Ranking XXL's Freshman Class at the Highline Ballroom Last Night
In what has become an annual tradition, the minds over at XXL magazine recently unveiled the elite class of fresh-faced rappers they dub the Freshman 10. Mostly products of Internet buzz and/or critically acclaimed mixtapes, the Freshman class issue has risen from a gimmicky excuse to put non-famous but promising rappers on the cover to a legitimate honor for those who are given a spot (just ask Lil Wayne's homie, Jae Millz, who took aim at this year's crop after being conspicuously excluded). Is it a gauge for stardom? Well, the honor has been met with mixed results. Some have gone on to become sort of famous (Kid Cudi, Asher Roth); others have remained underground (Blu); and others have just...well, frankly, they never belonged in the first place (Ace Hood).
Last night, six of them--all non-native New Yorkers, including Nipsey Hussle (Los Angeles), Jay Rock (Los Angeles), Donnis (Atlanta), Pill (Atlanta), Big Sean (Detroit), and Freddie Gibbs (Gary, Indiana)--took the stage at the Highline Ballroom to introduce themselves to a city that's never less than skeptical of new rappers, especially those who come from out of town. (Three of them -- Fashawn, OJ Da Juiceman, Wiz Khalifa --were not in attendance for reasons unknown, though OJ was booed last time he was here. The fourth MC missing in action, J. Cole, headlined his own show the night before at SOB's for Hot97's annual Who's Next concert series).
For all involved, the goal of the performance was simple: Demonstrate to skeptics that they rightfully deserve to be on the cover of XXL and will hopefully be back in said magazine again in the future. So did they show and prove? Well, yes and no. Below, a breakdown of last night's performances categorized from worst to best.
The moment Big Sean introduced himself to the crowd by saying, "I love New York, my big brother was born in New York," the Detroit native lost--pandering does not win NYC crowds over. Even with an audience fully aware of his Kanye West co-sign and Def Jam record deal, Sean's set was filled with few bright spots. And though he does deserve a hat tip for getting the crowd to rock out to his "Rollin'" freestyle (nothing like seeing thugs bob their heads to a beat that samples Robert Miles' "Children"), winning the room over was an uphill battle he never quite finished. There weren't many boos, but relative to the rest of the performances, the crowd for Sean's performance sounded most like an unhappy audience at the Apollo.
Distinction - Nicest Guy: Clearly respectful of the rule that guests should always come with a gift of sorts, Big Sean gave away a couple of t-shirts emblazoned with his motto "I Am Finally Famous" three-quarters of the way into his set. We'll see about that.
Oh Nipsey. Of all the Freshmen, you'd be hard pressed to find someone with as much universal appeal and star potential as the Rolling 60's crip. But you'd also be surprised to find one whose stage shows needs more work or who's more aware of his popularity. Nipsey is like the quarterback of the football team who's so good he doesn't need to practice, an image only perpetuated further by his performance last night. Usually the night's most anticipated performer is supposed to have the longest set, but not Nipsey. Four songs. Then he was done.
Distinction -- Biggest Entourage: If there's one thing Nipsey has down pat, it's embodying the image of a gangster rapper. There were mad dudes up on the stage with him throwing up the Rolling 60 Crips gang sign, which as far as gang signs go, is awfully creative. It's one-half Macarena, one half throwing up numbers like an umpire.
Nothing turns a New York audience off quicker than a new rapper with a deep Southern drawl, and Pill has that in spades. Even with write-ups in hometown papers like The New York Times, Pill couldn't convince the crowd to move with as much energy as he had, even when he pulled out very New York, East Coast-rap sounding songs like "Hear Somebody' Comin'".
Distinction -- Most Smiles: For a guy whose biggest hit is a song entitled "Trap Goin' Ham," it's awfully impressive to see Pill so happy to be on a stage, rapping for a bunch of skeptics.
The other West Coast artist on the bill was also the evening's first performer and he kicked it off like a man possessed. Jay Rock has always rhymed with a chip on his shoulder; he also performs with one. And though he gave an ample amount of his stage time to his up-and-coming partner-in-rhyme Kendrick Lamar, Rock closed his set out strong with his will.i.am produced-single "All My Life"-- perhaps the first time a room full of men have allowed themselves to rock out to a will.i.am track.
Distinction -- Crowd Favorite: Apparently, the Bloods in New York will even come to the Meat Packing district to support one of their own.
Everything about Freddie Gibbs' performance was if nothing else, fearless. First of all, dude took his shirt off, in front of a crowd that at best, had a 20/80 girl-to-guy ratio. After being introduced by the night's host, DJ Envy, as Freddie Gibbs from Gary, Indiana, home of Michael Jackson, Gibbs addressed the crowd after his first song and said, "I don't know what the fuck that dude was talking about... [Gary] ain't no Never Never Land." Gotcha, Gibbs. By the time Gibbs got into his current street single, "Ghetto", he had the respect of everyone watching.
Award -- Best Play on the Nike Slogan: Gibbs' "Been Did It" (as a response to "Just Do It") t-shirt written in the Nike brand font had a few guys in the crowd pondering aloud, "Where'd he get that shirt?"
The Atlanta rapper was the most out of place artist on the bill in terms of aesthetics. He was dressed as though he had a stylist. He had an electronic violinist who was playing a pink violin. He brought out two very non hip-hop acts. Estelle had grown men blushing as she sung her high-speed house-driven single, "I Can Be A Freak", though the pulsating drum and bass was more appropriate for the Jersey Shore than the New York City streets. And Ryan Leslie hopped on a keyboard to assist Donnis close out his set with his single, "Gone", reminding the mean mugs in the crowd that it was all just entertainment.
Distinction -- Most Free Spirit: Again, a pink violin? So not hip-hop, but Donnis gave her plenty of solo time anyway.
CAM'RON AND VADO
The day before the concert, Cam'ron and his protégé, Vado were added as the headlining performers, and it was a welcome change from the night's rookie performances. Though Vado wasn't one of XXL freshmen, he certainly had home field advantage and looked like a veteran as the Harlem native ripped through "Large On The Streets" and assisted Cam'Ron with some of his latest mixtape hits, such as the brilliantly titled, "Ric Flair."
Distinction - Fan Favorite: Though Cam didn't hit the stage until well after 1 a.m., it was clear from the moment he did, a veteran was not only in the house, but he was taking over it too. Hopefully the Freshmen were taking notes.