Why the 2016 XXL Freshman Class Stands as the Best Ever
Lil Uzi Vert, Denzel Curry, 21 Savage, Kodak Black, Lil Yachty, G Herbo, Dave East, Anderson .Paak, Desiigner and Lil Dicky united as one for the 2016 XXL Freshman Class. Six years later, their union has become the greatest of all time.
Words: Peter A. Berry
Editor’s Note: This story will appear in the Summer 2022 issue of XXL Magazine, on stands soon.
When modern-day hip-hop fans think of XXL Freshman, they often go to the 2016 Class over the past 15 years the annual issue has existed. Since being unveiled six years ago, the 2016 Class has become synonymous with XXL Freshman the way Macbooks are with laptops; a subconscious avatar of what’s supposed to be—something that, depending on how old a fan is, might even feel like has always been. In 2022, colorful hair and slurred melodies are default tools in a rap starter kit, and No. 1 singles start out on SoundCloud before platforms like Instagram and TikTok shift them over into platinum plaques.
The 2016 XXL Freshman Class, composed of Lil Uzi Vert, 21 Savage, Kodak Black, Anderson .Paak, Lil Yachty, G Herbo, Denzel Curry, Dave East, Lil Dicky and Desiigner, has helped define this new version of rap normal while most of its members continue reaching new career plateaus more than half a decade after the class was revealed. Nine years after the unveiling of the first XXL Freshman cover in 2007, the 2016 Class stands as an unmatched combination of influence, peak achievement and longevity that’s made it the greatest ever. In an appropriate benefactor for a class defined by the internet, a big part of its popularity has to do with a viral video.
Dating back to 2011, XXL offered two rap-based proving grounds for members of their Freshman classes. One is a solo a cappella freestyle where the Freshman can spit for as long as they want by themselves. The other is the cypher, which features three to four members of that year’s class rapping together over a beat given to them by XXL.
Through 2015, XXL only provided artists with the beats for cyphers on the day of the Freshman cover shoot. In 2016, XXL switched it up and gave artists the cypher beats beforehand. The one and only year they did that. And so, the 2016 cypher with Lil Uzi Vert, 21 Savage, Kodak Black, Denzel Curry and Lil Yachty doubled as an experiment—one intentional and the other an accident.
The first test was giving Freshmen the beat beforehand. The unintended one was grouping Curry in the cypher with Uzi, 21, Kodak and Lil Yachty. Denzel's team was given two beats in advance by XXL. So naturally, Denzel created a verse for only one of the corresponding beats he was provided, which was for a different cypher. He ultimately ended up in a cypher he was never supposed to be in. Free-wheeling, fun and colorfully eclectic, the lawless rhyme session was a microcosm of rap’s new era, a striking blend of terse street raps, free-associative flexes and playful energy. To date, it’s been analyzed and parodied by countless YouTubers, and it’s been viewed over 200 million times, the most of any Freshman video in history and the biggest cypher in hip-hop history.
While that cypher has been stitched into web immortality, it’s also created the idea that the class was always seen as a success. The thing is, the 2016 Class started out as just another time rap fans thought this publication got it wrong. In the weeks following the 2016 XXL Freshman Class’ unveiling on June 13, 2016, a meme with trash bags superimposed over the artists on the cover was circulating on Twitter just as much as the cover itself. To watch one of the Freshman freestyle sessions was to read inane YouTube comments claiming a few 2016 Freshmen should be in a special needs class. At this point, "Soundcloud rapper" still doubled as an insult, and at least half the Freshman artists were seen—as the late, great Tupac Shakur once said—like "product[s] made to crumble"; gimmicky viral artists designed to dissolve as quickly as their internet buzz materialized.
"It was a changing of the guard," says DJ Drama, who DJ'd the cyphers in years 2013, 2014, 2015 and 2016, and signed Uzi to his Generation Now label in 2014. "The old heads didn’t understand the Uzi Verts and the 21 Savages and Yachtys and the Kodaks." And yet, genius is rarely recognized in its own time, and six years later, many of the 2016 Class’ perceived flaws are the reason it’s become indelible.
SoundCloud rap started out as a pejorative term and a genre classification, but by 2016, it had also become a dominant commercial force. Uzi’s breakout singles, "Money Longer" and "You Was Right," earned placements in the top 55 songs on the Billboard Hot 100 chart before the end of the year, and in 2017, his single, "XO Tour Llif3," peaked at No. 7 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. For his part, Lil Yachty’s mushy melodies, carefree lyrics and fashion sense helped him power to two Billboard Hot 100 top five singles and a Sprite commercial with LeBron James before Yachty even dropped an album. Using streaming platforms, most of the 2016 Freshman Class also cultivated enormous fan bases. The ability to drop however and whenever they wanted to create at their own pace worked to their benefit.
