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The XXL Freshman List & Hip-Hop's Industry of Delusion

XXL's latest freshman cover doesn't guarantee success for any artist, but that won't stop thousands from dreaming.
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XXL finally unveiled their latest class of Freshmen, kicking off another round of discussions about who belongs, who doesn't, and who is missing from the cover. Outrage is expected, pleasing an entire community of people with vastly different tastes is impossible. The commotion that’s created is good publicity for the artists and the publication; they are the center of attention, for better or worse.

Time and time again, year after year, I've noticed the perception that being an XXL Freshman has the ability to blow an artist up, potentially changing their career. It’s a mentality that you can associate with the rap blogosphere—if I can get my song posted on this one site or do an interview with this one publication, the results will be life-altering. Even deeper than blogs, we all look for that shortcut that will change our lives with the wave of a magic wand. Sadly, it rarely happens that way.

Big Sean rapped for Kanye West. It’s a story that has been told since he signed his deal and continued up until the release of his first album, still continues. You can look at that one moment as the event that took him from local Detroit rapper to the superstar that he is today, but while it's a significant moment in his history, it's only one moment. 

A career in music is a collection of chapters—every story written, every song released, every deal signed, every day in the studio, they all contribute to a book that you hope is as thick as Gone With The Wind and is read more than the Bible. Some chapters may be more significant than others, but no long-lasting career has been made or broken because of one event. No one sees Big Sean just as the guy that rapped for Kanye anymore. To be the successful artist he is today was to grow beyond that moment. Similarly, in a best-case scenario, the XXL Freshman List will go down as one of many co-signs that accumulated into the novel that is an artist's life.

The music industry makes it very easy to become disillusioned. The money, the glamor, all the benefits and perks of being famous seem right out of a fantasy. Separating the dream from reality is hard in a business where the dream is sold and we don't often see the work that goes into making the dream come true. I still struggle with being grounded in what’s real and not allowing my imagination to create an impossible scenario. 

The night that Diddy followed me on Twitter my mind went rampant. I thought this would be the moment my life would change forever. Diddy clearly loved my writing so much that his Twitter follow would be the beginning of me writing a book on the life and times of Sean Combs. In my mind, I was a DM away from him waving the magic wand and changing my life forever. The DM never came, he didn’t acknowledge me as the greatest writer of my generation, so far my fantasies of Diddy anointing me his personal writer has amounted to a cool name to drop to my parents when trying to convince them that my job is cooler than staring at a computer for 10 hours trying to think of a clever synonym for the word "dope." 

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I should have seen it coming. Diddy has a line on Rick Ross' “Holy Ghost” that I thought about while writing this:

“Fuck your dreams, this is reality.” 

As a music writer, I’m constantly encountering people that seem to be teetering between dreams and reality. There’s even been a few who looked at me the way I looked at Diddy, the holder of a magical wand. It would be rather narcissistic to believe that my words have the kind of worth that will transform John Doe into the next Kendrick Lamar. DJBooth as a publication is well-known, read by millions every month, respected, but we aren’t singlehandedly turning Top Prospects into worldwide superstars. There isn’t a publication that ever could. At best, the media can present you to a bigger audience, get more eyes on you than before, but overnight celebrity will not be reached based on any post or cover. 

The hard part about dealing with rapper disillusion is in the moments of desperation. You get a message pleading to help push a record, assist in promoting an album, and you know what you can actually do is much different than what is imagined. 

One moment I’ll never forget is during my back and forth with Kid Cudi on Twitter, I received a DM from a rapper who wanted me to tweet out his mixtape so, “Cudi could see it.” I thought his message was even crazier than tweeting at Cudi. I wasn’t sure what his expectations were, but in his mind, Cudi seeing his mixtape link on my timeline would be the moment all his dreams began to come true. 

We all dream of meeting the magic wand wielder. It’s no different than what inspires people to play the lottery knowing the odds of winning are slim. You gamble on the hope that six random numbers will take you from rags to riches, a narrative that can be found throughout the history of rap music. We are all just dreamers trying to make our wildest fantasies come to fruition, there's no sin in hoping to meet someone that can make it happen. I’m just very aware that even the seemingly powerful aren't blessed with that kind of power. There is no one cover, one post, one show, one moment, just a stacking of small victories until you reach the top of rap's mountain. 

The men on the XXL cover are to be celebrated, discussed, but they aren’t suddenly placed in a group of celebrity guaranteed to be widely successful. That guarantee doesn't exist, and the same goes for the men and women who weren’t selected. The accolades and trophies are noteworthy, but it’s what you do with them, and without them, that determine how far you go. There are two sides to the industry—getting on and staying on—and the simple truth is that any co-sign, whether it’s from a label exec, a famous rapper, or a magazine cover, will only take you as far as you take yourself. 

By Yoh, Puffy Yohmbs, aka @Yoh31.



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