It’s that wonderful time of year again. Hip hop magazine XXL has released its annual freshman class list. In 2007, XXL decided to stir the pot by curating the year’s hottest acts and selecting 11 “freshmen”. These MCs were artists who generated massive buzz after dropping their debut album. Since its conception, several freshmen have gone on to enjoy great success in their musical careers. Former freshmen include greats like J.Cole, Kid Cudi, Nipsey Hussle, Megan Thee Stallion, Dave East, and Mac Miller. To be tapped to join such a momentous company is both an honor and an opportunity to put yourself on the map as the next big thing.
The list also sends waves of controversy throughout the hip hop world. A fan’s favorite artist getting snubbed is almost always the topic of conversation whenever the list arrives. Almost as much as outrage over who actually made the list over other acts. And the frustration is not unwarranted. Many amazing artists have blessed the airwaves, but have not yet earned a spot on the coveted list. Breakout MCs such as Young MA, Moneybag Yo, and Lil Baby never received the title yet have amassed huge fan bases. The importance of the list to an artist’s career is up for debate but one thing’s for certain; you can either seize the opportunity or flop to oblivion. Comprised of two main components, the freestyle and the cypher, artists have the opportunity to show why they were chosen to grace that year’s list.
This year, XXL chose 11 popping artists to feature on their 2021 List. I will give key information about the freshmen as well as a review of their freestyles and cyphers.
Hometown: Detroit, MI
Notable Songs and Features: “We Paid” by Lil Baby ft. 42 Dugg, “4 Da Gang” w. Roddy Ricch, “Maybach” ft. Future
Debut Albums/Mixtapes: Young and Turnt 2 (2020)
Thoughts on Freestyle: Going first is a double-edged sword. You can either set the tone really high or really low depending on your performance. In his signature Detroit slur, a relatively short freestyle, 42 Dugg, offered little in terms of creative wordplay. It was not bad but far from setting the tone as one of the best.
Thoughts on Cypher: Again, not a long verse but 42 Dugg’s flow and heavy bass are like peanut butter and jelly. 42 Dugg reminds me of freestyling on my homeboy’s porch after playing football in the street all day. You can see he’s having fun and easily rides the beat with clever punch lines and a cavalier flow.
Hometown: Mobile, AL
Notable Songs and Features: “Beef Flomix”, “In The Party”, “Like That B*tch”
Debut Albums/Mixtapes: Ho, Why Is You Here? (2020)
Thoughts on Freestyle: When you hear “Flo Milli Shii!”, you know the frequency just turned up. If 42 Dugg is the freshman that is too cool for school, Flo Milli is banging on lockers in the hallway. In a way that comes off as almost effortless, Flo Milli can just as easily rap about her luxurious lifestyle as her army of shooters.
Thoughts on Cypher: Flo isn’t in her name for no reason. She can switch gears on a dime and her entire aura exudes confidence. She is probably one of my favorites on the list, and she did not disappoint this fan.
Hometown: Fayetteville, NC
Notable Songs and Features: “Quicksand”, “My Life” w. J. Cole and 21 Savage
Debut Albums/Mixtapes: Street Sermons (2021)
Thoughts on Freestyle: Morray shows the true prowess of his pen. He spits double and triple entendre with ease. Hip Hop purists should definitely keep an eye on this artist as he has an innate gift for the craft.
Thoughts on Cypher: Morray shines differently amongst this freshman class as his subject matter tends to be darker than the others. While the others can be found making radio and club hits, Morray makes music for the trench babies. However, he shows that he can just easily make a banger with the other elites in his class. His melodic style of rap serves as an advantage that allows him to keep the energy going from his cypher mates.
Hometown: Memphis, Tenessee
Notable Songs and Features: “Back in Blood” ft. Lil Durk, “Big Purr (Prrrdd)” by Coi Leray ft. Pooh Shiesty
Debut Albums/Mixtapes: Shiesty Season (2021)
Thoughts on Freestyle: One could only flash money so long before it gets old. I never really look to Pooh Shiesty for this kind of setting so lackluster freestyle is to be expected. He is currently tied for the last place with 42 Dugg.
Thoughts on Cypher: This is where I expect that Memphis flow to flourish. While his cypher was far better than his freestyle, it was short-lived. His cadence and timing are clean yet his lyrics leave me wanting more.
Hometown: Milwaukee, WI
Notable Songs and Features: “Female Goat” ft. City Girls, “Poppin” ft. Gucci Mane, “Worst Thing”
Debut Albums/Mixtapes: Time’s Up (2020), In Due Time (2021)
Thoughts on Freestyle: The youngest and most likely the most obscure of the freshmen, Lakeyah had something to prove. Instead of sticking to a singular flow, Lakeyah opted to go straight for the jugular and remind us why she has a co-sign from greats like Gucci Mane and the City Girls.