Lil Dicky’s career also echoes the strength of the internet, as well as the staying power an artist can extract by mastering it. Although Dicky hasn’t dropped a full-length project since his 2015 debut, Professional Rapper, his quirky sense of humor fueled one-off releases like the Chris Brown-assisted "Freaky Friday" and 2019’s "Earth," designed-to-go-viral spectacles that earned hundreds of millions of YouTube views and RIAA-certified plaques.
Knowing the way around the internet is cool, but sometimes it’s better for it to navigate a rapper. Snapping his fingers in a New York City studio, Desiigner’s bizarre, but infectious "Timmy Turner" Freshman freestyle earned nearly 15 million YouTube views and countless memes before he made it into a platinum single, selling 1 million units.
Since then, web relevance, once considered an ephemeral ploy, has continued to largely parallel commercial success. Artists like 21 Savage and Kodak Black have become further immortalized through memes and viral video clips; 21’s 2017 ESPN appearance, which led to a barrage of supervillain memes, and footage of Kodak’s gleeful shimmying while a song snippet played preceded the ubiquity of his 2018 single "Zeze." This virility doubles as institutional branding that can cement artists as totems of pop culture, and that’s a fact not lost on the folks promoting them.
These days, labels pay for social media maestros to create memes so they can simulate a buzz. Songs are given to TikTok users to create the same effect. Even someone like Future, a 2012 Freshman, has worked memes into his performances, a direct reflection of a symbiosis that’s only strengthened after the unveiling of the 2016 Freshmen.
The internet is a big factor in the dominance of the 2016 Class, but it’s also just one piece of the equation, especially when comparing it to other classes. While the best Freshman classes can rival 2016’s in terms of top star power, none have equaled the top-to-bottom relevancy this long after their cover’s release. These rappers have found inventive ways to maintain connections to fans in and out of music.
Over the last half-decade, Uzi, 21 Savage and Kodak Black have each released platinum albums and accumulated numerous gold and platinum singles along with a whole lot of critical acclaim. Lil Yachty and Lil Dicky have also racked up plaques for singles, too. Dicky’s got an FX show, Dave. A disciple of Dr. Dre, Anderson .Paak’s won eight Grammy Awards. Dave East, who solidified his status as a rap classicist with well-received solo and joint projects, stars as Method Man in Hulu’s Wu-Tang: An American Saga. After helping spearhead the advent of Chicago drill music a decade ago, G Herbo’s most recent album, 2021’s PTSD, earned his best first-week sales total and a gold plaque. Miami rep Denzel earned acclaim after dropping four stellar solo albums since being named a 2016 Freshman. His most recent is this year’s Melt My Eyez See Your Future. Denzel also has two gold and platinum plaques to his name.
In the years since the 2016 XXL Freshman cover hit newsstands, newly selected Freshmen have usually named the 2016 Class as their favorite. To say you’re a fan of the 2016 Class is to say you’re a fan of modern hip-hop. In rap terms, six years is an eternity, but the 2016 Class has managed to evolve rather than age, the benefit of growing into a hip-hop world they helped create. "Everybody in that bitch was great," Denzel says of his fellow 2016 Freshman classmates. "These guys are shaping the game to this day with what they’re doing and possibly have the best chemistry out of all the classes."
Read the 2022 XXL Freshman cover story featuring BabyTron, Cochise, Saucy Santana, Babyface Ray, KenTheMan, SoFaygo, Big Scarr, Big30, KayCyy, Doechii, Kali and Nardo Wick when the Freshman issue hits stands everywhere on July 13. The magazine includes additional interviews with Lupe Fiasco, Kevin Gates, Pi’erre Bourne, NLE Choppa, Yvngxchris, producer DJ Dahi, engineer Teezio and singer Chlöe, plus a breakdown of every Freshman Class from a numbers standpoint, a look back at what the 2021 XXL Freshman Class is doing, the story of why the 2016 XXL Freshman Class gets so much respect now, a deep dive into the world of NFTs through hip-hop’s lens and exploring rappers’ most valuable collections. You can also buy the 2022 XXL Freshman Class issue here.