Remember when the XXL Freshman List used to matter? Before the classes became a gimmick to ride an artist’s wave of contemporary popularity, the freshman list strived to help artists develop their own following and built a platform for them to be displayed as the next big thing in hip-hop. From individual freestyles to group cyphers, the freshman list was the perfect showcase of artist’s exhibiting their natural talents. It narrowed the hunt for hip-hop’s next star by serving as the unofficial draft class for artists; and just like big sports leagues, it produced big breaks and bad busts.
After the list debuted in 2007 with an eccentric list of emcees, the notion was placed in a brief hiatus due to a power change in the company. With the future of the company on the line, the XXL staff looked towards the new generation of rising stars to help get the show back on the road — figuratively and literally speaking. Lucky for them, the culture was experiencing a new wave of artists flooding the game through an entirely new method of breaking the industrial barriers: blog success. We take a minute to examine each entry in the 2009 XXL freshman list and see how well their careers have stood the test of time.
At the time of the list’s publication, B.o.B was the fan favorite as he took the mainstream over by storm with arguably the perfect radio records created by an artist in the blog era. His music was a breath of fresh air in the Atlanta music scene as B.o.b opted for a more lyrical approach to his records, helping him dub the title of the next coming of Andre 3000 (at the time!). Signed to T.I.’s powerhouse label that was Grand Hustle and backed by the profound Atlantic Records, B.o.B was easily the most recognizable name on the list at the time with his mixtape background boosting him to the top of the charts. While the Atlanta-based rapper had a monstrous run that lasted more than half a decade, the latter half of his career would be overshadowed by online gimmicks and flabbergasting headlines that would take a toll on his career.
The shift in perception was brutal as the golden boy that resembled this generation’s Andre 3000 would become a shelved afterthought in the years to come. B.o.B was still fortunate enough to salvage some of his image to mold an independent path for himself, but it was never enough to match his undefeated prime run.
The consensus on Asher Roth is a shocking one to say the least. Coined as the begrudging creator of hip-hop’s least innovative sub-genre, “frat rap”, Asher Roth has come a long way since his early days of sleeping in the bread aisle. Having the foundation to take his career to the next major step, Asher decided to take another path creatively, separate from the family-friendly pop rapper, which as you could assume didn’t sit well with the majors. After trusting his intuition and following his own creative direction, he was labeled a bust as he wasn’t able to meet the industry requirements that they laid out for him.
Surprisingly enough, this worked out for the better as Asher was finally able to detach himself from the overbearing machine of mainstream record labels and found a better fit as an indie artist. The tone has changed drastically from the inital college anthems as he’s able to demonstrate his passion for the music and art more with his recent works. Frankly, many still view him as the one-hit wonder who loves college, but those who are tapped in know that Asher Roth is still active, rapping with respected names such as those on this list.
Wale is quite arguably the most polarizing name on this list. At one point in time, Wale was placed on a pedestal next to the Drakes and Kid Cudis of the hip-hop world, wooing lyrical analysts while putting the DMV on the map. The combined effort of touching poetic content and vibrant go-go music helped him stand out in the diverse landscape of the early blog era days allowing him to become the people’s choice for the voice of their generation. Thankfully, Wale continues to see success today in all of his creative endeavors but the grass wasn’t always green as the trajectory of his career went through many peaks and troughs over the years. From public outbursts to unnecessary feuds, Wale endured a lot of criticism throughout his career, taking a major hit to his image and losing his spot as one of the representatives of this generation.
To add on to the madness, Wale went through many artistic transformations which didn’t really help lighten the blows, even if it set the blueprint for the specified sound of current day hip-hop. Wale has definitely gotten his swagger back as of recent, but he never reclaimed the same magnitude of glory as his early days. Such a shame as Wale built a solid catalog of cult classics and continues to release great music to this day.
Easily the most intriguing “what-if” cases of this time period, Charles Hamilton once wielded the talent and position to turn himself into a generational artist. Though we credit the Kanye’s and Pharrell’s for allowing us to be comfortable in our own skin, Charles Hamilton took it a step further as he embraced his quirky personality that we had never take stage in hip-hop. A lethal rapper/producer hybrid that capsulated a breath of fresh air in the modern hip-hop scene, Charles was on pace to become a star amongst his peers. As you could tell, things didn’t pan out well. In fact, it went completely terrible for Charles as he dropped from the skies limit to ground zero instantaneously.
If you think rappers nowadays have terrible PR, Charles reputation took a hit that no artist could ever recover from. Struggles with mental illness coupled with legal issues were enough to bury Charles Hamilton’s career alongside everything attached. On top of that, listeners began to get over the quirkiness of his style, enough to completely jump off any Charles Hamilton bandwagons. What could’ve been a generation defining artist turned into a depressing case of personal struggle and career suicide.
Ace Hood’s tenure at the top of hip-hop’s food chain was a short but sweet run. Fully backed by DJ Khaled’s We The Best imprint, Ace Hood quickly became a force to be reckoned with as he built himself to be the era’s most notorious hustler. Stylistically, Ace Hood was the embodiment of street rap as he took over the game with vigorous street anthems and a relentless mixtape grind. From the outside looking in, it looked as if Ace Hood would go on to share the same success as the culture’s most beloved hustlers such as Jadakiss or Cam’ron; and while he did completely take over the game for a minute, his reign was very short lived. His split from Khaled was one that hit deep as cetain connections you would think he’d maintain ended up vanishing.