Thoughts on Cypher: Lakeyah just does not have insane wordplay, she can ride a beat like no other. Criminally underrated, she shows she can rap just as good and even better than your top 5 MCs. Watch out for that girl.
Hometown: Hackensack, NJ
Notable Songs and Features: “No More Parties”, “Big PURR (Prrrdd)” ft. Pooh Shiesty, “At The Top” ft. Kodak Black & Mustard
Debut Albums/Mixtapes: Everythingcoz (2018), EC2 (2019)
Thoughts on Freestyle: Coi Leray is most likely one of the more well known of the freshman coming off a crazy wave of collaborations with major artists. However, she is widely regarded as a TikTok artist than a real contributor to the culture. This is her chance to prove her haters wrong. At first, her flow is solid yet her voice comes off as ingenuine. She falls into her regular pop flow but in a freestyle setting, it just does not hit.
Thoughts on Cypher: It does not seem like she came to seriously deliver bars. Rather, she keeps her flow quick and upbeat. She decides to offer ad-libs to enhance the cyphers before hers, yet this does nothing to hype her own mediocre verse. I do enjoy her music but she does need to show her versatility to truly be regarded as the hottest out.
Hometown: Syracuse, NY
Notable Songs and Features: “Love Cycle”, “Sapiosexual”, “Right Now”
Debut Albums/Mixtapes: Why Not Now (2017), Poetic Pain (2020)
Thoughts on Freestyle: Toosii is a rare commodity as many producers can not switch into the rapper lane as smoothly as he did. However, his ability to express his pain and journey to reach superstar status in melodic wordplay is brilliant. A remarkable storyteller, his freestyle was the most captivating and heartfelt.
Thoughts on Cypher: If he showed us a softer side in his freestyle, his cypher reminds us that his MC is not without grit. He is grateful for his position but do not get it twisted, he earned it. As both a producer and rapper, he finds the pocket within the beat to deliver witty punchlines. I already am a fan of his music and am seeing this as a major turning point for his career.
Hometown: Los Angeles, CA
Notable Songs and Features: “Hurt”, “Overrated”, “No Love Lost”
Debut Albums/Mixtapes: No Love Lost (2020), Sixtape (2021)
Thoughts on Freestyle: The West Coast is home to a number of amazing lyricists and it is them that Blxst derives his style from. You can tell he has an extensive taste of music history as he pays homage to the bars of MCs past. His flow is so smooth, it’s almost as if he’s talking to us. And he definitely has something to say.
Thoughts on Cypher: The West Coast freshman looks like a seasoned vet as his wordplay and punchlines can rival some of the best lyricists. In terms of writing ability, Blxst is my pick for the top spot.
Hometown: Pontiac, MI
Notable Songs and Features: “Moonwalking in Calabasas”, “Hold Up” ft. Queen Naija, “Arguments”
Debut Albums/Mixtapes: VALEDICTORIAN (2019), Die 4 Respect (2021)
Thoughts on Freestyle: I believe DDG is the most polished of the freshmen. As soon as the video starts, he comes out swinging. It does come off as highly rehearsed but when you are chosen as a freshman, you bring out all the stops. The freestyle does fall flat for me towards the end but his strong start does keep my eye on him.
Thoughts on Cypher: Listening to “Moonwalking in Calabasas”, you would get the impression that this man can eat up a beat. Here, he does not disappoint. Opening his group’s cypher, he debunks the saying that “the best is saved for last”.
Hometown: Lexington, KY
Notable Songs and Features: “Big Mouth”, “He in His Feelings”, “Nasty” by Rich The Kid, Flo Milli, & Latto ft. Rubi Rose
Debut Albums/Mixtapes: For The Streets (2020)
Thoughts on Freestyle: Rubi Rose was the underdog coming onto the list. Many of the list’s fans did not even know she made music. I personally also wondered why she was even added over other artists I felt were more deserving. Boy, she did make me eat my words. Rubi Rose shows that she is more than another pretty face in the industry. She has a hard flow with bars to match that would make any MC run back to their notepads.
Thoughts on Cypher: Now, I have never listened to a Rubi Rose song but after hearing her cypher she is getting added to my music library. She has a soft sultry voice that lures you in as she raps about robbing you for all your worth. By internalizing the hate, Rubi Rose skyrocketed from massively underrated to standing in the spotlight. Now, I do see her going far in this industry.
Hometown: Arecibo, Puerto Rico
Notable Songs and Features: “Mood” by 24kGoldn ft. Iann Dior, “Emotions”, “gone girl” ft. Trippie Redd
Debut Albums/Mixtapes: nothings ever good enough (2019), I’m Gone (2020)
*Iann Dior did not participate in the Freshman Freestyle or Cyphers.