XXL‘s annually anticipated list of hip-hop Freshmen has hit the ‘net and as usual, garnered a tremendous response as those in the know celebrated their emerging faves and everyone else groused about being out of the loop. Of course, along with those reactions, the list also brought an inevitable third response: Fans expressing disappointment that their own favorite artists didn’t quite make the cut.
All of these artists definitely deserve to be here, and as we find out over the next few weeks which artists turned down spots or missed the availability window, it’s important to congratulate everyone who did make it for their accomplishment and acknowledge the hard work and luck it takes to get this far. Sometimes it’s just a matter of timing, as some artists’ big moments came just after the list was finalized.
That said, it’s always fun to play “What If?” with the list, especially because so many artists could qualify for a spot. However, let’s call the below seven artists something like a shortlist of names to watch for next year’s installment of the Freshman Class. Just because they missed out this year doesn’t mean they don’t deserve your attention now — and who knows? Maybe next year, you’ll be seeing these names on the big stage and thinking, “Hey, I know them!”
Born and raised on the east side of Detroit, Babyface Ray has a smooth, almost lackadaisical flow and blunt, plainspoken punchlines that are equal parts hilarious and understated (picture Danny Brown on a whole lot of downers). Like many of the best-known, up-and-coming rappers from his city such as Sada Baby and Tee Grizzley, he’s willing to rap on anything, but he stands apart thanks to his poise and stripped-back demeanor, which let his rhymes sneak up on listeners like a sip of sake rather than his contemporaries’ hard-body shots of no-chaser liquor. It’s an approach that makes for a stealthy come-up, but one that is every bit as undeniable
Whether from the reductive Twitter jokes about being Megan’s offspring or from the maniacal meme that took over TikTok throughout the early part of the year when quarniness (quarantine horniness) was at its absolute peak, you know Erica Banks. And she’s putting in the effort to ensure that remains the case, whether that’s through collabs with fellow Texans like BeatKing, Big Jade, and Yella Beezy, or connecting with New York rising star DreamDoll. Banks has already proven she has the chops to hang with the likes of her contemporaries, and “Buss It” provided her a certified hit — all that’s left is to remain on the grind.
After Lil Baby’s 2020 co-sign on “Real As It Gets” launched him into the public consciousness, the Louisville native hit the ground running, dropping viral hit after viral hit tapping into the same sort of rough-edged, street-bred, unfiltered vein as Lil Baby. Gee’s strategic collaborations with more artists in that lane — Moneybagg Yo, 42 Dugg, Yo Gotti — furthered his gritty street rap appeal but his connection with fellow Louisvillian Jack Harlow on the latter’s more polished “Route 66” also solidified his crossover potential.
Hailing from Orlando, FL, Hotboii’s look is eye-catching, to say the least, but he pairs it with some of the most compelling autobiographical rhymes the Sunshine State has produced in the last big chunk of the streaming era. It’s slurry and simple but with an undercurrent of genuine distress — he’s seen some stuff, and he’s just trying to keep a straight face. This approach has turned out to be successful for him over the past year, as videos generate a million views a go at the minimum and his December debut album Double O Baby shot to the top of Billboard‘s Top Heatseekers chart.
Propelled by a fluid, bouncy cadence, Jacksonville rapper Lil Poppa has quietly accumulated one of the more loyal fanbases in hip-hop. His discography also boasts more than a few appearances by current playlist dominators like Lil Durk, Polo G, and Toosii, while his emotive and passionate storytelling makes him a compelling figure. He also understands how to write a catchy song, something he attributed to growing up a “big Lil Bow Wow fan,” as he told XXL‘s The Break.
Ever since he finagled his way to viral stardom with his cover of Rascal Flatts’ “Bless the Broken Road,” the masked ATLien has been consistently surprising listeners with his moves. Whether that means tapping in with trap favorite Future, Lil Baby, and Young Thug, recruited boom-bap revivalist Westside Gunn to his cause, or becoming a one-man cover band trying on everything from Drake hits to ’90s alt-rock favorites, the only thing you can expect from RMR is the unexpected.
Mobile, Alabama’s rap scene is popping off right now. After spawning the 2021 XXL Freshman brat rapper Flo Milli, its next star could very well be Yung Bleu, who’s gotten love from both Drake and Nicki Minaj as his breakout single “You’re Mines Still” racked up enough streams to become a legitimate, out-and-out hit. It helps when Drake jumps on the remix, but what likely means more is having a foundation of beloved tracks for new fans to discover and Yung Bleu certainly has that, including another 2021 Freshman, Coi Leray on “Thieves In Atlanta.”
Some artists covered here are Warner Music artists. Uproxx is an independent subsidiary of Warner Music Group.