XXL Magazine revealed their highly anticipated 2014 Freshman Class last week to a flurry of radio, print and social media. Since its launch in 2008, the annual feature has provided essential exposure for up and coming artists - predicting the rise of Lil Boosie, Lupe Fiasco, Kendrick Lamar, Macklemore, Wiz Khalifa, French Montana and many, many more.
2014’s class matches the caliber of past years, but brings some new, notable twists: for the first time ever, the rap-focused publication included two RnB artists on the list - Ty Dolla$ign and August Alsina - and regionally, Chicago dominated, represented by four members from the city’s (often) disparate scenes.
Additionally, ten out of twelve 'Freshmen' are SXSW alumni, including four of SXSW 2014’s biggest breakout artists - Vic Mensa, Isaiah Rashad, Kevin Gates and Lil Bibby.
Chicago wunderkind Vic Mensa caused a serious buzz at SXSW this year. The 'Save Money' crew member played three official showcases, proving his merit as a fully fledged independent artist (despite a brash interview style and sex doll fascination).
This ability to show-and-prove in live performances, the critical success of last year’s Innanetape, and a brand new record deal (with Virgin EMI) made him a perfect 'Freshman' candidate. His eclectic sound draws on a unique range of influences and shows musical and lyrical virtuosity beyond his years.
“They made a list about Chicago rappers and skipped me. Maybe it’s cause I’m so much more...” he lamented on ‘Orange Soda’, referencing an article in Chicago’s ‘Red Eye’ last January. It’s safe to say he will not be overlooked again.
Top Dawg Entertainment were represented in the 'Freshman Class' for a fourth year with their newest recruit, Isaiah Rashad. “Rock 2010. Dot 2011. Q and Soul 2013. Zay 2014. #TopDawgDynasty,” TDE’s President, Terrence "Punch" Henderson, tweeted last Monday.
Rashad, a Chattanooga native joined the ranks of TDE just last year and has seen a phenomenal rise in the past few months - including the release of his debut Cilvia Demo and a series of packed SXSW showcases.
Like his labelmates, Rashad does not subscribe to the trends of current LA or Atlanta hitmakers. Instead he blends dreamy production with sharp, introspective, socially conscious lyrics (without being ‘conscious’) and frequently utilizes the sweet vocals of SZA, TDE’s other new addition, in soulful choruses and breaks. He is currently on an international tour with Schoolboy Q and working on a sophomore release.
According Sway Calloway (currently host of the nationally syndicated 'Wake Up Show'), Lil Bibby "Looks like he's 15 but when he talks, he's got the voice of a 35 year old." This analogy runs deeper than the 19 year old's guttural baritone. On his latest mixtape, Free Crack, Bibby provides a visceral, bleak depiction of Chicago street life - reflecting on violent scenes, circumstances and pressures with the world-weariness of an Englewood veteran twice his age.
These explicit references to violence are not unique in current Chicago rap - having provided the basis for the city’s Drill scene - but Bibby’s lyricism separates him from the crowd. While he may share the same streets and experiences as his Chiraq peers Chief, Lil Durk and Fredo Santana, Bibby makes it clear that he does not share their simplistic style - “These n****s illiterate and ignorant/They not even completing sentences”, he says on ‘Bibby Story’.
While he has been rapping (and affiliated with Louisiana royalty including Lil Wayne, Boosie, Webbie and Curren$y) for over seven years, Baton Rouge’s Kevin Gates is just starting to make national waves.
His vocal style - somewhere between singing and rapping - has lead to comparisons with Future, Rich Homie Quan and others in their realm, but Gates' lyrical complexity, dark, intimate themes and raw, unaltered delivery put him in a different lane altogether. He takes sounds, producers and many common tropes from popular trap songs, but brings an emotional depth and an intuitive sense of melody that transcend the standards of his peers.
As if making up for lost time, his success over the past 12 months has been meteoric: following the release of last year’s acclaimed Luca Brasi Story, he signed a deal with Atlantic Records, dropped two additional mixtapes, played multiple SXSW showcases (including one presented by B. Hobbs’ own ThaFixx) and is about to headline a national tour.
Tune in to SXSWfm's Tha Fixx Radio today at 6pm CST for more new tracks from past SXSW showcasing hip hop artists, including Freshman Class members. Listen via our desktop player, mobile apps, or on TuneIn.
Catch the show on demand via SoundCloud from tomorrow!
Isaiah Rashad at SXSW 2014. Photo by Mengwen Cao
Vic Mensa at SXSW 2014. Photo by Hutton Supancic.
Lil Bibby. Photo courtesy of the artist.
Kevin Gates. Photo courtesy of the artist.