Yesterday XXL dropped their hotly anticipated Freshman List for 2020. Every year people at the magazine put their heads together and curate a line-up of the up and coming hip hop acts they think are set to blow.
As with every kind of list like this it is often met with a lot of criticism from the hip hop community. It’s routinely one of the most contentious debates every year, with some of hip hop’s older stalwarts having voiced their displeasure at seemingly non-lyrical rapper inclusions in the past, whilst others question the validity of picking established acts in a newcomer list.
What is unquestionable though is the publication’s foresight in picking a number of acts in their infancy that go on to later reach superstardom in the years that follow. Like everything though they had a few misses, with some of the artists included not reaching their potential or quickly burning out after their inclusion.
This year is yet another strong showing with the list being made up of: NLE Choppa, Polo G, Calboy, Lil Tjay, Fivio Foreign, Baby Keem, Jack Harlow, Rod Wave, Chika, Mulatto, Lil Keed and 24kGoldn. They also revealed that before his murder, Pop Smoke was due to be included.
While a strong cohort, it’s hard to give an accurate account of how great a line-up the 2020 class is without the benefit of time and hindsight.
With that in mind, we decided to rank all the previous line-ups of the past decade, enjoy.
10. 2015 – Fetty Wap, Dej Loaf, Raury, Kidd Kidd, OG Maco, Shy Glizzy, K Camp, Vince Staples, Tink and GoldLink.
There’s only a few survivors in a year which saw one-hit-wonder Fetty Wap crowned the most exciting prospect. Goldlink has, however, went on to be a mainstay in the scene dropping a number of albums and earning a Grammy nomination for ‘Crew’ that features fellow classmate Shy Glizzy who has had a less glamorous, yet solid career.
Vince Staples is definitely the standout act from that year. Otherwise, Raury has had a largely quiet career outside some features and a forgettable debut album.
Highlights: Vince Staples, Goldlink.
9. 2018 – Ski Mask The Slump God, Lil Pump, Smokepurpp, J.I.D, Stefflon Don, ’ BlocBoy JB, YBN Nahmir, Wifisfuneral, Trippie Redd and Lil Skies.
It appears that a face tattoo was an essential criterion for selection in 2018, with the majority of artists included subscribing to a loud and abrasive trap style.
With the YBN crew recently breaking up and Lil Pump’s 15 minutes of fame quickly fading, there’s a looming air of disappointment that surrounds this particular freshman class. Arguably many of the artists never really hit the heights that were expected of them and maybe owe that to growing fatigue around the trap sound.
J.I.D is still steadily growing and looks to be one of the brightest artists on Dreamville’s roster. Elsewhere Trippie Redd and Ski Mask The Slump God have had successful careers since as has Stefflon Don, but there’s no real wow factor in retrospect.
Highlights: Trippie Redd, J.I.D., Ski Mask The Slump God.
8. 2014 – Chance The Rapper, Rich Homie Quan, Isaiah Rashad, Ty Dolla $ign, Lil Durk, Kevin Gates, Troy Ave, Vic Mensa, Jon Connor, Lil Bibby, Jarren Benton, and August Alsina
Though 2014 is mostly made up of artists that eventually burnt out, the gems shone through the rough.
Chance The Rapper had changed the game with his quirky adlibs and revelatory ‘Acid Rap’ before going on to win three Grammys, while Isiah Rashad broke out as one of the genre’s most exciting stars after ‘Cilvia Demos’ and subsequently signed to TDE.
Ty Dolla $ign is hip hop’s go to guy for vocals, with credited features on tracks with Kanye West, Fka Twigs and others. Otherwise acts like Vic Mensa and Kevin Gate’s early hype eroded and their spotlight slowly faded.
Highlights: Chance The Rapper, Isiah Rashad & Ty Dolla $ign.
7. 2012 – Future, Kid Ink, Danny Brown, French Montana, Macklemore, Don Trip, Machine Gun Kelly, Hopsin, Iggy Azalea, and Roscoe Dash
Truth be told if it wasn’t for the long-lasting impact of Future and Danny Brown 2012 could’ve been last.
There were some acts from this class that became irritatingly popular and were liable for some unforgivable feats (See Macklemore beating Kendrick to a Grammy for Best Rap Album), but it’s inarguable that this freshman class had its share of success.
Future’s lean-drizzled, indistinct brand of rap subsequently took over the world after his inclusion and in turn, his importance can’t be overlooked. Kid Ink fell off a cliff after some forgettable summer hits and French Montana has gone on to be a genuine pop star. Iggy Azaela got all but cancelled after being labelled a ‘Culture vulture’ for her flagrant appropriation of black culture.
