Every year, XXL magazine chooses ten up-and-coming rappers to make their “Freshman Class,” a feature that gives these rappers an insane amount of press and attention that usually launches them to stardom. Past freshman have included J. Cole, Big Sean, Lil Yachty, Kid Cudi, Kendrick Lamar, and countless other huge names in hip-hop. When the list goes up around mid-June, criticism and “who’s that person?” jokes fly in like vultures to a meal, and who should or shouldn’t be there gets talked about for months after—especially once their debut studio records drop.
I’m used to sharing at least two or three of the picks with XXL, a coincidence that we both, at the very least, see something similar in the artists in terms of their potential future success, but like with 2018, I expect our lists this year to say two very different things about the state of rap.
Where 2017 and 2018 were about genre-bending, LGBTQ+ rights, and making music that was unequivocally introspective, some of those ideas will carry over, but the main theme this year is the representation of women in rap, and the evolution of the female MC.
And with that, let’s get to the list already. Get introduced to Tierra Whack, Megan Thee Stallion, Boogie, DaBaby, Little Simz, JPEGMAFIA, Lil Nas X, Ivy Sole, Polo G, and Rico Nasty, a.k.a. The 2019 Roseandblog Freshman Class, below:
Possibly the most exciting artist of the past year, Tierra Whack’s Instagram-released project of fifteen one-minute songs titled Whack World blew open the doors for not only how to market music in the age of social media, but for how much creativity, nuance, and personality can be packed into just one minute of music. Since Whack World, she’s proven through multiple singles that she’s capable of coming through with not only a more-typical song length, but even a Flying Lotus collaboration.
If anything, Tierra Whack has already proven herself beyond that of a Freshman pick, especially with a Grammy nomination for Best Music Video under her belt, but if you’re making a list of the top ten up-and-coming rappers, and she’s not on your list, then I don’t even know what you’re doing.
Megan Thee Stallion
Female representation in hip-hop has occupied more chart space ever since the rise of Nicki Minaj, and maybe even more importantly Cardi B, as conscious listeners have begun to accept that there can be more than one popular female MC. Most major rap labels now have their own token female rapper, and 300 Entertainment (the label most known for starting the careers of Young Thug, Migos, and Fetty Wap), boasts Megan Thee Stallion.
With her militant flow and crude lyrics, Stallion’s debut record Fever has been described as twerking music, and it’s incredibly infectious. From Houston, Texas, her music is hard and battle rap-ready, as she rotates through themes of gettin’ money, serving ass, and being strong-willed. For Stallion, “it’s not just about being sexy,” she told Pitchfork, “it’s about being confident and me being confident in my sexuality.”
A rapper from Compton, CA, he’s interestingly signed to Eminem’s Shady records, and his debut album Everything’s For Sale features past-Freshman J.I.D. and 6LACK, the latter of which he opened for on tour alongside Tierra Whack.
Despite being from Compton, Boogie has a very Chicago feel to his music, especially the new Chance-era of Chicago rap. Sure, he’s got the raspy voice, but it’s the musical styling as well, whether it’s the way he sings or even what he says. Boogie’s material is honest in that he’ll tell you how he feels, but it’s not just introspection over braggadocio, as Boogie often raps about being emotional, feeling imperfect, and utterly hating it. Where other conscious rappers (a term he dislikes), might be emotionally vulnerable, Boogie’s right there with them, he’s just not going to bullshit you about it either.
Hailing from the UK, Little Simz’s recent album, GREY Area, was a tour de force of power and skill. Fusing viscous wordplay and flow with themes of female empowerment, Simz has opened for Gorillaz, and has performed alongside Estelle.
“Venom” the fifth track on the record (and Verse of the Month this past March), shows Simz getting ferocious on the mic with lines such as “Fuck those who don’t believe/They would never wanna admit I’m the best here/From the mere fact that I’ve got ovaries.” “I definitely wanted [GREY Area] to feel a lot more gripping,” she told Line of Best Fit, “And just because I’m a female, don’t ever think I’m going to do this cute stuff. I’m not just gonna be cute with it all the time. It’s real rap.”
