Each year, XXL Magazine reveals a roster of its top 10 up–and–coming hip–hop artists, appropriately titled the “XXL Freshman” class. The magazine has been doing it since 2007, and many artists lucky enough to be welcomed into the XXL Freshman roster end up rising to international fame. Since only 10 artists are selected each year, it’s a highly venerated achievement, and some notable former XXL Freshman include Lupe Fiasco, KiD CuDi, Big Sean, Kendrick Lamar, Joey Bada$$, Schoolboy Q, Chance the Rapper, and Lil Uzi Vert. 2017’s Freshmen make up an interesting roster of up–and–comers, but there are some notable names on the list. Kamaiyah, Philadelphia’s own PnB Rock, MadeinTYO, Playboi Carti, Aminé, and Ugly God all made the cut. The list, which is annually released in the middle of the summer, has been out for over six months at this point — which means it’s time to take a look at some of the highlights of the selections.
Kamaiyah’s Before I Wake was certainly a step forward for the bay–area artist, but it also wasn’t a significantly notable album. She definitely draws on lots of influences from her native Bay Area, including funk and bouncy 90s R&B. You can definitely hear elements of Snoop Dogg’s Doggystyle, not to mention samples of artists like Tha Dogg Pound and Lil Jon. Kamaiyah’s latest album may not be groundbreaking, but it’s an entertaining and worthwhile listen.
Highlights include: “Playa In Me”, a bouncy track full of funk influence, and “Fashion,” Kamaiyah’s self–confident ode to her own personal style.
PnB Rock, meanwhile, dropped his latest album Catch These Vibes in November. PnB’s performance on Catch These Vibes left much to be desired for an artist like himself with lots of obvious potential. The singer/rapper does have some standout songs, but lyrically, he seems boxed in to the same set of subjects as his previous work, Goin Thru the Motions — more or less, just relationship problems. Sonically, the album does well. The production is solid and PnB Rock does a good job at riding the melodies. However, this can be easy to overlook when listening to the same subjects over and over again for 18 songs.
Highlights include: “TTM,” featuring a catchy, electronic beat over which PnB raps about his sour relationship with (you guessed it!) an ex, and “1Day,” with fellow XXL Freshman Ugly God, where the two discuss their aspirations once they reach fame and fortune as artists.
MadeinTYO has yet to release a full–length album since his placement on the Freshman list, instead releasing True’s World EP, titled after the first song on the EP. A Tokyo-born, Atlanta–raised rapper, MadeinTYO shows glimpses of a strong performance on the 16 minute long EP, although the collection of songs simply isn’t long enough to definitively determine an overall direction for the XXL Freshman. His two previous solo albums, however, are strong indicators of MadeinTYO’s talent and potential. 2016 saw the release of both Thank You, Mr. Tokyo and You Are Forgiven, the former of which contains strong songs such as “Skateboard P” and “Gwinnett,” while the latter contains the hit “Uber Everywhere,” featuring Travis Scott. Overall, MadeinTYO hasn’t been the most active freshman in the past half–year, but considering the solidness of his two full–length albums in 2016, his latest solo album will likely be well worth the wait.
Highlights Include: The ever–infectious “Skateboard P" (feat. Big Sean), while “Uber Everywhere" (feat. Travis Scott) is an upbeat highpoint of You Are Forgiven that still seemingly persists as an anthem for some Penn students.
Playboi Carti’s self–titled debut album Playboy Carti was released before the revealing of the 2017 XXL Freshman list, but it was undeniably a large part of the reason why Carti was elected to the magazine’s select up–and–comers. From start to finish, Playboi Carti is an energetic thrill ride of ad–libs and hooks. It should be noted that if you like strong lyrics, this album is not for you — Carti doesn’t put an emphasis on his words, to say the least. Instead, Playboy Carti is pretty blatantly a “mumble rap” album, but a good one at that. Trends in genres change over time, and rather than pushing against the new wave of artists such as Carti, it simply makes more sense to embrace and analyze their works. On that note, Carti’s album features several standout tracks, most notably the hypnotic “Magnolia” and “wokeuplikethis,” featuring 2016 XXL Freshman Lil Uzi Vert. If his brand of music is “heavy on the ad–libs, light on the lyrics,” many songs on Playboy Carti are Carti’s style. But that’s not to say there’s anything wrong with that, as Carti is proving he is capable of carving out his own niche in the hip–hop game. In this way, Playboi Carti is well worth the nomination for XXL Freshman, and the follow–up to Playboi Carti (whenever it comes) should be another album filled with entertainment, energy, and of course, ad–libs.
Highlights Include: “Magnolia,” the dynamic hit featuring several instances of “Yo Pierre, you out here?!” (sampling the Jamie Foxx show), and “New Choppa” (feat. ASAP Rocky) an entertaining track despite Rocky stealing the show.
If you haven’t heard “Caroline” by Aminé before during NSO, you must’ve gone too hard. The bouncy, spirited song seemed to be everywhere, and for good reason. Aminé rides the beat perfectly, providing a great balance of his sing–songy side and straight rapping. Caroline was the infectious track that skyrocketed Aminé (pronounced A–Mee–Nah) to the top of the charts and earned him a spot on the XXL list. However, of all the Freshmen to release albums after their selection, Aminé was the one that truly solidifies his worthy place on the list. His album Good For You, debuting in late July, was an energetic and bubbly album with a lighthearted and upbeat tone perfect for summer. If Aminé can continue building on his strengths on Good For You, the Portland–area artist is due for a successful career.
Highlights Include: “Spice Girl," a catchy tune where Aminé calls out for a girl as good as the members of the mid-90s pop group, and “Heebiejeebies,” a funky bonus track featuring Kehlani telling a girl she gives him the “Heebie Jeebies” (in a good way).
There are many other notable artists on the list, including A Boogie Wit Da Hoodie, Ugly God, and the XXXTentacion. Ugly God’s “Water,” for instance, is another frat–party, classic—repetitive but catchy description of how Ugly God steals your girl (hint: with the water). New York’s A Boogie Wit Da Hoodie, meanwhile, released the high–quality album The Bigger Artist last year, showcasing his talent and cohesion with fellow new–school rappers like 21 Savage and Kodak Black on the tracks “Undefeated” and “Drowning.” While I would personally cast doubt as to whether 2017’s XXL Freshman class will ever match 2016’s Freshmen (including Lil Uzi Vert, 21 Savage, Denzel Curry, Anderson .Paak, and others that have experienced ascendancies to fame), many Freshmen this year have shown they have the potential for big things in the coming years. Only time will tell, but a look back at the 2017 roster’s highlights gives reason to be optimistic.