Elsewhere, Machine Gun Kelly had some recent clout through his infamous beef with Eminem, but is largely forgotten about outside white, middle-American fans. Similarly, Hopsin has edged into obscurity in recent years after beefs with Soulja Boi and Tyler, The Creator. No amount of commercial success from Macklemore could redeem many of this year’s inclusions, but we have the manic squawks of Danny Brown to thank for bumping it up a few places. He’s since built a career as one of the pioneers in modern experimental hip hop, with ‘Atrocity Exhibition’ having been dubbed a modern classic by many critics.
This is a year that represented hip hop’s teething pains as it solidified itself as the biggest genre in the world.
Highlights: Danny Brown, Future.
6. 2017 – Playboi Carti, XXXTentacion, A Boogie wit da Hoodie, PnB Rock, MadeinTYO, Aminé, Kap G, Kyle Ugly God and Kamaiyah.
2017 was a mixed bag. Kamaiyah had her ascendency to stardom put on pause when Interscope shelved her album after numerous disagreements, she did, however, release an album this year independently to critical acclaim, though has definitely not reached her touted potential as of yet.
Elsewhere the late XXXTentacion has a complicated legacy, but no doubt is one of the hip hop world’s most popular artists, even after his death. Playboi Carti has become an enigmatic superstar, fuelled by leaks and fan’s insatiable desires for another album following the success of 2018’s ‘Die Lit’.
It felt like you couldn’t escape the Youtube algorithm’s unrelenting wish for you to hear Aminé‘s ‘Caroline’ in 2016. It had the makings of a one-hit-wonder, but since then he’s brushed off any scepticism with his catchy hooks and infectious videos.
A Boogie Wit Da Hoodie is still popular and PnB Rock has carved out his own lane, but the other acts have fallen to the wayside for the most part.
Highlights: Aminé & Playboi Carti
5. 2019 – Comethazine, Tierra Whack, DaBaby, Lil Mosey, Roddy Ricch, YBN Cordae, YK Osiris, Rico Nasty, Gunna, Megan Thee Stallion and Blueface.
2019 was a very top-heavy year and it remains to be seen how well the artists will stand the test of time and so it’s difficult to place the year any higher than this.
Meg Thee Stallion has gone on to be one of the biggest artists on the planet and has since dropped her greatest anthem to date in ‘Savage’. Equally, Roddy Ricch’s ‘The Box’ was unavoidable in the last 12 months, meanwhile Rico Nasty is carving out her own lane through her riot-inducing cuts. DaBaby’s one-dimensional approach hasn’t stopped his popularity and Tierra Whack has maintained a steady pace since the release of her gripping ‘Whack World’.
YBN Cordae has since left his YBN crew behind and gone on to have a strong solo career as has Gunna. Lil Mosey and Comethazine make up the more forgettable inclusions in a largely exciting class.
Highlights: Roddy Ricch, Gunna, Meg Thee Stallion, Rico Nasty.
4. J. Cole, Pill, Nipsey Hussle, Freddie Gibbs, Big Sean, Wiz Khalifa, OJ da Juiceman, Jay Rock, Fashawn & Donnis
2010 had a nice spread of styles. You had the cocaine-laced street rap of Freddie Gibbs mixed in with the stoner anthems of Wiz Khalifa, while a young J. Cole brought a healthy dash of conscious storytelling. Freddie is finally getting his flowers and is widely regarded as one of the underground’s most important rappers, Cole has transcended into a godfather-like role on his Dreamville label and is now ushering in the next wave of stars and Wiz is still doing his thing albeit with less hype than in the early 2010s.
Elsewhere Nipsey Hustle was cutting his teeth in the streets of California around the time of his inclusion. He’d go on to be an important philanthropist and advocate for his area and an integral yet overlooked figure until his unfortunate passing.
Jay Rock is probably one of the less glamourous TDE recruits, but earned his stripes over the years, whereas Big Sean has gone on to build a solid career.
Highlights: J. Cole, Nipsey Hustle, Freddie Gibbs, Wiz Khalifa.
3. 2016 – Lil Uzi Vert, Lil Yachty, Kodak Black, Denzel Curry, G Herbo, Dave East, Lil Dicky, Anderson Paak, Desiigner, and 21 Savage.
While some of the earlier editions have had a number of years and the benefit of hindsight to judge their stature accurately, you can’t help but feel that many of the artists from 2016 are here to stay.
