When I first wrote about XXL's annual Freshman Class list in 2012, it was more of a lark than anything else: I figured it would be a quick break from album reviews, and this way I could also comment on newer rappers who would probably never see the light of day on the blog otherwise. But when I wrote my follow-up last year, I half-jokingly mentioned that I would like to follow up on these ten artists annually, tracking their progress and their struggles in the music industry, almost like my own version of the UP documentary series, except with far less compelling subject matter.
I can't guarantee I'll have the patience to do this again in 2015, but for now, let's see where these nine guys and one girl have landed.
MACHINE GUN KELLY (formerly MGK, formerly MACHINE GUN KELLY)
What I wrote before: “...it seems that signing with Puff Daddy has affected his work...”
Song I listened to this time around: “Pe$o” (feat. Pusha T & Meek Mill)
Well, the song choice was a mistake, but let's look past the horrific sampling of Aloe Blacc's “I Need A Dollar” right now, since this paragraph isn't supposed to be about the actual music. Anyway, Machine Gun Kelly, the first of two Bad Boy signees on this list but by far the least successful of the two, sounds pretty much like every other rapper ever created, which is a problem when hip hop appears to be easier to get into than community college. The man just doesn't stand out: his flow is a variation of Southern swag that immediately informs the audience of what his influences were, and let's just say the man doesn't have the best taste. I remember thinking “Invincible” was okay, but the more I think about it, I'm pretty sure it was mostly the beat that made that particular track work, and the production on “Pe$o” (an unfortunate choice of song title, given that it was released so closely to A$AP Rocky's far more popular track of the same name) definitely hurts his cause, but I'm not left with any indication that MGK could carry a song even if DJ Premier and The RZA had a baby and that baby produced some epic shit. To be fair, he also falters because of his guests, though: Pusha T is, well, come on, and as much as I don't care for Meek Mill and his incessant shouting, at least that guy has a distinctive style, which is more than can be said for whoever the fuck this paragraph is supposed to be about.
What I wrote before: “...pretty sure I don't have to give a shit about the rest of this list, because Danny Brown wins. Sorry.”
Song I listened to this time around: “Side A (Old)”
“Side A (Old)” is the reason why I have yet to write about Danny Brown's first album released to store shelves, Old: every time I attempt to sit down with it, I end up rewinding the shit out of this song and I never get anywhere. (Sure, I could begin with the second track, but where's the fun in that?) Those of you who are only really familiar with Brown's high-pitched excitable-chihuahua-hipster-on-cocaine flow will be pleased to find that the man actually operates on multiple speeds, and this song is an excellent example of what he can do when he just goes in on some hip hop shit. It helps tremendously that producer Paul White's work behind the boards makes this a fucking banger, but none of this would click had it not been for Danny Brown's matter-of-fact shit-talking and observational rhymes. This shit is hot, but I don't see an Old write-up happening anytime soon, so if any of the readers wish to tackle that one for me, that would be cool. And, as usual, Danny Brown is still probably the only artist you give a shit about on this list, so at least XXL picked a winner, right?
What I wrote before: “...this paragraph is supposed to be about Kid Ink; the fact that it isn't says a goddamn lot about how much of an impact he and his generic piffle rap had on me this time around...”
Song I listened to this time around: “No Miracles” (feat. Elle Varner & Machine Gun Kelly)
I chose this track from all of the singles Kid Ink has improbably released because it was the only one I found that didn't feature that cocksucker Chris Brown. That association makes for a troublesome comparison, by the way: Kid Ink, who effectively named himself after his heavily-tattooed self and his young age, raps and occasionally sings like a less-polished Breezy, albeit one who probably wouldn't attack a woman because that makes him feel more like a man. This paragraph is becoming a bit unfair to Kid Ink, so I digress, but only a little: “No Miracles” is boring as shit. Sure, Ink technically sounds just as serviceable as all of his peers on the radio, up to and including MGK (who makes his second appearance of the day on his fellow Freshman's track), but, like Kelly before him, he also doesn't really stand out, and the hook, performed by R&B singer Elle Varner, seems unpolished to a fault, as though the engineer was afraid of adjusting her vocals that day, or maybe they thought the world wanted to hear a vocalist sound like they were straining their sore throats to hit those notes? Anyway, when the best comparison one can make of you as an artist is that you remind them of Chris goddamn motherfucking Brown, it's time to throw in the towel, son. You're done here. (I realize that means Kid Ink will probably receive a platinum plaque about a week after this post runs, but so be it: just because I have taste doesn't mean that everyone in the world does.)
