Every year for the last three years, I've loathed XXL Magazine's much-hyped Freshman class reveal. My beef isn't with the artists themselves, but more how seriously some music fans tend to take it without giving a thought to XXL's pathetic approach to pop culture tastemaking. In a digital era where music magazines have little if any cultural relevance besides landing high profile interviews (which blogs can do too, you know), the Freshman Class issue is treated like a graduation day for certain artists, where they are given their diploma before comfortably maturing into career success.
It's a flawed editorial concept because there's absolutely nothing “freshman” about XXL's selections. In reality, it seems like the magazine's editors are simply cherrypicking artists who have already signed major label deals and on a general popularity upswing. Chief Keef? Signed to Interscope and the blog world doesn't shut up about him. Trinidad James? Signed to Def Jam, has LeBron James “pop the molly I'm sweatin.” Logic? Didn't Young Sinatra come out in, like, 2011? Schoolboy Q? Also signed Interscope after producing two mixtapes and an indie album, Setbacks. His “Oxymoron” album might be this year's “Good Kid M.A.A.D City.” Joey Bada$$? Still indie, but made waves last year after dropping his 1999 mixtape over the summer. Action Bronson just recently signed with Warner Brothers over the summer, but his career didn't begin with “Rare Chandeliers.” In fact, The Chef is nearly five mixtapes and indie albums deep in just over two years. Maybe the rest of the country is slow, but it feels like those of us in New York have known Bronson and the rest of these guys for a long, long time.
The point: You've already heard of every single person on this list, perhaps with the exception of Kirko Bangz, Travi$ Scott, Dizzy Wright, and Angel Haze (in that case, you probably don't follow rap's many inside-baseball blogs). In some cases, you've been familiar for with their work and careers for years.
This move isn't so much about XXL arbiting the next thing to be cool as it is about saying “you're cool” to an artist everyone already knows is cool. As a publisher, that is the very definition of cherrypicking. XXL is sheepishly following the crowd, seemingly unwilling to push artists that might be deemed contrary to popular hip hop opinion. Instead of including up-and-coming people no one has ever heard of in their grandiose newstand event, XXL does a faux rap popularity contest to sell magazines and move the traffic needle for website pageviews. There's a reason why every artist on the list, with the exception of Dizzy Wright and Travi$ Scott, boasts a six-figure Twitter following.
Hip hop, and perhaps pop culture as a whole, needs a new way of defining who's an up-and-comer. Music fans need to stop caring about this bullshit, too. Just take a look at the artists on the previous three years:
2012: Future, Kid Ink, Danny Brown, French Montana, Macklemore, Don Trip, Machine Gun Kelly, Hopsin, Iggy Azalea, and Roscoe Dash.
2011: Meek Mill, Big K.R.I.T., CyHi Da Prynce, Mac Miller, Yelawolf, Kendrick Lamar, Diggy Simmons, Fred the Godson, Lil Twist (lololol), and YG.
2010: J. Cole, Pill, Wiz Khalifa, Freddie Gibbs, Big Sean, Donnis, Fashawn, OJ Da Juiceman, Nipsey Hussle, and Jay Rock.
At the time of their so-called “arrival” on the music scene by making XXL's list, those guys weren't acne-faced froshies: Their careers were already established as varsity quarterbacks and homecoming kings getting HJs from cheerleaders under the bleachers. They've already committed to D1 programs and inked their scholarships. They not freshmen. It just comes down to editors not willing to get their hands dirty and pluck out a rapper with 3000 Twitter followers because, when it comes down to audience brass tacks, no one is going to read that.
If you have a Twitter account and half-a-pulse for talented, vibrant new artists, XXL Magazine's yearly newstand event is a giant, melodramatic yawn. It's a glossy photoshoot and an overhyped cover reveal that has nothing to do with the actual art these guys create. It's boring.
Maybe next year XXL will grow the balls to put someone on the cover we didn't already know about. Those artists could certainly use the exposure.