XXL’s Freshman Class of 2016 was announced a few weeks back and has divided opinions. Anderson .Paak, 21 Savage, Kodak Black, Lil Uzi Vert, Lil Dicky, Dave East, Denzel Curry, Desiigner, G Herbo and Lil Yachty all feature on the tastemakers list, and while its impact and scope may be somewhat contentious, the list has traditionally proven to be a measuring stick of the diversity in modern hip-hop.
Since its inception, the best thing about XXL’s Freshman Classes are the group cyphers. It’s a great opportunity for the chosen few to impress with their lyrical abilities. Kendrick Lamar, Action Bronson, Yelawolf and Joey Bada$$ are just some of the talent who’ve stepped up to the plate and knocked their cypher out the ball park in the past six years. Unfortunately not everyone comes away with a glowing endorsement (sorry Desiigner), so to help you sift through the rubbish, we’ve compiled every XXL Freshman cypher in order of worst to best from 2011 to this year’s graduating class.
17: XXL 2015 Freshman Cypher Part 3 – Dej Loaf, Fetty Wap & Shy Grizzly
This one just doesn’t work. I’m a fan of all three rappers who are terrific performers in their own right, but somehow they fail miserably in their attempts with this cypher. Dej Loaf’s lyrics sound like they’ve been written by a teenager, Fetty Wap‘s normally charming croon lacks the potency shown on hits My Way and Trap Queen, and Shy Grizzly offers nothing exciting or noteworthy. It’s easy to see why this one kicks off the list as the worst cypher.
16: XXL 2013 Freshman Cypher Part 2 – Kirko Bangz, Trinidad James & ScHoolboy Q
ScHoolboy Q lucked out when he got stuck with Kirko Bangz and Trinidad James for this 2013 cypher. Bangz opens things with a fairly pedestrian verse that’s followed by an uninspired James, who barely begins before his laughable 30 second contribution is over. The only saving grace of this one is Q’s controlled gangster-themed flow. Painting a picture of street violence, Q gives a glimpse at what was to come with Oxymoron and most recently Blank Face, but even he can’t save this one.
15: XXL 2014 Freshman Cypher Part 2 – Lil Durk, Rich Homie Quan & Ty Dolla $ign
Rich Homie Quan’s laidback flow opens things up with a typical ego driven rap, declaring “Bitches on me, n*ggas lonely cause I got they ho now.” Ty Dolla $ign does a decent job of attempting to drop bars for a singer, shouting out his label boss Wiz Khalifa’s Taylor Gang, before Lil Durk brings things to a forgettable close. Durk gets the longest verse as the most accomplished of the trio, continuing on Quan’s bragging flow, but the three fail to capture the energy of their 2014 class mates.
14: XXL 2016 Freshman Cypher Part 2 – Denzel Curry, Lil Uzi Vert, Lil Yachty, 21 Savage & Kodak Black.
The genuine comeraderie all five rappers share during this cypher warms the cockles of my heart. Laughing and joking through out, the diverse group appear to enjoy each other’s company, but this sadly doesn’t translate into an enjoyable cypher. Kodak Black yells ad-libs during Lil Uzi Vert’s segment and Lil Yachty and Vert do the same as 21 Savage mumbles his way through some tedious lyrics. Yacht and Vert’s choice of apparel is more entertaining than their verses, and although Curry brings the heat with his opening verse, on the whole it’s a disappointing effort. The feel good vibe of the cypher is what keeps this one from the very bottom of the list.
13: XXL 2015 Freshman Cypher Part 1 – Kidd Kidd, K Camp, Tink & Raury
Props to Kidd Kidd for the Randy Savage name drop but that’s about all he brings to the table with this one. I still can’t quite figure out what 50 Cent sees in him. K Camp is also forgettable, a while Raury is impressive, this one’s all about Tink. The Timbaland protégé verbally assaults her competition with rhymes such as “I read up on these new school rappers / Half of them not rappin’ let’s eliminate the fraction / I’m a multi-talented individual / You know I’m that potent.” While she hasn’t exactly set the world on fire just yet, Tink is one to keep your eye on.