The transition from hip-hop’s hottest name to a fully independent artist is one that has damaged the perception of many careers, making it seem as if they can’t get by without a big name supporting their cause. Don’t let the lack of mainstream success fool you as Ace Hood continues to deliver projects at a consistent rate. It may not be the same high-energy bangers we once enjoyed but the Florida emcee offers growth and progress as he continues his career independently.
Though he experienced glimpses of success throughout his temporary tenures at No Limit and Cash Money, Curren$y didn’t really pop off as a solo act until the blog era. A breath of fresh air in NOLA’s bounce-heavy scene, Curren$y aka the Hot Spitta found his niche simply by going with the flow of his weed-oriented raps. Just like the grand majority of this list (and blog artists as a whole), Spitta had no plans on conforming to any trends allowing him to thrive as a trail blazer in his own right. While Kanye and Pharrell pushed fashion in a high-level position in the industry, Curren$y was the artist that put on for the underground hoodies getting fly.
A consistent output of mixtapes and loosies would allow Spitta to build a steady repertoire of classics as well as a dedicated fanbase who would stick by the Jet Life CEO as if they too were a part of the brand. The level of success that the NOLA outlier has reached is unmatched and while he rejects any positions in the spotlight, the stoned-out emcee continues to thrive in his own space as the modern day underground king.
An immediate standout amongst his peers and a hero to an entire generation, Cudi was the only artist aside from Wale who was truly projected for mainstream success. Labeled as a Kanye protege, the Cleveland stoner had an immaculate influence on the star’s 2008 record, 808’s & Heartbreaks, allowing his sound to reach the masses before they truly recognized his name. Every artist in the blog era had their quirks and characteristics that allowed them to standout in an ocean of creatives, but it was clear from off the rip that Cudi was truly a different artist. The heavy use of melodic tones and hooks supported by a well grounded emcee skillset helped pave the way for Cudi to immediately dominate airwaves.
Each name mentioned in this list had their own run on radio in one way or another, but what Cudi was able to do in this time was truly unique and was able to sustain a typically unattainable level of longevity. Seriously, ask any artist who debuted past 2010 who their main influence is and nine times out of ten Kid Cudi will be the answer. Paired with the recent success in the film realm, Kid Cudi is definitely the most well-established name on the list, no debate.
In a time where Lil Wayne’s Young Money imprint was preparing to lift off the ground, Weezy would find a solid signee in the son of a New York hip-hop legend. Heir to the acclaimed Bronx-native, Peter Gunz, Cory Gunz would continue the tradition of hip-hop in his bloodline by seeking his own tenure in the culture. Fortunate for him, it was fairly easier to gain traction in his career then compared to when his father was coming up as his battle-rap style bars led him to an opportunity past his city’s borders. However, things didn’t really work out all the way for Cory Gunz and we would’ve hoped. An appearance on the heavily revered Tha Carter IV was enough to garner some buzz, but not nearly enough to boast a career in the industry’s big leagues. Add in the alleged shady contracts in the Cash Money headquarters and Cory Gunz would quickly go down the same way he went up.
Nowdays, the electric emcee is able to pave his own path of success in various underground avenues, but Cory went through more trials and tribulations over the years than he should’ve for an artist with his skillset. But to speak through the voice of reason, there’s no telling whether the mainstream would’ve allowed an emcee with a heavy battle-rap influence to thrive when it barely acknowledges the substation of hip-hop in general.
Just like his style, Blu was an odd standout on this list. This isn’t sayin that he wasn’t talented to make the list – as a matter of fact, he’s overqualified for a placement on this list – but the LA native had already existed across hip-hop forums for two years and some change. Blu already wielded a unanimous underground classic with the Exile-produced, Below the Heavens, but at this point, it seemed like the bizarre emcee was ready to take things to the next level. Skill wise, it’s hard to pit any name from any edition of the XXL Freshman List against this behemoth of an emcee. With an extraordinary hip-hop IQ and mesmerizing writing skills, Blu was easily amongst the elite off his rapping alone. You’d think an artist of this caliber would be rubbing shoulders at the Roc Nation brunch, but truth be told, it seemed like Blu was too comfortable in his own skin—and not in a bad way.
The LA lyricist was content with being able to support himself with touring that he opted to take the indie route and cement a legacy in his own realm. Granted he still could’ve leapt up a few steps but mental health problems also factored into the equation and delayed his output as well as social presence. Nonetheless, Blu is easily one of the most proficient emcees over the past two decades and deserves more praise for dedicating himself to the progression of this culture.
Mickey Factz as an option for a list of this caliber was a no-brainer. At the time, Mickey was a key contributor to the blog influence on hip-hop, sharing the same spotlight with artists such as The Cool Kids and Drake. His unique approach to lyricism was a breath of fresh air in a New York hip-hop scene that was dominated by gritty street bangers. In a way, New York hip-hop was slowly losing it’s essence as local artists reached outside of the state borders for a new sound; with this in mind, Mickey’s dense wordplay and assorted bunch of topics were a more accurate depiction of the state’s music scene than anything else out at the time.
Though he was projected to become one of the big dogs of the new generation, it sadly didn’t exactly pan out as planned for Mickey as he never really reached the same pinnacle of his early days; but through thick and thin, he weathered the storm as he consistently released mixtapes and continued to sharpen his pen. This allowed for Factz to build a dedicated fanbase that would uplift him to the point where he would in the position to open his own rap academy. The highly esteemed Pendulum Ink continues to bless aspiring emcees as Mickey holds courses on the depths of songwriting and core hip-hop fundamentals. He didn’t necessarily reach the industry’s standard of success, but what Mickey Factz has accomplished will forever echo throughout hip-hop’s lifespan.