XXL Magazine’s 2020 Freshman List: Who Are This Year’s Hottest Rappers?

Words by Alex Payne
Art by Travis Shinn and Rich Tu

For hip-hop aficionados, there’s one announcement that’s always hotly anticipated; XXL magazine’s Freshman list. Essentially a showcase of the hottest acts in the genre, the list highlights ten rising rappers that show promise, with previous years having featured the likes of J. Cole, Kid Cudi, Kendrick Lamar, Lil Uzi Vert and DaBaby – all of which are now industry titans. Inclusion on the list also involves participating in photo shoots, a group cypher, and a freestyle, but simply being on the list is bound to attract new opportunities and fans. This year’s diverse cast includes several big hitters, a few artists just breaching the mainstream, and a couple of underground rappers too. Poignantly absent is Pop Smoke, who was tragically murdered earlier this year, with the magazine expressing that “he was the first choice for the list”. That seems more than believable – while eclectic, there’s a robust representation of drill on this cover. Sonically, NLE Choppa, Baby Keem, Jack Harlow and Lil Keed are still indebted to the trap sound of 2016, leaning heavily on triplets, incessant high hats and punchy 808s. Meanwhile, Polo G, Fivio Foreign and Lil Tjay all rely on the latest interaction of US drill, which has been heavily influenced by its UK counterpart thanks in part to producers such as 808Melo and AXL, who helped bridged the gap with their work with Pop Smoke and Fivio. Distinguished by a duality of brutal honesty and tribalistic violence, the sound has captured mainstream attention, so it’s heavy representation is unsurprising. Chika and 24kGoldn defy either label, with the former creating more conscious rap, and the latter fusing pop-rock and rap in a similar fashion to the late Juice Wrld.    

It’s reassuring to see two female artists, Mulatto and Chika, present on this year’s cover after the previous list bucked the trend of including a token female rapper

Besides the usual reflection of the changing tides of latest trends of the genre, there’s another noticeable feature of this year’s cover; even the most casual listener will recognise most of this year’s cohort. Thanks to the weird perjury that online media is currently drowning in, there’s an unhealthy pressure to expand readership – and including the biggest rappers is a sure-fire way to do just that. Indeed, Polo G has both platinum singles and a sophomore album that peaked at number 2 on the charts to under his belt, and thanks to a star studded remix and a prestigious Cole Bennett music video, Jack Harlow’s infectious single “WHAT’S POPPIN” recently sailed past 100 million streams on Spotify alone. On a more optimistic note, it’s reassuring to see two female artists, Mulatto and Chika, present on this year’s cover after the previous list bucked the trend of including a token female rapper. Many speculated at the time that the decision was merely an empty gesture, but their inclusion this year appears positive. That doesn’t mean the conversation is over, however, as we’ve yet to see if the decision to have leading social justice activists host the group interviews is anything beyond tokenism. Mulatto may have broken into the public eye by winning the reality show “the Rap Game”, but her reputation has been cemented with a series of strong releases over the past year. Her thick, buoyant vocals paired with dour, stripped back trap beats has proven to be a winning combo, and NME magazine described her this week as “the releasest female in the south”. Chika is also an extremely exciting inclusion. She may have a far smaller following than many on the list, but her brand of conscious rap has been well received, and has received praise from Cardi B, despite having just an EP to her name thus far. Beating the likes of Don Toliver, Ian Dior, King Von,Teejayx6, Stunna 4 Vegas and Lil Tecca, 24kGoldn won his place through receiving the most fan votes, but with over 11 million monthly listeners on Spotify, he clearly deserves the spot. 

How will this cohort fare in the freestyle and cypher? It seems likely that Lil Tjay, Rod Wave and Polo G will all deliver similar performances, melodic and mellow but with bite. It’ll be interesting to see if 24kGoldn and Calboy’s singing will translate well to an environment that lacks heavy production, as it has been hit-or-miss in previous years, and both utilize vocal effects extensively. He may be hundreds of miles away from his beloved Kentucky, but Jack Harlow seems set to have a home turf advantage thanks to XXL’s choice to use Jetsonmade as the in-house DJ. Soaring to fame after producing a handful of DaBaby’s best received tracks last year, Jetsonmade was heavily involved in Harlow’s debut EP, and listeners can expect the cypher tracks to utilize his fruity, synth heavy style. Will Baby Keem and his fellow trappers deliver straightforward performances, or do they have tricks up their sleeves, like when XXXTentacion spat sans-beat in 2017? It seems likely that Fivio may include a tribute to Pop Smoke, a frequent collaborator and close friend, but only time will tell. What we are sure of, however, is that this year is one of the most exciting years thus far.  

Check out XXL Magazine’s announcement here