One of the most fun times of the year if you are a big Hip Hop fan is when XXL drops its annual “Freshman” list, highlighting who they think will be some of the next biggest rappers in the game. Although not all of the members of these lists every year end up being stars, XXL usually does nail it pretty well with these lists, with most of rap’s biggest superstars today having appeared on this list at some point. When XXL releases these lists, they post a series of Youtube videos highlighting the life and talents of the lists members, having them deliver mini freestyles to having them do Q&A’s; this is a great way for the general public to get familiar with the latest cream of the crop within the Hip Hop game and lets Hip Hop fans get a taste of what these artists are like to decide if they like them if they have not listened to the artists already. Typically, the most popular segment of the XXL Freshman Class content is the cyphers they put on. XXL divides the artists up into little groups and has them spit on an instrumental they don’t know. It is a chance for the artists to showcase what they are good at as an artist as well as show off how versatile they can be. When this year’s list came out, I was pretty excited. From Lil Keed to Rod Wave to Polo G to Mulatto, there are quite a few artists on this list that I already really enjoy and already listen to on a consistent basis. There is one artist that was considered an XXL Freshman who did not participate in the cyphers by choice, and that is Baby Keem. I do not really know why artists can be included in this list and pick which events they want to take part in, especially when you can just turn the spot in the list down if you want. Maybe Baby Keem really just does not feel comfortable freestyling with other people, but I do not see how refusing to participate in the cypher can really help his career in the wrong run; I mean, Lil Mosey was clowned mercilessly for how bad his performance was last year and he has had one of the top songs from 2020, proving that his performance did not negatively affect his fame. With that being said, here is how I feel about the 2020 XXL Freshman cypher performances. Please let me know in the comments below whether you agree or disagree with my assessment and who your own favorite performances were!
11) LIL KEED
I have to say, I have not been this disappointed in an XXL Freshman Cypher performance in a long time(and maybe even ever). If you follow this blog at all, you should know how big of a fan I am of Lil Keed. I mean, I literally wrote about him in my last post(which you should definitely read after this one), and every time he drops something new I am always a fan. With that being said, this performance was just not good. Sometimes I wonder if XXL needs to do a better job with picking instrumentals and picking which rappers are grouped with each other in these cyphers. Lil Keed did not sound good on this instrumental at all and did not really gel or have any chemistry with the other two members of his cypher, and his whole performance was just uncomfortable. Lil Keed had no fluidity to his performance; his flow and lyricism were just so awkward. This performance will not affect my opinion of his music because I know this kind of setting is not for him, but I also will never be going back to listen to this verse, that is for sure.
10) LIL TJAY
Lil Tjay’s performance is more evidence to me that XXL should try to make sure the instrumental being used works well with the artists they are putting into a particular cypher. I know that you do not traditionally get to pick your cypher beat and that the point of it is for you to adapt on the fly and make you sound or style work, but most people would not just jump onto an instrumental if they knew their flow and voice just will not sound good on it. But unfortunately, Lil Tjay, who is an R&B auto-crooner who really only makes a particular kind of melodic trap, was put onto an instrumental that just does not gel well with his voice and flow, and it really shows. His performance was sort of nasally and tough to understand, and his flow had weird energy that just did not work with the smoothness of the instrumental. This is another case where I will still be checking out his new music because Lil Tjay is very good at what he does, but this cypher was not a very good display of his skills as a Hip Hop artist.
9) FIVIO FOREIGN
There seems to be a bit of a trend in the performances for some of the artists at the bottom of this list. Fivio Foreign’s cypher verse was another case where the artist’s style and flow just did not seem to fit well at all with the instrumental they were given to perform on. I know that a cypher is all about being diverse and having to adapt to whatever beat you are given, and although all of the artists on this year’s XXL Freshman List are talented in their own right, some of the artists are too dependent on a making a certain style of music to be able to sound good in a cypher. Fivio Foreign is an artist that typically only makes heavy NY Drill/Grime music, which is a very particular sound. His delivery and way of rapping really only sounds good on these intense Grime beats, and the instrumental he was put on was not a Grime beat on any level. Fivio Foreign is not known for one-liners or super witty lyricism, so when his flow and the instrumental do not provide the correct energy, he is kind of out of luck. Fivio Foreign did, however, make all of the other artists in his cypher have more interesting performances because his ad-libs were so great. Aside from that, though, I was not a big fan of this performance.
Now that are past the first few performances, I would say that I do enjoy the rest of the cypher performances. The first three were obviously iffy and a bit of a disappointment, but I would say the rest of the performances are at least pretty good and get consistently better as the list goes on. Calboy is an artist that I have to admit I completely slept on until pretty recently. He typically sings and is very good at creating catchy melodies; he reminds me a lot of Roddy Ricch in this regard. For Calboy’s cypher performance, though, he decided to just rap and not included any of the singing elements that he is known for. I will not say that there was anything too special about this performance, but his flow did match up with and sound very good on the instrumental, and he did have a few witty bars sprinkled in. Overall, this was a pretty solid performance and it proves that Calboy can adapt his sound and style to any instrumental, which is great for him in the long run.
7) NLE CHOPPA
NLE Choppa has become someone that is known very well for being super energetic and over the top and eccentric. So far in his career, most of his biggest songs have contained a rapid-fire and super animated rapping style, with his flows being very brash and in your face. He has developed a larger than life personality online too, with a lot of his most controversial tweets seeing heavy traction on Twitter over the last few months. Unfortunately, though, NLE Choppa did not really bring that energy he is known for to his cypher. Maybe he was trying to keep himself a bit more tame so he would not sound too out of place compared to the other rappers in his group, but I really would have loved to see him explode like he usually does. He is not necessarily known for his lyrics, so without that intensity people love his for he just kind of sounded like another rapper with a pretty good flow. His performance was not bad at all, but I do know that I and so many other people would have had him near the top of this list if he had leaned more into what he is known for.
