Since 2007, hip-hop and lifestyle publication XXL Magazine has produced an annual list of the best and trendiest rappers of the year. The list is well-tenured in hoisting relatively unknown artists into the spotlight of stardom and creating larger-than-life figures like Logic, Drake, Kendrick Lamar, J. Cole and Future. For each list, executives at the magazine choose nine rappers to feature, leaving the 10th spot open for voting by fans and magazine readers. While the final list has yet to be released, XXL has produced an ironically-named “shortlist” of 130 rappers who are viable for the coveted 10th spot on the list. This list, though, is inherently problematic.
This year more than ever, the shortlist for the 10th spot heavily features a new wave of artists who are becoming increasingly popular in the modern hip-hop landscape: Soundcloud Rappers. The rise of easy-access music platforms like YouTube and Soundcloud have paved the way for absolutely anyone to get a leg up on producing and distributing music. This open avenue has ushered in thousands of organically-produced, unique and distinctive sounds and acts into the limelight of hip-hop stardom, acts which, without such help, would have been lost among the annals of high school CD-passing phases, as many hopeful high school garage rock bands were in the early 2000s.
The problem with the 130 artists on XXL’s shortlist is not the pervasive niche element of mumble-rap or gaudy, vulgar lyricism. In fact, many artists use these styles to their advantage. Shockingly popular acts originating on Soundcloud like Lil Pump, Trippie Redd and Ski Mask the Slump God use the formula of throw-away lyrics and slurred speech to emphasize rhythm, production and atmosphere over message and meaning, each crafting a surprisingly meaningful addition to an already crowded trap-infused landscape. The problem with many artists on the list is longevity.
Artists like 2017’s breakout star XXXTentacion, 2018’s hit 6ix9ine and 2016’s starter Ski Mask the Slump God rely on media buzz, headlines and violent, destructive outbursts to generate interest and streams, foregoing dense, high-quality music for attention. The platforms of Soundcloud and YouTube put so much emphasis on becoming famous that artists often lose sight of why they would become famous in the first place. This leaves the hip-hop landscape flooded with young artists creating flashy, shocking acts to gain fame instead of focusing on crafting a relevant, interesting sound.
It is good to see so many fresh faces entering the world of hip-hop. The last three years in particular, with social media usage at an all-time high, we, as music enthusiasts, have the opportunity to browse an endless supply of these new takes on a time-tested genre. For this reason, 2018’s XXL shortlist is one of the best the magazine has ever produced. But when 110 artists on XXL’s list are indistinguishable to someone who listens to the genre daily and the other 20 are so bizarre that they are largely unlistenable, a serious problem arises. A hip-hop landscape that was rife with thousands of unique acts, mumbling and auto-tuned or not, would be acceptable and enjoyable, but XXL’s picks don’t reflect a matured, well-developed base of sounds and acts; they reflect a platform that is increasingly focused on market and visibility, not on enjoyable takes and new modes of music.
The atmosphere of making niche music in the modern era has to change. Artists need to focus on their craft and their personal style in the massive genre of hip-hop, not on blowing up by any means necessary. Until that happens, XXL will continue to sift through thousands of glitzy yet mediocre acts with no end in sight.