2016 was the peak of the rap culture wars. Mumble rap vs Lyrical rap was the only thing on the menu that year and some argued the inclusion of Lil Uzi Vert, 21 Savage and Lil Yachty was proof of hip hop’s declining integrity. Regardless of what people think about some of the styles on show their increasing popularity can’t be ignored. Uzi went on to have a triple-platinum single in ‘XO Tour Llif3’ and 21 Savage had three singles go platinum.
Denzel Curry has cemented himself as one of hip hop’s most compelling left of field acts with his ability to utilise emotive storytelling, meander between everything from hardcore-influenced tracks to more traditional sounds all whilst harbouring one of the sharpest deliveries in the game. Desiigner fell out with his pals at G.O.O.D music and subsequently, his career fell off after the excitement of his debut track ‘Panda’ hitting number one on the Billboard Charts.
Anderson .Paak has been able to maintain the hype around his rap meets RnB hybrid approach that sees him slap the drums in live shows. Sadly, despite going on to release massive hits like ‘Tunnel Vision’ and ‘Big Day Out’ after his inclusion Kodak Black hasn’t been able to stay out of trouble since.
Elsewhere Dave East and G Herbo have gone on to have modest careers. As for Lil Dicky he has made some tracks that have done numbers but remain firmly in ‘guys that can rap, but no one takes seriously category’.
Despite being a whopper year there were definitely some minus points for some of the cyphers, yikes.
Highlights: Lil Uzi Vert, Denzel Curry, Anderson .Paak & 21 Savage.
2. 2013 – Chief Keef, Travi$ Scott, Schoolboy Q, Trinidad James, Joey Bada$$, Ab-Soul, Logic, Action Bronson, Kirko Bangz, Dizzy Wright and Angel Haze
2013 had everything – trendsetters, boom-bap revivalists, future stars and underground innovators. 7 years on and ScHoolboy Q, Joey Bada$$, Action Bronson and Logic (despite his recent retirement) are still major players in hip hop. Q has several Grammy Nominations under his belt, Joey has a critically acclaimed album and role in Mr Robot and Bronson has realized one of the most recognisable brands in rap.
The results of Chief Keef’s instrumental involvement in drill music can now be seen across the globe with the genre soaring in popularity in England, Ireland, much of Europe and even Australia. Arguably there’d be no Pop Smoke without Chief Keef.
Who could forget Travis Scott? Now a global star, there would’ve been few that predicted the scope of his rise to the top. Though Ab-Soul and co have had less prominent careers, 2013 was a great snapshot of the various styles bubbling up at that point in time.
Highlights: Joey Bada$$, Action Bronson, Chief Keef, Travi$ Scott & ScHoolboy Q.
1. 2011 – Kendrick Lamar, Mac Miller Meek Mill, YG, Big K.R.I.T., Cyhi the Prynce, Lil Twist, Yelawolf, Fred the Godson, Lil B & Diggy Simmons
By simply having the artist of a generation and one of the greatest rappers of all time in his infancy in the line-up it would have been fair to say 2011 was an assured pick for the top spot. The inclusion of a young K. Dot set the benchmark for the rest of the decade and arguably they never matched it again, missing out on future stars including Tyler, The Creator, Drake and A$AP Rocky.
It did, however, have the late great Mac Miller as he started his ascendency to become one of rap’s most widely loved figures and Meek Mill who is a star in his own right. Co-existing with those names is BIG K.R.I.T, one of the most overlooked spitters of the past decade who has routinely dropped a multitude of southern-fried bangers earning a legion of dedicated fans in the process.
And who could forget Lil B? One of the most influential artists to exist in hip hop, period. His avant-garde, DIY approach coupled with his prolific output set the tone for the next ten years of a genre which would become the most popular in the world. Helping birth cloud rap and promote an independent grind outside the confines of a label are another in a long line of his important innovations.
While Cyhi the Prynce didn’t go on to have a particularly decorated career as a rapper, he has in fact written for some of rap’s biggest stars including numerous credits for Kanye. Lil Twist hasn’t really shown much since his inclusion other than getting a DUI for speeding in Justin Beiber’s car and though Yelawolf wouldn’t exactly be our cup of tea and outside of some tracks with Eminem has done little of note. Fred The Godson sadly passed away during the pandemic this year and was an important part of the mixtape era and is remembered fondly for his contributions.
Overall a top-heavy year that’s trailblazers, personalities and titans carry it over the line.
Highlights: Kendrick Lamar, Mac Miller, Lil B, Meek Mill, YG
Photo: 2014 cypher