As traditions go, XXL‘s annual “Freshman Class” issue is neither all that time-honored or worthwhile. The magazine’s been putting rappers it calls freshmen on its cover since 2008, but hasn’t exactly been kingmaking or future forecasting in doing so: 2008’s list featured Crooked I and Joell Ortiz, half of what would become Slaughterhouse, now doing hyper-lyrical rap over araabMUSIK beats; Rich Boy, who all but disappeared after the success of “Throw Some D’s”; Lil Boosie, who has caught more charges than he has released albums since; Papoose, last seen insisting to deaf ears on Twitter that he is the reigning king of New York; Lupe Fiasco, who broke through with 2011’s watered-down Lasers, an album he hates; Saigon, who was Jay Electronica before Jay Electronica and dropped a long-gestating solo debut in 2011; Young Dro, a T.I. lieutenant who never blew up; Plies, now a workmanlike Florida street rapper; and Gorilla Zoe, known to most beyond the Cocaine Blunts corner of the Internet only as a guy who was on Yung Joc’s “Coffee Shop.”
The predictive value of the list hasn’t improved since, with abundant misses (2009’s Charles Hamilton and Cory Gunz, 2010’s OJ da Juiceman and Pill, 2011’s Lil Twist and Fred tha Godson), premature calls (B.o.B was a freshman in 2009, but blew up in 2010; Curren$y and Wale showed up on 2009’s list, and Big Sean and J. Cole got the look in 2010, but none of the three found their niches until 2011), and just a few right name, right time selections (Kid Cudi in 2009, Meek Mill and Kendrick Lamar in 2011). And worse still, for some, are the out-and-out whiffs: where was XXL on Drake and Nicki Minaj, two of rap’s biggest rising stars of the last three years?
But that doesn’t make it a bad list, or a bad exercise; it just makes it Sisyphean. And that’s part of why the XXL list will be with us, good or bad, for as long as the magazine exists. Here are five more reasons why the magazine will keep publishing it—and why we’ll keep lapping it up.
It’s provocative; it gets people going to the website. Presumably the first reason no XXL honcho worth her or his salt would consider discontinuing the list is that it’s the only thing that every casual rap listener knows about XXL at this point. XXL is in a tricky position in a flooded rap magazine market: Complex has the rap-focused Internet on lock with an inexhaustible supply of lists, and like shares a claim to being the “cool” rap mag with FADER thanks to compelling design; The Source has the name that means the most to long-time listeners, despite its leadership being in flux in recent years; and Elliott Wilson’s RESPECT. builds on his history in the genre and has his very successful Rap Radar machine pumping it. XXL has a rating system that is derivative of The Source, no one nearly as recognizable as Wilson on its masthead, and a serious cool deficit to Complex and FADER, but it does have an annual cover that people respond to, and that’s probably not bad for drawing buys at newsstands or uniques on the website.
It’s provocative; it gets people going on Twitter. Then again, one of the most important things in the rap publishing/media world at the dawn of 2012 is being talked about on Twitter, and anyone involved with the XXL list is almost guaranteed to be a topic, trending or otherwise, of tweets on the day the list comes out each year. That’s already happened today, with prominent rap pontificators deciding that A$AP Rocky and his crew turned down the cover, Chip tha Ripper asserting that he did turn it down only to be corrected by an XXL staffer, many jokes about Danny Brown and Roscoe Dash being old for their class being 140’d, and Azealia-on-Azalea violence coming when Harlemite Azealia Banks took a shot at white Aussie Iggy Azalea for once calling herself a “runaway slave master” in verse. Online drama may not sell magazines, but it lingers, and rap dudes and dudettes on the Internet have absurdly long memories; giving them something to hold onto and discuss, even if blogs are trending away from doing things like grading the freshmen, is a necessary bit of kibble distribution.
Rappers (and labels) want the cover look, and always will. I’m at least vaguely familiar with eight of the ten artists on the 2012 cover, and I’d wager I know more about Macklemore, Don Trip, and Future than most. But I don’t really know who Hopsin is, though I knew him from his cameo on Tech N9ne’s All 6’s and 7’s, and I’m sure I’ve never heard a Kid Ink song. And, as a person who loves many obscure rappers, if I haven’t heard of a guy on the cover of a rap magazine, it’s a good sign that that rapper scored a coup by getting there.
It’s a list. Nothing is simultaneously easier and more infuriating for both author and reader than the list, and even though the XXL freshmen have never been ranked, it’s easy to pit them against each other and engage the tribes of, say, Future fans (they exist, right?) against Schoolboy Q diehards. It’s also easy to reuse the class format as a template for future issues, and is thus easier to plan for, even if it’s fraught with its own difficulties.
French Montana is wearing a bear’s head/rug/fur on the cover of this year’s issue. I would like a magazine that allows that image to exist to last as long as civilization itself.