What I wrote before: “Nope, I still don't like the dude.”
Songs I listened to this time around: “Benz Friendz (Whatchutola)” (feat. Andre 3000) / “Move That Dope” (feat. Pusha T, Pharrell, & Casino)
I listened to two Future tracks today because I'm still trying to figure out exactly what I'm missing: Future has quietly become a force within our chosen genre, which is amazing for a dude who gets outclassed on every goddamn fucking song I've ever heard him rhyme on. Hooks are one thing: T-Pain once built a career on the strength of his Auto-Tuned choruses, and it seemed that Future could have done the same (I actually like his performance on Pusha T's “Pain”), but instead, he decided to also pursue the life of a rap star. “Benz Friendz (Whatchutola)”, a track I caught the tail end of on the radio the other day so it was fresh in my mind, at least shows that he's been actively trying in the year since I last wrote about the guy, but to put him alongside fellow Dungeon Family vet Andre 3000 not only does a disservice to him (and his not-great but could-have-been-worse verses), it also makes one wonder why the fuck Dre can't be bothered to just fucking record a song with Big Boi already, but that's a topic for a different post. “Move That Dope”, one of this year's biggest rap songs and what you probably feel would have been the more obvious choice for me to write about, has a catchy, if overly simplistic, hook going for it, along with a discount Mike Will Made It beat that still manages to keep things moving, but the man born Nayvadius Cash struggles to keep pace with cocaine rapper extraordinaire Pusha T (who has actually worked alongside a lot of people on this list and would probably benefit from becoming more selective in the future) and, hilariously and famously, Academy Award nominee Pharrell Williams and his hat, who both rap circles around everyone else on here. When your best-known contribution to your own song is an interpolation of the hook from Salt-N-Pepa's “Push It” and not your actual verse, it means nothing, because “Move That Dope” was popular and made Future a ton of money. By the way, the hook on “Move That Dope” sounds like the least effective employee meeting ever: why don't you tell us how you would move that dope, Future? Lead by example, motherfucker!
What I wrote before: “...dude has grown into the new generation's Soulja Boy, which is a problem, because Soulja Boy is still pretending to rap these days, and also Roscoe Dash is awful...”
Song I listened to this time around: “Work” (feat. Big A)
To be fair, the Roscoe Dash that spits on “Work” hardly sounds like a Soulja Boy clone: this guy at least tried to write some rhymes. So it's only a little bit his fault that said rhymes aren't very good, which is ironic in a “ten thousand spoons when all you need is a knife to slit your wrists with”-kind of way, since “Work” calls out those lazy asses who wish to reap all of the rewards without putting in any of the actual work. His flow is problematic for me (when did high-pitched shouting become all the rage in our bullshit genre?), so I found this shit to be terrible (that hook is also awful, but that's probably not Roscoe's fault), but at least this was a marked improvement over whatever the fuck I listened to last year.
What I wrote before: “...this former That's So Raven cast member commits the ultimate sin in hip hop: he's boring...”
Song I listened to this time around: “Hop Is Back”
A lot of folks dismiss Hopsin as a Tyler, The Creator-esque rapper who is more interested in shock-value lyrics than actual creativity. And those folks are kind of right, but “Hop Is Back” seems to steer his ship back into the world of semi-relevancy, as his bars take on the cadence and lightheartedness (until they get downright bitchy, anyway) as early pre-Aftermath Eminem, who Hop has frequently cited as an influence. Hell, the final verse on here attacks Kanye West and backhandedly compliments Kendrick Lamar, which is right in Marshall's wheelhouse both then and now. (And don't worry, Hopsin, I hated Yeezus too.) This is actually much more playful than anything else I've heard from the guy, and the bars show promise. So maybe last year I caught him at a bad time. He would probably be the most improved of this class, which I'm sure he will somehow take offense to, but fuck him.
What I wrote before: “Never thought that, of all three white rappers on this list, Macklemore, an indie artist, would become the most mainstream...”
