Any teacher can attest to the fact that each class taught has a different personality. Last year's XXL Freshman class was full of eclectic, ambitious musicians who were either made or destroyed by their own decisions. This year, the class was intentionally chosen to be ambassadors to the streets. Each artist seems to fit that bill. However not everyone is living up to the precedents set by last year's clan. Who'll be the next break-out star? Who'll be the newest expulsion? Only time can tell. Six months after the issue hit newstands, mid-term grades are in and it's time to find out where these artists stand.
Excellence -- What haven’t we said about Gibbs already? His buzz has taken him everywhere from MTV to the New Yorker. Gibbs has capitalized on his acclaim by dropping an EP and arguably the best mixtape of the year, exhibiting a flow that's close to flawless.
Needs Improvement -- He doesn’t need any improvement musically. Gibbs just needs one major song to catch on and he’ll be a household name. Freddie has the ability to do so without making a cookie-cutter single to appeal to the masses. We have no doubt that joint is forthcoming.
Excellence -- Wiz is on his way. By being one-half of Cheech and Chong 2K10, he’s carved out a substantial niche that has allowed him to tour the country at sold-out venues throughout the year. His Kush & Orange Juice mixtape set the Internet on fire, which lead to a deal with Atlantic. Can anyone name another rapper that is in a position to turn down a contract with Rick Ross and a chance to tour with Drake?
Needs Improvement -- Like Gibbs, Wiz is one hit away. By the time the final grades come up we’re likely to be talking about a mainstream star.
Excellence -- J. Cole just keeps making dope music. Since the cover, Cole has released some tracks that were instant head-nodders. Recently, he opened up for the Em/Jay mega show and earned a spot on the card for the biggest rap concert in the world.
Needs Improvement -- Cole needs to find a plug for his leaks. All of the unfinished tracks hitting the net are diluting some of the his better songs’ effects. But, if he delivers on his debut album as expected, all will be forgiven.
Excellence -- After an otherwise quiet 2010, Sean dropped Finally Famous Vol. 3 to rave reviews and a renewed interest in his music. The mixtape is his best to date and shows that the Detroit MC can produce a compelling full project. The added exposure of Kanye’s G.O.O.D. Fridays will definitely help too.
Needs Improvement -- Sean needs to do something to keep his name buzzing in between projects. He just drops mixtapes and goes away. Hopefully, Sean isn’t taking for granted that a Yeezy co-sign is all he needs to stay relevant.
Excellence -- Every time Pill hops on a track he murders it. It’s hard to think of a verse that Pill hasn’t delivered greatness on. He’s one of the only rappers that’s been able to hold his own on a track with Freddie Gibbs and a recent collaboration with Yo Gotti and Gucci Mane should help get Pill’s music to a few more iPods.
Needs Improvement -- Pill’s latest mixtape didn’t quite generate the buzz of his first two. We’re not quite sure why. But with no album on the horizon the MC has been relatively quiet. He needs to grind a little harder to maintain the momentum he gained last year.
Excellence -- Nipsey is a monster. He is the closest thing to a West Coast resurgence we’ve seen in a long time. He has a legitimate regional fan base and an album in South Central State of Mind on the way. It’ll be interesting to see if there are enough hits on it to make Hussle a household name.
Needs Improvement -- Where oh where has Nipsey Hussle been? At the time of the XXL cover he was one its the biggest names but since then he’s been virtually invisible. Maybe Hussle’s been prepping his album. But he’s done nothing to maintain his previous stature. His album better be great or else it’s back to the drawing board.
Excellence -- Like, Hussle, Jay is a West Coast aficionado that had his region on lock. Beloved for his gritty flow and realism, Jay seemed prime to bring the streets to the mainstream.
Needs Improvement -- Is there a vortex or great abyss in California or something? Jay has been hiding under a rock all year. His biggest appearance was getting destroyed on a feature on Str8 Killa. Something, anything, would be better than what he’s done so far.
Excellence -- Many consider Fashawn as the lyrical heavyweight of the class. He constantly drops lyrical gems that remind us of the great rappers of the early '90s. Fashawn is a respected underground MC that shows his chops every time he spits. After a dope, but overlooked, mixtape with DJ Skee, Shawn is ready to secure his vice grip on the backpacker crowd.
Needs Improvement -- Fashawn may never become a household name and that’s okay. As this year’s Blu, we can only hope that he can provide more material than his predecessor. Still, with the type of talent he possesses, Fashawn needs to be creating a bigger buzz than he has now.
Excellence -- Yes there is some “excellence” going on here. OJ looked ready to be one of the ATL heavyweights at the time of the XXL cover. He has a knack for picking bangers and knows how to construct catchy hooks. For major radio play that’s all he needs. And, for what it’s worth, he’s a better rapper than Waka.
Needs Improvement -- With an apparent falling out with Gucci Mane, Juiceman has been a non-factor this year. Kids don’t even say his ad-libs in high school hallways anymore. Instead, Waka, Travis Porter and the other ATL teeny boppers have overtaken Juiceman’s buzz. When your most famous song is “Shawt Bus Shawty,” things don’t look so good.
Excellence -- Donnis seems to have it all: an ability to create catchy tunes, a serviceable flow and a manager that breaks his neck for his talent. The ATLien is really one hit away from 106 & Park rotation.
Needs Improvement -- Quick, name one Donnis song. Don’t worry. I’ll wait.
Donnis really needs to put some work in to connect with fans and make a song that sticks in people’s iPods. Because right now he’s the also-ran on the XXL cover.