XXL Magazine's annual Freshman List has been a major platform for up and coming artists in hip-hop since its conception in 2007. It has become one of the most significant barometers of clout and influence in hip-hop culture and has arguably fostered the careers of countless artists (including Kid Cudi, Big Sean, Mac Miller, and many more).
XXL recently unveiled their picks for the class of 2017, and while it is a solid selection of names, it does feel like the publication has been keeping it safe with their choices these last few years. While it is impossible to appease every hip-hop fan, we at EARMILK believe that there are ton of musicians who have severely slipped under the XXL's radar… So with that said the hip-hop team has decided to draft our first ever EARMILK Freshman List (!):
1. Noname (by Donna-Claire)
A rising star since her feature on “Lost” off Acid Rap in 2013, prospective fans seek out her music with such fervor that her her official URL is nonamehiding.com. Noname has had impressive loosie tracks floating around and creating this hype for years. Jazzy and distinctively Chicago collaborations with Knxwledge mark some of her best one-off tracks – some of these cuts tell love stories, others are woozy odes to her favorite artists, and she also takes the time to challenge what it means to be "a female rapper." When Noname finally released Telefone in 2016, all of her fans had a body of work to turn to. She has a spoken word approach on the mic, which blends tender admissions of self-doubt with an almost unexpected swagger. But it’s the poised way Noname handles mourning and grief that acts as the sum of her magic as an emcee. Telefone turns grim discussions of death and mortality, alcoholism and existential crisis, into a pastel therapy session. No track captures that better than “Bye Bye Baby,” where the heaviness of an abortion is filtered through the gentle voice of the baby. It’s something of a macabre love song because Noname admits that so often we forget the nuances of love when discussing heavy topics.
Her stage presence is equal parts humbling, endearing, and inviting. I caught her Brooklyn show, and even though the haunt was packed, she had to have been rapping to just me. Intimacy and ‘a Noname show’ are synonyms. Don’t check the dictionary, just trust me. The quiet composure of the record underscores Noname’s immaculate lyricism. The album radiates charisma and warmth, it envelopes you, because of Noname’s genuine personality. Telefone manages to turn grieving into something delicately beautiful, making her more than deserving of a Freshie spot.
2. WestsideGunn & Conway (by Tayo Odutola)
Alvin Worthy aka WestsideGunn aka FLYGOD has been more prolific than ever in the past 2 years by dropping multiple EPs, mixtapes, and collaborations with his brother Conway The Machine. These team-ups culminated in inking a deal with Eminem's Shady Records earlier this year.
Both are prime examples of grimey with Conway’s rugged and distinctive flow (thanks to his semi-disfigured face) and WSG's magnetic high pitched delivery.
The East Buffalo natives have released about dozen projects between them with WestsideGunn's debut album FLYGOD solidifying his status as an underground tour de force. Lyrically speaking both can hold it down (Conway also has some battle rap spirit in him).
Far from a pop-laden/billboard attention seeking rappers, WestSideGunn & Conway deliver that alternative, gritty urban cinematic hip-hop that is nonexistent in the mainstream and with their recent partnership with Eminem, we can only expect more potent material all year round (WSG just dropped Hitler On Steroids some months ago). These cats definitely deserve spots, no question.
3. Buddy (by Paige Luisa)
Sure, Buddy’s discography is short and sweet. Which is where my quality over quantity argument comes into play. Homie could’ve easily chased the limelight after he glowed up at the age of 18 with his Pharrell-produced hit, “Awesome Awesome”. Instead, he took five years to curate his craft and brought on the Haitian Sensation, Kaytranada, to produce the backbones for his new project. It only makes sense that Buddy attended performing arts school for most of his life – he’s not just a rapper straight outta Compton. He’s a performer and an overall entertainer that understands all aspects of the music industry from singing to production to rhythm and poetry. The Ocean & Montana EP is a blend of the sea and the streets where he flawlessly merges singing and rapping for an overall uplifting sound with an introspective feel.
Personally, besides Kamaiyah (cause she’s my woman) I felt like XXL freshman list lost a little bit of the artistry with this new list. Buddy brings that hip-hop electronic fusion that we are all craving these days.
4. THEY. (by James Schiff)
It’s not just their impressive debut album, Nu Religion: Hyena, that makes LA-based grunge R&B a no-brainer pick for our Freshman List. Rather, it’s their attention to detail with everything they (pun) put out. Catch a show or any one of their videos and you’ll find a level of craftsmanship that is normally reserved for much bigger acts and artists.
Why is that the case? Well, because these aren’t a few randos who slapped together a decent tape. Dante Jones (producer and backup vocals) produced Grammy-winning songs for Kelly Clarkson while Drew (lead vocals) has written for artists like Jeremih and Jason Derulo.
In the video for album standout “U-RITE,” the duo can be found rapping around Red Rocks Amphitheatre in Colorado. The song itself is a banger, so a phoned-in video would easily suffice. However, THEY. employ drones, filters and some very impressive editing, to weave a dope visual that hits perfectly with the song.
