From The Source’s legendary “Unsigned Hype” column to the hundreds of rap blogs that litter the internets, hip-hop culture has always raced to declare who got next. It’s a fervent debate that permeates basketball courts, barbershops and record-filled basements–who’s nicer than who, who deserves what, who’s dropping when and what it’s going to mean for everyone else. Rap mag XXL has capitalized on this perpetual controversy with its “Freshman Class” series: an annual cover story that features ten or so MCs dubbed to be the most promising amongst the plethora of new acts vying for airtime and attention spans. This past Monday evening, leaked photos of the 2011 Freshman Class hit the ‘net, prompting XXL to officially release the upcoming cover and spark a firestorm of debate about their latest picks. Couple this with the brow-raising pick for Best New Artist at this year’s Grammy Awards, and contention seems higher than ever about who deserves to be called the next big thing. But for all the tweets, tallies and tantrums, it seems like the one thing the public can’t agree on isn’t who the best new artists are, but what exactly it means to be “new” in today’s music climate. And if that can even be defined, how then can we hope to define criteria for “best”? As patterns for music consumption and artists’ lifespans shift immensely, the concept of a “new artist” has taken on unprecedented fluidity, and it’s becoming apparent that discovering the next may not be as important as understanding the now.
This year, XXL has chosen to bestow the Freshman title to a diverse class of characters. Some have record deals, some have Wikipedia pages, some have a lot of work to do. It’s difficult to identify any common thread amongst the MCs that grace the cover, particularly in their respective levels of success. Yelawolf, Lil Twist and Cyhi all enjoy comfortable record deals with rap’s strongest teams, but none have produced records that have had any major cultural or commercial impact. Lil B and Mac Miller boast dedicated internet fanbases, but have yet to jump off the web and translate cult followings to mass appeal. Acts like Kendrick Lamar and Big K.R.I.T have been celebrated for quality projects and industry cosigns, but lack the communicative stickiness that several of their peers enjoy. And many of the other artists are floating in lyricist limbo, acknowledged more for being on the court than being a viable player.
Most pressing, it seems, is that while most fans have one or two of their favorite up-and-comers on the XXL cover, few can claim to be fans of, or even familiar with, all eleven. In fact, even XXL editors themselves admit in their March 2011 issue that for all the feverish and passionate submissions they receive, “no one ever actually has a list of a full 10.” If XXL’s goal is to highlight new artists that readers should check out, then this makes sense. But XXL has been intentionally ambiguous about what exactly it means to be a Freshman. The title appears to jump between an acknowledgement of accession to rap’s forefront and a pegging of future promise. The series began in 2007 as a steadfast crowning of “Hip-Hop’s Next Superstars,” with a list that included Papoose, Gorilla Zoe, and Young Dro. As the series continued, the declarations lost hyperbole and the picks got more controversial and confusing, with the most prominent snafu in the cover’s history being the omission of rap wunderkind Drake from the 2009 list. Because XXL’s science isn’t consistent and their record isn’t encouraging, it serves more to consider not how successful Freshman alumni went on to be, but how they were being considered at the time their covers ran, and what the progression of the series has implied about the nature of the new artist.
XXL’s “Leaders of the New School” cover, the predecessor of the Freshman series, ran in November 2007. The mixtape was just conceding to the blog as the dominant means of discovering new artists. Record sales were teetering, but were still existent. Every featured MC had consistent radio play, with either a big feature or a hit of their own. Almost all had deals on the table, and many had secured debut dates, which were listed in the story. By contrast, almost none of this year’s Freshman MC’s have any significant radio presence, and their careers seem much less solidified than the class four years their senior. Where the earliest Freshman covers seemed to be a celebration of those that had arrived, 2011′s appears to be more a suggestion of arrival. It comes as a slight nudge to a close friend, followed by a half-whispered “Hey, this kid over here might be on to something.” There’s no accolade for past achievement or implied certainty of future viability, but a very immediate, acute indication of the present, an observation that people are talking about these MCs right now, and so there must be some good reason why.
This near-abtruse distinction bears larger relevance to the shifting nature of “new” in today’s music industry. Instinctively, we understand “new” as a definite state, brought about by way of birth or creation. But today’s viral-based music exchange doesn’t lend itself to any static markers. Contemporary “new” rap artists are not contracted, developed, and presented as would be a new film or new book. Rather, they develop in the public eye, gaining followers one by one (figuratively and literally) and eventually hitting a plateau that warrants mass acknowledgement of relevance. This makes it much more difficult to define exactly when an artist is “new”– when they upload their first project to their immediate circle of friends, or when a major rap blog discovers that project a year later and dubs it Album of the Year? Examples of this fluidity are rampant throughout today’s industry: Saigon’s debut album The Greatest Story Never Told was released last week and soared to the top of the iTunes charts, but it’s a project that’s been in limbo since 2006 (ironically, Saigon is an alumnus of XXL’s very first Freshman Class of 2007). And even outside of the rap world, Esperanza Spalding was crowned “Best New Artist” at this year’s Grammy Awards, after having recorded three commercially viable albums since 2006. By all logic, the only criteria that suggested she was “new” was that few watching the Grammy’s had any idea who she was.
“New” has become a matter of perception, a window that is becoming narrower as the barriers to entry in the music industry become thinner. Our infatuation with the concept, then, must be reevaluated in order to remain pertinent to the cultural conversation. An annual list of ten Freshman MCs cannot be of true worth if the list only has a life span of a few months. A case in point: several of last years Freshman MCs–Wiz Khalifa, J.Cole, Donnis, Big Sean–are still generally considered new acts today, but by mid 2010 there were several different artists being pegged to take their place. By trying to understand the changing nature of the new artist within the contexts of old standards, we are essentially shrinking these artists’ entire freshman year into their first day of school. Then, by constantly racing to place this concrete state of “new” onto an ever-emerging pool of rising talent, we’re recreating that first day of school again and again. It’s no wonder, then, that so many selected artists have trouble emerging from the Freshman class–we all know how awkward that first day can be.