Words by Jenna DePasquale
Premier rap publication XXL has released their annual Freshman Class list. The top 11 artists to watch in 2021 include 42 Dugg, Flo Milli, Morray, Pooh Shiesty, Lakeyah, Coi Leray, Toosii, Blxst, DDG, Rubi Rose, and Ian Dior. Sparking both excitement and controversy since 2007, the coveted list never ceases to get hip hop heads talking.
Whether it’s the inclusion of a fan favorite or the snubbing of a newcomer, XXL’s readership takes to social media to make their opinions heard. While a few blunderous choices have slipped through the cracks over the past 14 years, the list has historically predicted the long-term success of revered rappers like Kendrick Lamar, Nipsey Hussle, Chance the Rapper, and many more.
Standouts among this year’s list include the women who have been dominating the scene. Flo Milli’s verse on $not’s “Mean” became a viral TikTok trend in which girls and gays praise buns of all sizes. The Alabama rapper is also famed in her own right for her cheeky solo hits “Beef FloMix” and “In The Party,” which also struck gold on the platform. Milli started making music from an early age, but it was ultimately seeing Nicki Minaj’s videos on 106 & Park that inspired her to immerse herself in hip hop. Her popular online presence would eventually earn her a record deal with RCA in 2019. In addition to her praise from XXL, Milli received a best new artist nomination at the 2020 BET Awards.
At just 19, Lakeyah stands strong among her fellow freshmen. Rising from the unlikely city of Milwaukee, she found that YouTube would be the platform that would bridge her bars with the rest of the world. Lekeyah also names Nicki Minaj as a major creative catalyst in her career as well as Lauryn Hill and Tee Grizzley.
Her first viral performance was in 2016 when she took to her YouTube channel to play her hand at the So Gone Challenge -- a call to freestyle over “So Gone” by R&B singer Monica. After graduating high school, Lakeyah moved to Atlanta to realize her dream of signing with Quality Control Music, whose roster also includes Lil Baby, Lil Yachty, and City Girls. This year, she dropped her full-length album In Due Time, which features “Poppin” with Gucci Mane.
Rubi Rose, too, showcases the extent to which digital media is linked to coming up in the rap game. She gained notoriety when she appeared in the video for Migos’ “Bad and Boujee,” which has surpassed over a million views on YouTube.
Rose also made a cameo in the visual for last summer’s cultural phenomenon “WAP” alongside leading women in music like Latto, who was a member of the 2020 Freshman Class. Yet, her no holds barred rhymes are evidence of the depth that lies beneath her modeling work. A true superstar package, Rose overcame her stifling Mormon roots while retaining a passion for music that was sparked in church. Her hit single “Big Mouth” is a quintessential example of how women in rap have taken back the narrative on sex.
Taking it to the East Coast, Coi Leray took SoundCloud by storm in 2019 with her hit “Huddy.” Having worked with Freshman Class alumni Ski Mask the Slump God, Fetty Wap, and Trippie Redd, an XXL cover was practically written in her destiny. Learning from the best while cultivating her own multifaceted style has paid off. Delivering abrasive superbangers alongside softer, more vocal-intensive tracks, Leray keeps listeners prepared for the unexpected. Citing artists ranging from Lady Gaga to Chief Keef as inspiration, the New Jersey native refrains from boxing herself in.
Whether you are a member of the list’s loyal opposition or a fan of all things hip hop, the special edition publication featuring all 11 freshmen is currently available for your full review. Stay tuned to XXL’s YouTube channel for an official cypher showcasing performances by the honorees.