Every year, XXL—one of the biggest, if not the biggest, hip-hop-dedicated publication—releases picks of 10 to 12 of most exciting young rappers in its so-called “freshman class.” The highly anticipated list showcases underground artists as well as those whose careers have just begun to pick up steam. The mag, which has generated the list since 2007, plays kingmaker, spreading the word and giving some musicians their first taste of fame.
Over the past decade, artists like Chance the Rapper, Future, Iggy Azalea and Kendrick Lamar have been featured as freshmen; some have found great success, earning the respect of critics and listeners alike. Because of the predictive track record of the list, which is generated by XXL’s editors (except for the fan-voted 10th spot, added in 2012), there is much jockeying for inclusion by artists and managers, and some choices are controversial. Every year, hip-hop fans argue passionately about who didn’t deserve a slot, who got snubbed and why the list itself is a bad idea. But every year they come back to see who XXL chose.
Houstonians, in particular, would seem to have little reason to complain this year. On June 13, when the 2017 list (dubbed “Generation Next” in honor of its 10th anniversary) was released, one of the 10 rappers to make it was Ugly God, a 20-year-old Indiana-born, Houston-raised rising star. (John Jeffrey Bean, the man behind Ugly God, lived a nomadic childhood, but considers himself a Houstonian, having lived here the longest—four years—and currently divides his time between the Space City and Mississippi.) Since 2016, after exploding on SoundCloud with his single “Water,” he has become known for his self-confidence, bluntness, and hilariously crude lyrics.
Fans appreciate Ugly God’s realness and ability to stay true to himself even as his fame grows. In the two years that he’s been rapping, Ugly God has become popular on multiple channels, utilizing YouTube and Twitter to make audiences both laugh and savor his music. And last year he signed with Asylum Records, a further acknowledgment of his potential, although the rapper has said he’d prefer to remain underground and somewhat out of the mainstream.
As for the rest of Generation Next, controversy is the watchword. Whereas in the past a few of the picks might have met with public disapproval, this year’s list seems to have left almost no one happy. Many argue that the artists selected are not true ambassadors of the genre: they sing too much and their works don’t embody the lyricism, speed and rhythm of classic rap.
A few of the more controversial Generation Next artists, such as Aminé, KYLE, A Boogie Wit Da Hoodie, and PnB Rock, have become known for a more pop style of rap (the full list is below). Some see their attention to melody and vocals as part of the rap continuum, while others call it hip-hop sacrilege. But of course this tension between old and new is not a creation of XXL’s list, but rather part of an existential debate about rap’s past and future.
Still, the most contentious selection on this year’s list was XXXTentacion, who won the fan-voted 10th spot. Jahseh Onfroy, the Florida rapper behind XXXTentacion, has of late risen steadily from underground cult favorite to breakout star, mostly while in prison. Over the past year and a half, the 19-year-old’s music has racked up an astounding 400 million plays on SoundCloud, even as Onfroy himself has served time. More recently, he pled not guilty to yet another set of charges, and is currently out on bail pending a court hearing later this month. Needless to say, fans and foes alike eagerly await his next move.
The same is true—for different reasons—of Ugly God, a Houstonian to watch in the months and years ahead. If nothing else, he’s proof positive that the city’s track record of growing rap talent, from Bun B, to Slim Thug, to Travi$ Scott, continues in earnest.
XXL’s 2017 Freshman Class:
- Playboi Carti
- A Boogie Wit Da Hoodie
- PnB Rock
- Kap G
- Ugly God
- XXXTentacion (fan-voted)