Upon seeing the XXL Freshman List for 2018, I instantly found myself on Twitter calling out the hip-hop outlet for their selection. Across social media, the opinion seemed largely unfavourable, with many calling XXL “out of touch”. After a couple of hours of reflection, and time to process a few different perspectives, I really began to question if XXL got it wrong after all.
When getting to the actual list, that features the likes of Smokepurpp and Bloc Boy JB (full list below), the acts involved widely reflect popular Hip-hop at this moment in time. Vanessa Satten (XXL Editor in Chief) regularly discusses the process of selection for Freshman and essentially breaks it down to loads of panel discussions (in-house) over which artists have the potential to last beyond the fifteen minutes of fame mark. In essence, the XXL Freshman List is a who’s hot right now and for the long-term in hip-hop. Now, the latter half of that summary is all speculative as we clearly can’t see or control the future, but in reference to the who’s hot right now part of XXL‘s discussion process, they didn’t exactly do anything wrong.
Lil Pump, for example, has had back to back Billboard Hot 100 successes and had a huge controversy with J. Cole last month (now rectified), Smokepurpp also gained a cult-like following over the course of 2017 and continues to pave foundations for a solid festival circuit this summer. Most of the artists below have the visibility, chart track record, or social media monopoly to fit the parameters of XXL‘s “hot right now” criteria. The piece about longevity is subjective and down to gut because as mentioned before that element can only always be predicted, but never accurate in the short-term.
Even in cases that are questionable (Stefflon Don) an argument can easily be drawn up in favor of their inclusion on the list. Don for example, is signed to QualityControl, has managed to score features with Halsey, Future, and FrenchMontana, despite her low US profile and sign on to lucrative brand partnerships (Boohoo) again with no global releases (solo). This can again, against XXL‘s criteria, be seen as being “hot right now” concrete examples.
So, if XXL didn’t, against its usual parameters get it wrong, why is everybody mad? The answer again lies in the selection of artists, but it’s in comparison to covers of the years prior. The XXL list in the past has featured Kendrick Lamar, J. Cole, and Big Sean, all lyrical geniuses of their time. However, the list now, bar JID for sure, features no artist that can deliver on either MC’s level in that department. However, this is a representation of where hip-hop is at within the mainstream. The lyrics are far removed from areas such as trap and with the current trap dominance, especially on Billboard, it’s easy to decipher why XXL is looking more colorful and mumble-driven than ever before.
Like it or not XXL is merely holding us up a very clear mirror into popular culture in hip-hop right now. The masses on platforms such as Twitter may not have embraced the cover, but for one we are all viewing self-selected echo chambers which aren’t reflective of true popular consensus and the people that have the biggest monopoly within hip-hop as a whole have decided to see most of these phases on loop for the last 12 months.
XXL haven’t got it wrong, we have (in my subjective based opinion). We as consumers have empowered, supported and promoted these artists in some way, shape, or form thus giving them “clout”. This clout has ensured that their presence on either the charts, blogs, social media or all three, caught the eye of XXL and therefore made them eventually select these artists for the final listing. With so much control in the digital era, we can drive trending topics, conversation, streams, and audience, if we don’t want to see acts like these on 2019’s edition of the list then it’s our job not to engage, click, stream or like a post. It’s easy to gain attention in this climate, don’t allow just anybody to garner your attention and thus leapfrog to places of power and influence.