Song I listened to this time around: “White Walls” (feat. ScHoolboy Q & Hollis)
The kid with the highest GPA last year, Macklemore capitalized on his “Thrift Shop” popularity by dropping two more hit singles, “Can't Hold Us” and the gay marriage anthem “Same Love”, which he had actually released as a single and video before “Thrift Shop” but it didn't click then because nobody knew who the fuck he was, so I'd say that was some savvy move on his label's part. (By the way, I appreciate that he was merely speaking his mind on “Same Love” and wasn't necessarily trying to promote any social agenda, but why did he have to keep proclaiming his heterosexuality throughout? I thought the point was that sort of shit shouldn't matter, right?) Naturally, Macklemore (and his partner in crime, producer Ryan Lewis) rode this wave to win four Grammys, including Best Rap Album earlier in 2014, infamously snatching the award from the likes of Kanye West (who didn't deserve it), Jay-Z (ditto), Drake (nah), and Kendrick Lamar (there you go). Did he snag the prize because of his race? Probably, but that's not important right now. What matters is where the guy goes from here, and to that end, I selected the last single released from his breakthrough The Heist, “White Walls”, because (a) it wasn't nearly as popular as the previous three, and (b) it gives me an excuse to listen to ScHoolboy Q while writing this article. The song itself is piffle: while the beat is alright, our host doesn't ever seem to be comfortable rhyming over it, switching up his cadence at the drop of a dime. And yet, this is pretty much what Macklemore was probably aiming for when he started rapping to begin with: this song is nothing but talking shit and boasting about his car, which, come on, that shit's pretty standard in hip hop. And to that end, he does okay, but not great. Q merely puts in a quick cameo as a favor for his friend (Macklemore also appears in the video for Q's “Collard Greens”, in case you were wondering why he has Kendrick Lamar's number saved in his phone), and the hook, performed by Hollis, merely serves its purpose without going the extra mile. A purely pedestrian song from a purely pedestrian rapper who has managed to make lightning strike three times.
What I wrote before: “Dude has completely lost me. When did it become okay to sound so goddamn apathetic on a record?”
Song I listened to this time around: “Wake Up”
Dude has moved well past apathy and has firmly planted himself in outright hatred and disgust for our chosen genre. That's the only way I can rationalize why this shit sucks so goddamn much. Fuck this guy.
What I wrote before: “...when she isn't forcing the issue, she at least sounds like she could rap...at least she's already lasted longer than Kreayshawn...”
Song I listened to this time around: “Fancy” (feat. Charli XCX)
Yeah, yeah, I know, but I have to pay attention to the pop charts too. It's a “know your enemies”-kind of thing. After dropping what seemed to be seventeen thousand singles to promote herself, Australian-bred Iggy Azalea, who's a white girl who raps in what can best be referred to as “not a white girl's accent”, finally hit the big time with “Fancy”, a club-ready track with its accompanying video homage to Clueless making it your girl's favorite song of the summer. As such, Iggy has positioned herself to possibly upset the hip hop categories at next year's Grammys, since the committee sure do love their white rappers. The problem is that I don't believe anybody actually likes Iggy Azalea's performance: aside from that annoying part where she insists on spelling her first name, my wife (who is a bit more observant about this stuff than I) has noticed that all anyone actually quotes from is the chorus. I like Charli XCX's stuff normally, and her hook is by far the best goddamn thing about the track, but it doesn't do anything to prove that Iggy is going to stick around beyond this summer, unless she switches genres to EDM or something. Oh, wait, she already has a parallel career in EDM? Makes sense: her vapid lyricism is perfect for background noise while you're trying to get drunk and get that hot girl to dance with you. Iggy literally says less than nothing on “Fancy”: she clearly put more work into her performance in the video, which, admittedly, is actually a decent homage, although you two would do better to just watch Clueless, an incredibly dated but still pretty good flick.
What I wrote before: “I can't imagine him doing anything that could ever be considered as quality work, but he may have a few more decent cameos in him, which could make him this generation's DMX...”
Song I listened to this time around: “Ain't Worried About Nothin”
A silly choice, to be sure, but while Frenchy's lyrics on here are shit (especially when he repeats them toward the end, reminding you of just how awful they are), goddamn if it isn't catchy. French Montana may actually be, and I can't believe I'm writing this, the best fit for Puff Daddy's Bad Boy Records right now, if only because he has what it takes to drop shit that's ignorant enough to pop off at the clubs, which is all Puffy ever really aims to do anyway. I simultaneously like and hate this track, or I probably just hate that I find it so catchy, but for whatever reason, it works for me, much more so than any other Mr. Khloe Kardashian guest verse I've heard all year. Comparing him with DMX last year was a mistake: when he's on, DMX was actually compelling with his rhymes, while Frenchy will never be that interesting as a human being, let alone as a rapper. But, as we all know, rappers like French Montana have a function in hip hop, even if that function is to annoy us with their various successes.