12: XXL 2012 Freshman Cypher Part 2 – Kid Ink, Macklemore, Don Trip & Iggy Azalea
I can’t believe I’m typing this but Macklemore is the clear standout of this cypher. The man responsible for the tacky yet enjoyable Thrift Shop drops solid bars without the help of regular contributor Ryan Lewis. As for the rest of the line-up, Kid Ink does his thing, Iggy Azalea shows sparks of her eventual commercial crossover and Don Trip remains in the background, much like his career to date.
11: XXL 2016 Freshman Cypher Part 1 – Desiigner, Anderson .Paak & Lil Dicky
The biggest thing to takeaway from this is the confirmation that Desiigner might be little more than a one trick pony. The Future knock-off flow is in full effect, as is his knack for near unintelligible lyrics. Even Lil Dicky looks puzzled. Props for his ad-libs, though. Anderson .Paak is more of a singer than a rapper but does an admiral job with a freestyle that he seems to have actually spit off the top of his head. Dicky provides the most cohesive and spirited rap of the three, justifying his place on this year’s freshman list.
10: XXL 2012 Freshman Cypher Part 1 – Hopsin, Roscoe Dash, Machine Gun Kelly, Future & Danny Brown
This is the good, the bad and the ugly of the rap world coming together for a cypher that hits and misses but ultimately entertains. Lets start with the ugly. I love Future, but his verse is forgettable. Still a few years away from honing his auto-tune, trap inspired, drug raps, he barely resembles the artist of today, but is still more entertaining than Machine Gun Kelly. Kelly is the bad. While his verse isn’t necessarily horrible, I think he’s just a shit rapper in general. Thankfully Roscoe Dash, Hopsin and Danny Brown save the day. Roscoe asserts himself from an unknown to a breakout star, Hopsin reminds everyone why he’s been an indie darling for years and Danny Brown drops a frenetic rap with just enough of his crazy personality to keep you guessing what he’s all about.
9: XXL 2011 Freshman Cypher Part 1 – YG, Mac Miller, Diggy & Lil Twist
Looking like they’d literally just graduated high school, four of the youngest ever XXL Freshman debut the magazine’s first cypher to mixed results. Representing the diversity of American hip-hop (YG from the West Coast, Mac Miller Pittsburgh, Diggy the East Coast and Lil Twist the South), it’s YG and Miller who both deliver with energetic freestyles over the boom-bap beat. There’s an undercurrent of menace to YG’s flow as Miller gets the most airtime, which becomes obvious the longer he spits. Unfortunately it’s two out of four, with Diggy lacking his Father’s talent and Lil Twist making me wonder why he was ever on the list in the first place. Even so, the presence of YG and Miller is enough for this cypher to break into the top 10.
8: XXL 2014 Freshman Cypher Part 3 – Troy Ave, Jon Connor, Lil Bibby & Jarren Benton
When you look at this line-up it’s a sad state of affairs. Troy Ave is on trial for murder, Jon Connor is struggling to be heard on Dr. Dre‘s burgeoning Aftermath label, and Lil Bibby and Jarren Benton have all but faded into obscurity. That said, all four go hard over the Don Cannon produced trap beat. Connor’s at his aggressive best as proclaims himself “the future.” Benton follows with an solid verse, name dropping his favourite rappers (Redman, Eminem, Goodie Mob, Outkast and Wu-Tang Clan) and Bibby compares himself to Muhammad Ali before Ave wraps things up in fine fashion, reminding everyone why he could have been the next big thing.
7: XXL 2016 Freshman Cypher Part 2 – Dave East & G Herbo
Of all the 2016 class, Dave East and G Herbo tackle the cypher like true hip-hop artists. It’s also the first time a XXL Freshman Cypher has only included two rappers. Both East and Herbo use the format to push each other like true competitors, rapping about their daily struggles before being named as part of this year’s Freshman Class. East discusses his drug dealing past before signing with Nas’ Mass Appeal and Herbo reminds listeners he’s been around for years and has cult following of loyal fans. These two are set for big things if this freestyle is anything to go by.
