We all have that one artist who when you found their music you followed them on every social media and shared their music with as many friends as possible. When I discovered Kid Cudi, or when a boy I liked told he loved Kid Cudi, I knew after hearing ‘Day n Nite’ that I wanted to download anything Kid Cudi touched. His music was the soundtrack to my high school experience and the soundtrack to the downfall of my non-relationship with said boy. When I finally came around to the XXL Freshman covers it was 2012, I was listening to Iggy Azalea when she was good and was in love with Flatbush Zombies. The XXL covers were a seal of approval that the hip hop community saw you. That the years of struggle of any artist, the fight to get signed and booking small venues all meant something and it was evident on that 8 x 10 ½ magazine cover.
The 2017 XXL Freshman Cover dropped on Jun 13th,2017 and ever since then has been a mainstay on the minds of many writers, fans, and artists. This most recent cover represented 10 years of groundbreaking artists that have shaped hip hop and the XXL cover has been a catalyst for their careers and notoriety. This year was different, of course, there is always the regular debates around the XXL cover but…this year something was different. Many were left feeling like the cover was missing an element that has been slowly fading year after year. The reception wasn’t the warmest because many felt like the cover was an “Industry” cover and not a reflection of a full variety of hip hop we all enjoy. The cover reflected an industry that missed a huge group of artists that have a larger catalog of music and a fan base but isn’t a part of the politics of SoundCloud popularity.
There is a major disconnect. The covers I used to hold in high esteem are becoming memes and spectacles of how off-kilter the cover has become in comparison to the prestige of past covers. The issue seems to reach a head when looking at what criteria are considered for becoming an XXL freshman. In the minds of a regular consumer, we would want to feature a new artist who is the underdog, and artists who we have seen grow, develop and blossom. Those are very different than the goals of the XXL staff.The goals of the XXL freshman class is always to predict the next stars, to give folks with backing and recognition the gold stamp of approval. The XXL cover is there to give a snapshot of the music industry as it is. In many ways, I understand that the goal should be to give an honest look at who will be the next biggest hit and give them a platform to do just that. The issue is in who XXL is giving that platform too.
When looking at the spectrum of artists you have to take into account the complete flip in the culture that has occurred in hip hop since XXL’s first Freshman Cover in 2008.In 2008, when Lupe Fiasco was on the cover he already had two albums under his belt, and “Kick, Push” was already known as his title track. The internet has played a factor in how we consume, interact and value music. It was much harder to get recognition in the early 2000’s through 2010’s as there was less competition but the grind to develop a fanbase and reputation took more effort. In 2017, you can be XXXtentacion or Playboi Carti have a few hit records, develop a fan base off of a cosign or viral hit and garner enough press to get considered for the XXL cover. The barometer for what we consider “the culture” or popular hip hop has been lowered. It doesn’t take much to gain momentum and have that propel you into a deal, tour dates and merch that can have you coast through the industry for some time without question.
Vanessa Satten, Editor In Chief of XXL, has said many times in numerous interviews that “.. this is NOT a credibility cover. We’re not putting people up because you’re the most amazing lyricist. The freshman cover is where we’re trying to predict stars.”
We have to look at what we want, what the magazine looks for in artists and what the disconnect is. The bottom line is that we need to support artists we care about and the industry will HOPEFULLY listen to that. Look at how the rise of the “SoundCloud” artists has now become the largest spaces for new artists to reach new audiences and is now a mainstay in how we consume music. We control the culture, that means we have to keep putting our energy towards folks we love and support.
For a lot of us who love the underground, who love the rush of finding a new artist that no one knows, the XXL cover may not be for us anymore. The XXL cover has become whatever your asshole little brother is listening to, it has become the gritty side of the mainstream that we stop listening to after the summer ends. I don’t think the XXL cover will ever get another Kendrick or Cole. I hope it does though. The industry is different and we have to decide what parts we want to participate in. It is up to all of us as consumers to determine what type of value we put on the XXL cover and how we demand better quality content.
A part of me is still hoping that Princess Nokia, NoName or Mick Jenkins will end up on the cover one day….. a girl can dream, right?