Possibly the most experimental of the group, JPEGMAFIA is a mix of electronic-R&B and explosive anger, which has led him to collaborate with an eclectic bunch of artists such as Denzel Curry and Flume. His music is constantly surprising, and the thrill of records such as Veteran stems from the uncertainty of what direction the song will head into next, let alone the album as a whole.
“I have a lot of influences, but I try not to wear them on my sleeve,” he explained to The Fader about his songwriting process, “back in the day I’d just be like, ‘Nah, more than that crazy shit let it out.'” On Veteran, the rapper definitely has his fair share of “crazy shit,” but something tells me that, with experience, a record where JPEGMAFIA just f’ing lets loose would blow the music world to bits.
Lil Nas X
“Old Town Road” by Lil Nas X will go down as the song that broke 2019, and gimmick/viral elements aside, possibly song of the year. When Billboard dropped the single from its country charts, it brought up issues in the music industry regarding not just with genre and classification, but with race. The “Yeehaw Agenda” has brought the trend of the black cowboy to the forefront one million times that of Django Unchained, and the ripples “Old Town Road” represents for the industry has the power to completely change the pop/country landscape for a whole new audience.
Lil Nas X successfully blended country twang melodies with trap rap production, and when Billy Rae Cyrus hopped on for the remix, the song hit even higher levels of success. Hopefully Lil Nas X can keep the ball rolling with his upcoming EP, but I have a feeling the inventive artist isn’t going to let stand anyone calling him just a one hit wonder.
DaBaby f**kin’ slaps. He might not be incredibly versatile, but there’s no denying his charisma on the mic. He’s the first big rapper from North Carolina since Rapsody, although he doesn’t rock with the same sound fellow North Carolina rappers roll with, like 9th Wonder or J. Cole.
Sure, there’s the chance that DaBaby will one day grow stale, or that he’s an opportunist, but for now he’s on top and one of the most energetic rappers in the game. “Babysitter” has him paired perfectly with Offset, and even hits like “Suge” remain on the airwaves long after they’ve debuted.
When the Philadelphia rapper isn’t singing pop jams on “Rollercoaster,” the rest of her latest album Overgrown is full of what Little Simz described above as “I’m not just gonna be cute with it all the time. It’s real rap.” Growing up queer in a strict religious household, Overgrown has a lot of ground to cover, especially when you throw in her struggles with depression, anxiety, and a recent breakup.
Ivy Sole doesn’t want her identity to be the selling point of her music, as no artist would, telling Billboard that she hopes all the elements that make up her story resonate with her listeners. “I feel an obligation to be authentic,” she explained, “and to live a life with integrity.” In a world where female MC’s are often either over-sexualized or battle rapping for attention over each other, Icy Sole is striving to be the best representation of herself, something that, as she says, will, “make for a lot more interesting and engaging music.”
When you think of Chicago rap in 2019, named such as Chance the Rapper, Noname, and Saba come to mind, as the Social Experiment crew have become synonymous with the city’s sound ever since the big takeover post-Kanye West and Common. There exists an entire, more Atlanta-trap element of Chicago hip-hop however, known as Drill, whose origins can be traced back to artists such as Chief Keef, G Herbo, and even elements of Kanye’s Yeezus.
The genre has been evolving ever since, and with this past months release of Polo G’s Die a Legend, the sound of Drill has mixed yet again with that of the trap rap crooner, producing something both wholly unique and a capstone of the state of rap music. Honest and well crafted, Polo G’s debut record shines bright with the promise of the city’s potential new star, and with co-signs on the project from Young Thug protege’s Lil Baby and Gunna, potentially a skyrocket to stardom.
The most aggressive rapper on the list, artists like Rico Nasty are a big part of the inspiration for this year’s list, and the personification of being that bitch. Rico is rightfully angry in the climate of both music and the world for women in 2019, and her intensity is fueled by this mix of rage and confidence.
Becoming a mother at the young age of eighteen, Rico is trying to be the best version of herself for her son, and while it comes out ferociously in her music, its straight-forward delivery and themes of power and dominance resonate with her listeners. “People took a lot of shots at me, but they don’t have a lot of ammunition,” she told i-D Magazine, “I’m still here. And I’m getting louder.”
Check out Roseandblog’s full 2019 Freshman Class roster on a playlist of select hits here via Apple Music or Spotify.
What do you think? Drop your thoughts in the comments below.