XXL's Editor-in-Chief Defends This Year's Freshman Class
This week, XXL Magazine released their annual Freshman List to much fanfare and the usual fighting. The magazine's biggest issue of the year, since 2008 the Freshman List has become an easy-to-follow guide to which new artists are making noise in the rap game, as well as an increasingly more accurate estimation of who will be making an impact in the future. With such recent alumni as Kendrick Lamar, Macklemore and J.Cole, the choices keep getting sharper, as well as more controversial. We spoke to XXL Editor-in-Chief Vanessa Satten about the selection process for this year's list, as well as some of the previous year's biggest hits and misses.
XXL Vanessa Satten, XXL Editor-in-Chief
Where did the original idea for the Freshman List come from?
We've been doing it, I think, for seven classes now. Over the time we've seen the shift from people liking certain rappers and being very interested in the new guys. Fans want to be early and take credit for who they knew early, and that resonated with us as we saw that shift, so we figured we'd do a cover with the new jacks. That was a good chunk of years and its definitely gone through some transitions, but it's become our Super Bowl for XXL.
The earlier lists had artists who were more established, such as Lupe Fiasco, Young Dro and Rich Boy, who all had chart-topping success at that point, as well as OJ Da Juiceman whose 2010 appearance was his second XXL album cover. This year you have Rich Homie Quan who had one of the bigger hits of 2013 with "Type of Way."
Well, when we did Kendrick Lamar, he had Section 80, which was big for him, but he didn't have Good Kid Maad City, so the basics for us [are] that you don't have your major label debut, your big moment. Macklemore's The Heist came after Freshman. It's, for us, that national roll-out. You don't have just a few songs, you're making a career. A lot of those guys aren't there right now. They've made a few songs, and they've got their core fanbase but they don't have a national audience that connects with them. Diehard hip-hop heads are familiar with a lot of the guys on the cover, hip-hop as a whole has a lot of "I only recognize four guys on the cover." It really depends on the level of hip-hop fan you are.
What constitutes a Freshman? Someone who hasn't had a national release yet?
No, you can't have a major label debut. By the time we do the Freshman photo shoot, you can't have a major label debut.
You mentioned the Macklemore and Kendrick Lamar success stories, and going back even further you have Wale and Ace Hood who took a few years after the Freshman list to connect nationally with an audience. What do you look for in a Freshman?
We look for who we believe in. They don't have to blow up in the next year, they have to blow up in the next couple years. They're people who are in the moment, who are talked about in the prime of getting record deals and having their first songs. People who we think are going to be around for a while, have more success and grow into bigger stars. We keep in consideration what we think works for the public, what their talent level is, what kind of set-up they have, if they have an endorsement and will they be a focus of the artist who supports them. It's XXL's list, it's not saying "this is what it's gonna be," it's what we believe could happen based on our tools that we use in our experience for the future.
Despite usually being incredibly diverse, especially regionally, over the years, there's been some brouhaha this year over there being no female or white rappers, not unlike the hoopla in 2010 over there being no New York rappers, or the fact that in all the years of Freshman Lists, Lil B's been the only Bay Area artist featured. Is diversity a conscious choice?
Diversity comes up, but it's not the main choice. At the end of the day, we're picking who we believe in at the moment and the people who are hot. If we say "Who's the woman that's gonna blow up?" "Who's the white rapper that's gonna blow up?" "Who's the Asian rapper that's gonna blow up?" That is not picking the essence of what's going on in hip-hop. We're not trying to fill a quota. We're trying to pick who has got a major buzz right now and if we picked people based on quotas, it wouldn't be fair to the artists or XXL. The cover should document what's going on in hip-hop right now. There's not a huge female movement right now. Hopefully, there will be one day in the near future. I'll support any rappers. We're documenting, we're not determining who these people are going to be. We want to get credibility on picking who is going to blow up.
Chicago's got a movement right now. It's taken years. The movement is happening right now, there's more eyes on Chicago than there has been. You see a reflection of that in the hip-hop class because that's what's going on in hip-hop. As for the Bay Area, we got questions about Sage and Iamsu. Sage, honestly, put an album out before the Freshman shoot. When the conversations came up, we didn't know how we felt about Sage, and then he put an album out that took him out of contention anyway. With Iamsu, sometimes we'd rather let an artist marinate to be one of the bigger guys next year, rather than the smaller guys this year. With Iamsu, we felt like he definitely has time to cook over the next year or so, unless he rushes an album out, which he could do. That's what happened with A$AP Ferg.
We're not filling out a checklist. We're conscious of what we're doing. We're conscious about what the regions are and what the breakdown is. But, if we feel strongly, we feel strongly. We don't want to tamper with the credibility of the whole thing.