Every year, the hip-hop magazine XXL releases a “Freshman Class” issue, introducing readers to up-and-coming MCs who could very well be the hip-hop stars of tomorrow. Macklemore, Wiz Khalifa, Iggy Azalea and North Carolina’s own J. Cole have been just a few of the rappers the magazine has given the “Freshman Class” treatment in the past.
When XXL officially announced the lucky 10 who would be adorning the next issue, it once again reminded me how much hip-hop has changed. I remember a time when, if you wanted to be a rapper, you had to know a lot of words. It appears many of the artists XXL considers the Next Big Thing are sorely lacking in that department.
Leading the charge is Brooklyn rapper Desiigner, who’s becoming the breakout hip-hop star of 2016. His debut single “Panda” reached No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, and Kanye West, who sampled “Panda” for his recently released “The Life of Pablo” album, signed him to his G.O.O.D. Music label. Although he’s from the East Coast, Desiigner traffics in the sort of Southern, trap-music style that’s all the rage these days. He seems to be better at giving hooks than dropping straight bars. When it was his turn to bust a “Freshman Class” freestyle for XXL’s YouTube channel, he instead sang a hook called “Timmy Turner.” Desiigner’s so hot now, the video ended up getting more than 5 million views and a number of remixes.
Many say the reason Desiigner has gotten so popular to begin with is because he sounds like Future, another popular, trap rapper. While Desiigner has shrugged off the comparisons (“God bless him, God bless me. But don’t get mad because I took a style and made it better than his,” he told Complex), he’s beginning to have trouble convincing people he’s not a derivative flash-in-the-pan. “New English,” his recently released mixtape has gotten less-than-stellar reviews. (Spin called it “a formulaic Vox instructional on how to make trap songs.”)
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Desiigner isn’t the only “Freshman Class” rapper whose skills are questionable. Atlanta rapper Lil Yachty has almost been on a mission to show he’s not the instant verse-spitting orator people would like him to be. When he appeared on the “Ebro in the Morning” radio show last month, he stated that he’s not a rapper right before stumbling his way through a freestyle, which ended with him once again saying, “I’m not a rapper.” Another “lil” rapper, Philly’s Lil Uzi Vert, was also on “Ebro” earlier this year, where he refused to freestyle over old-school beats from hip-hop legend DJ Premier. “I’m too young,” he told an obviously disgusted Ebro, “I’m not into that.”
Not all the “Freshman Class” MCs are lost causes. Denzel Curry seems to know how to spit hot fire. Anderson .Paak, who worked with Dr. Dre on his “Compton” album last year, is already a star on the rise with his melding of hip-hop with spoken-word poetry and sung verses. Lil Dicky, this year’s lone white boy, is a quirky wordsmith.
As always, I feel I’m getting too old for all these youngsters and their idea of what hip-hop is today. I grew up in the ’80s, right when hip-hop was breaking through to the mainstream and artists from Public Enemy to N.W.A. to De La Soul were coming with unique, diverse rhymes. But they had rhymes – words and phrases all connected together, eventually making a song. I have no idea what most of these rappers are talking about these days. It’s like if you’ve got a hot beat, you can mumble all over on it (which a lot of contemporary rappers do seem to do) and still walk away with a hit.
There are MCs who still believe in dropping coherent bars. Last Tuesday, Big K.R.I.T. dropped a series on his SoundCloud page called “12 for 12,” where he released 12 freestyles in 12 hours, every hour on the hour. It looks like K.R.I.T., who later revealed on Twitter that he’s no longer with the Def Jam label, wanted to show that there are still MCs out there who can come up with verses at the top of the dome, anytime and anyplace. That might be a familiar, old-school way of rapping but, for a lot of people, it still works.
Reach Craig Lindsey at firstname.lastname@example.org