing hip-hop realm. As music and art change, it’s important for media outlets to change too. We cannot display and discuss a Warhol piece in the same way that we do so with a Manet just because both are visual art. And so, XXL cannot exhibit XXXTentacion in the same manner they once did with Asher Roth just because they are both hip-hop artists. It’s simple laziness and unwillingness to change in order to align with the modern scene.
But it’s not only that. It’s desperation. It’s the idea that if XXL Magazine chooses ten artists each year and highlights them as the future of hip-hop, no matter how poorly they display their talents and prove their lack of understanding to what these artists are trying to accomplish with their music, they will always be right with at least some of their predictions. It’s a fail-safe, and an especially cowardly one at that. In this way, every time one of their freshmen achieves something, XXL can take credit and show everyone they were right. Unfortunately, the audience always seems to only be aware of the success stories. And credit is due where it is rightfully earned. XXL Magazine correctly included Kendrick in 2011 a year before the release of his marquee album, Good Kid, m.A.A.d. City. They included J. Cole in 2010 when they saw the genius behind Lights Please. Through the years they have highlighted Future, Mac Miller, Travis Scott, and DeJ Loaf before their imminent rises to fame.
But this is the same series that also predicted a rise from the likes of Asher Roth, OJ da Juiceman, Diggy Simmons, and Iggy Azelea. Their failures in the hip-hop realm and arguably for even being deserving of the hip-hop label are overshadowed by the idea that XXL also got some right. It’s the classic example of quantity being prioritized over quality and is the main reason why XXL Magazine still publishes its Freshman List. It’s less of a look towards the future and more of a safety net for the magazine’s ego in case one of the featured artists finds success.
If they really want to get things right, and if they really want to be relevant and respectful of modern music, XXL Magazine needs to do what responsible leaders do when traditions become archaic and outdated. They need to give it up and let it die with whatever respect it still has, or they need to adjust it and make the entire series more applicable to the much-changed modern hip-hop scene. They need to highlight talents of artists past only lyricism. They need to include artists who exist away from traditional hip-hop but are inspired and use hip-hop style in their music. They need to include relevant producers and display the artistic ability that goes into making a modern hip-hop track from the ground up. They need to highlight the complexities of modern artists – their range vocally, lyrically, instrumentally and in production. They need display these artists as unique individuals bending and breaking the bounds of an old genre and turning it in to an incalculable amount of styles and sounds that now exist across the entire music spectrum.
Until XXL Magazine is willing to adapt, and as hip-hop continues to change and expand at a breakneck pace, The Annual Freshman List will linger on as an outdated, unexciting, desperate stab at relevancy.