6) JACK HARLOW
Similar to NLE Choppa, Jack Harlow delivered a cypher performance that I did like but was still underwhelmed by. Don’t get me wrong, his verse on this cypher was definitely pretty good, and if I did not have high expectations of him I probably would have thought it was better and would have put it higher on the list. Maybe I am being unfair in my judging by comparing Jack to himself, but I just think he could have done so much more with this one. Jack has become famous over the last year for his multitude of impeccable flows and extremely witty lyricism; I mean, just listen to his song ‘What’s Poppin’ closely to figure out how clean his flows are and how nice his lyrics are. Jack did have a nice flow in his performance and he did give us some solid bars. Overall, though, I just think Jack could have really done more to wow the audience and show off how good he can really be. This performance is fine, but it is not indicative of how talented he is and how far he can go.
Chika is the only artist on this list that I was not very familiar with before the XXL Freshman list came out. I do take pride in knowing about most of the top up and coming talent in Hip Hop, but once in a while, an artist does slip through the cracks like this. That is okay, though, because I did enjoy this performance and now I have more music to look up. Chika has a rapping style and delivery that definitely reminds me of a lot of other great low key and introspective rappers. Specifically, I can hear influence from artists like NoName and Lupe Fiasco in this performance. She has a really cool and calm flow that is super refreshing and uncommon in this day and age. She did have some of the best bars in her verse as well; if you’re into witty lyricism, this is a verse for you. Chika’s cypher performance obviously was not my favorite, but it does make me very curious to look into her music.
4) POLO G
I know, I know. This is obviously a little bit of a controversial opinion, especially because Polo G has been on a hell of a run this summer and has gained so many new hardcore fans. Most of the other reviews of these cypher performances that I have seen online have had Polo G at the top of the list, and I really can see their point. As far as cohesive lyricism, staying on topic, and witty wordplay, Polo G absolutely killed it with this performance. I did not know about how great of a lyricist and how deep Polo G could be until hearing his album The GOAT which came out earlier this year, and his emotions also shine through in this cheery performance. So if I enjoyed it so much, why isn’t this performance ranked number one? It is because he killed the instrumental. I have never been a fan of this approach because it seems like a cop-out in a way. I am assuming that Polo G did not think his prewritten verse would flow over the instrumental, so he chose to not use it. For a few of the rappers lower on this list, I said one of the reasons I did not like their performances is because their verses did not flow well on the instrumental. Well, how can I not knock down Polo G a bit for just not using the instrumental? Overall, Polo G’s verse was great, but I would rather have heard what he can do on the instrumental provided.
24kGoldn’s cypher performance was the one that surprised me the most, and I would assume that it was the one that surprised most other people who watched the cyphers as well. If you do not know who 24kGoldn is off the top of your head, I would still assume that you have heard at least one of his songs in the last year. Because of the app TikTok, 24kGoldn has had multiple songs go very viral. From ‘Valentino’ to ‘Games On Your Phone’ to Mood,’ 24kGoldn has been definitely been doing great lately. As is obvious from those songs, though, he is typically known for his singing. He does not really seem to just buckle down and focus on spitting bars too often, and that is exactly what he did in this performance. In his cypher performance, 24kGoldn provides tons of energy as well. He seems like he is having fun and really does enjoy being there, which also just adds to the feeling of the performance. From his witty lyricism to his flows to his overall command of the microphone, 24kGoldn killed it in this performance. I would guess that a lot of people who has sort of overlooked him in the past and saw this performance will be paying attention to him now.
2) ROD WAVE
I have to say a couple of things right off the bat about this performance. One, I know that not everyone loves Rod Wave’s voice and style. He kind of sounds like a mixture between Kevin Gates and 2000s funky Southern R&B singers like Sammie; this sound is definitely very unique and kind of intense, and his sound can definitely be a bit of an acquired taste. Another thing I have to say about this performance is that Rod Wave probably benefited more than anyone in regards to the instrumental that he was put on. This instrumental literally sounds like something he would use one of his own projected, and he sounded perfectly natural on it. Because this instrumental was pretty much made for him, Rod Wave killed it in his cypher performance. In his lyricism, we got a bit of the cockiness, a bit of the roughness, and a bit sadness that he is known for. Like I said, if you are a fan of Rod Wave’s music, I know you loved this performance.
I would be very surprised if Mulatto was not ranked in the top two of the 2020 XXL Freshman Cypher Performances for most people who watched them. I know and understand that a lot of people had Polo G at number one, but if you did not have him at the top, I really do not know you you could have picked someone other than Mulatto. Objectively, her performance was as good or better in every aspect than all of the other rappers in this list. Mulatto is an artist that I had heard of but had not listened to much before this performance, and I promise you I will be listening to her from now on because she is the real deal. Her performance had more wittiness and more clever bars than anyone else in this list; also her flows were so damn smooth and her command of the microphone was so natural. I know that she has mentioned her favorite rapper is Gucci Mane, and I definitely can hear his influence in her rapping style; she also has a confidence and swagger about her that is so similar to the Gucci Man. Mulatto had the best 2020 XXL Freshman Cypher performance for sure, and her performance makes me very excited to listen to her music in the future.