But anyone can drop a dope video or two, or three. Right? Sure, I’ll give you that, but then you ought to consider their live performances. Forget selling out The Roxy, and turn your attention to the fact they (another pun) walked through the crowd wearing hooded cloaks as if they (not doing this on purpose) were an actual cult. Their album title is Nu Religion, after all. They could have easily shrugged off the album title, or used it as a gag, but instead, the idea of religion and unity permeated the set, culminating in the point where they accepted the entire crowd into their crew.
Whether you’re a member of the Wolf Pack or not, it’s hard to deny raw talent and craftsmanship when it comes blasting through your speakers.
5. Kaiydo (by Kevin Cortez)
Florida is a state held down by its southern trap heavyweights and underground SoundCloud hit-makers. Rappers like Denzel Curry, Lil Ugly Mane and most recently Xxxtentacion have proven to have a grip on hip-hop, offering some of the genre's most maniacal sounds while delivering spitfire bars over rapidly paced hi-hats and disorienting basslines. Other Florida rappers like Rick Ross, Kodak Black and Ace Hood spit portraits concerning the aggressive streets of the sunshine state, relying mainly on lyrical imagery and catchiness to relay their style.
Kaiydo doesn't fall into either category of trap or overly aggressive delivery. Instead, Kaiydo focuses on the colorful aspects of hip-hop, which may have spawned from his background in graphic design. His beats are catchy, his flow is addicting and the artwork for each of his singles are visually appealing. Everything about the rapper sparks a sense of wonder and brightness, it’s hard to imagine Kaiydo not blowing up.
Not since the '90's has Orlando been a place to pop off with upcoming musical acts, but Kaiydo is here to change that. His SoundCloud has garnered millions of listens so far into his short career after emerging into hip-hop just last year. Although he only has a handful of singles available, this rapper will be more than just a viral hit-maker. Expect Kaiydo to blast into stardom sooner than later.
6. Mick Jenkins (by McKenzii Webster)
For the last five years, Mick Jenkins has been consistently been dropping fire project after fire project yet he still remains somewhat of an underdog. From his thought-provoking themes to the many layers he builds into his music, Mick makes sure to create an experience with every song.
His 2016 project The Healing Component (THC) was somewhat overlooked in my eyes (and probably in Mick’s eyes as well). Though overlooked, THC was still probably one of the best releases of 2016 and that includes the one visual released for the project, which was for the BADBADNOTGOOD assisted “Drowning”.
The XXL Freshman cover should include artists that can have longevity not only artists with the hottest single right now. I believe that’s where the cover has gone wrong in recent years. That’s very evident by the number of artists that have been on the Freshman cover but have yet to pop or fully reach their potential after. Why Mick has yet to be made a XXL Freshman continues to baffle me; however, at this point, he might just be added to the list of artists that turn it down.
7. J.I.D (by Traudi Lacunza)
“Southern lyricists don’t exist like my flow is a myth.” – LAUDER
The 26-year-old rapper supplies a sound that has been lacking from the Atlanta scene for years. These days, Atlanta is mostly known for Trap giants such as the Migos, 2Chainz, and Gucci Mane. But, as incredible and impactful as these artists are, many fans agree they are all in a similar lane. However, J.I.D brings an element to Atlanta hip-hop that may have been missing since the likes of Outkast.
His first full-length project, The Never Story, was released at the top of the year under J. Cole’s Dreamville Records. The record shows just how versatile of an emcee the East Atlanta native truly is. J.I.D is out to prove why he is Cole’s most diverse and deserving signing to date.
In short: The impeccable flow is undeniable. Combine that with incredible lyricism and storytelling and you have one of the greatest yet slept on projects of 2017. If you are skeptical because you believe “not every lyrical rapper makes good songs”, I suggest you give the whole LP your full undivided attention because one thing J.I.D surely is not is one dimensional.
The latest Dreamville signee will surely be someone XXL will regret not including in the freshmen list because there is no doubt he will blow up within the next couple of months. J.I.D is currently joining Cole on the “4 Your Eyez Only” tour and his following shows no signs of slowing down. Interviews with stations such as HOT 97 and a soon to be legendary freestyle with Funkmaster Flex have given his flow the platform and exposure it deserves. There will be no need for an XXL freshman spot for J.I.D in 2018 because he will flip the entire industry upside down by the end of 2017.
8. Your Old Droog (by Rasheed Tulay)
Brooklyn's Your Old Droog came onto the scene with immediate comparisons to Nas due to similar cadences & uncanny rhyming ability on his debut EP. The similarities became so glaring that fans even started to conspire that Droog was, in fact, one of Nasty Escobar's secret side projects/alter-egos. But the mysterious figure eventually revealed himself to be a 25-year old Ukranian-American lyrical savant hailing from Coney Island, who has proven to be the unsung savior of the underground New York City rap scene.
Since 2014, Droog has dropped 4 acclaimed EP's (one a collaboration with fellow East Coast champion Wiki) and two official albums including this year's Packs LP, which has been raved as one of the best projects of 2017. Droog's composed but gutter style manages to capture the virtuosity of golden age New York without sounding dated thanks to his keen ear for bombastic production and his super candid, light-hearted persona.
It may take a while for Droog and his contemporaries to catch on due to the trap-melody dominated the landscape of the current scene, but his cult following is just steadily expanding day by day.