6: XXL 2013 Freshman Cypher Part 3 – Dizzy Wright, Logic & Angle Haze
The triple threat of Dizzy Wright, Logic and Angle Haze is a personal XXL Freshman Cypher favourite of mine. Wright gets the ball rolling with focused bars about his rise in the game before Logic cements himself as the second best white rapper (behind Eminem of course), comparing his wordplay to Albert Einstein‘s famous E=mc2 formula. However, it’s Haze who lights the flame. Known for her personal and introspective lyrics, Haze changes tact with a braggadocios battle rap, claiming she’ll “put bitches in a bag” and “dead is how I’m leavin’ these bitches.” She enjoys using the word bitches. Still underrated, this freestyle should make people stand up and take notice of her undeniable talent.
5: XXL 2011 Freshman Cypher Part 3 – Meek Mill, Big K.R.I.T. & Fred The Godson
It’s nice to hear Meek Mill refraining from his usual shout-rap delivery for once on this cypher. The Philly native spits with great energy before Big K.R.I.T. absolutely kills the beat, letting everyone know he’s not to be messed with; “Hey, do you mind if I murder this / Spit that southern slang over something so conservative / Swinging lane to lane, candy-coated, sipping purple shit.” Fred The Godson is the unheralded one here, and while he’s not my cup of tea, you can’t disregard his effort in helping make this a top notch freestyle.
4: XXL 2015 Freshman Cypher Part 2 – GoldLink, OG Maco & Vince Staples
While cyphers are often friendly competitions, GoldLink, OG Maco and Vince Staples take things deadly serious. There’s no jokes or smiles here as each MC squeezes the most out of the minute they’re given to express themselves. GoldLink gets sexual with references to eating girls like he eats pizza and climbing “up on ya like the Eiffel Tower,” Maco discusses fake rappers and Staples keeps it real, touching on police brutality and his religious beliefs, with all three at the top of their powers.
3: XXL 2014 Freshman Cypher Part 1 – Kevin Gates, Vic Mensa, August Alsina, Isaiah Rashad & Chance The Rapper
Aside from August Alsina – an R&B crooner who seems out of place on a cypher – all four rappers bring their A-game on this one. What’s more, they all seem to be enjoying themselves, with Vic Mensa and Chance The Rapper very animated during the performance. Kevin Gates gets personal in a way only he can, Mensa’s in a playful mood and Isaiah Rashad repays the faith TDE showed in signing him, but it’s indie favourite Chance who’s the real star of this one. His verse is short yet sweet, with the Chicago native taking shots at record labels along with giving props to his friends and band members The Social Experiment.
2: XXL 2013 Freshman Cypher Part 1 – Joey Bada$$, Action Bronson, Ab-Soul & Travi$ Scott
Here we have four MCs who’ve all gone on to varying degrees of success, so kudos XXL for being on the money with this select few. Joey Bada$$ puts the rap game on notice with opening line, “These n*ggas don’t beez in the trap / they like bees in this track,” before fellow New Yorker Action Bronson comes through with a streamlined verse that sadly contains only one food reference (“Chopped an onion”). Ab-Soul sounds hungry for attention as the last member of Black Hippy to receive the plaudits he deserves and Travi$ Scott shouts out his fellow freshman with the absence of auto-tune. This is a well-rounded cypher with every rapper giving their best, resulting in an enjoyable listen.
1: XXL 2011 Freshman Cypher Part 2 – Yelawolf, Kendrick Lamar, Lil B & CyHi The Prince
Anytime Kendrick Lamar makes an appearance on wax it’s a special moment, and this cypher is no exception. Still relatively unknown outside of the States when picked for the very first XXL Freshman Class of 2011, Lamar was quick to proclaim he’s “Hot as Mike Jordan lacing my Jordan’s,” while warning other rappers to, “Pay your respects or recognise the alphabet / you can’t survive in a room full of g’s.” While Lamar is the focus with the longest verse and his Compton street talk, Yelawolf’s southern drawl, CyHi The Prince’s fluent rhymes – showing why Kanye West signed him – and Lil B dropping a coherent rap that’s strangely in time with the beat. This is further reason why Lamar is the best rapper in the game, but it’s their chemistry that makes this cypher the best.