Welcome to Part 1 of our look at the past and present of the storied '09 XXL Freshmen Class cover. Part 2 is available here.
One by one, our names were called by a voice that has long been forgotten. He wasn’t important, just another gatekeeper who was happy to give us the key to the world that awaited beyond the schoolyard. We were public school inmates that had served our time, the parole ceremony was a celebration of surviving 12 years in the system without going Shawshank.
Graduation, the grand finale, meant we were no longer students, but promising adults who were about to embark on an uncertain journey. I recall the look of pride in the parents' eyes as they gazed upon the future, nothing but hope could be felt in the gigantic Georgia Dome. The clapping, the cheering, the overflow of admiration—for just a moment we were believed to be potential masters of the universe. We had no idea what the coming days, months or years held in store, but it didn’t matter, we were a graduating class.
The future was ours to conquer.
I think back on graduation day, and how the same optimism that filled the air is what I felt when XXL announced their '09 Freshmen Class. These weren’t ordinary prospects, I saw on that cover artists who would bring hip-hop into tomorrow. By name I knew them all, not a single face was new to my eyes, but they weren’t yet known throughout households. These artists were new to those who still discovered music outside, but they were familiar to anyone who surfed the blogs as if they were virtual mom and pop shops. Their music wasn’t purchased in stores, it was downloaded online; we didn’t hear them on the radio, but they filled up the spaces on our iPods and Zunes.
Wale, B.o.B, Charles Hamilton, Asher Roth, Cory Gunz, Blu, Mickey Factz, Ace Hood, Curren$y and Kid Cudi were eggs that hatched mostly on the internet, and as I was preparing to leave the halls of high school, they were entering the music industry's School of Hard Knocks. No one knew what would truly happen to them once they got in the door, but there was an excitement seeing artists prosper who started in Tartarus and had seemingly made it to Mount Olympus.
Ace Hood wasn’t a product of raving blog posts, he got his first big look alongside DJ Khaled as the first artist signed to We The Best/Def Jam. Before XXL sung his praises, he was reaching the masses thanks to T-Pain’s hypnotic harmonies. “Cash Flow,” the Miami rapper’s breakout single, was a modest success but brought him recognition for an aggressiveness that predates Meek Mill. With a rapid-fire style Ace wasn’t the best rapper, but when you heard his voice it hit you like a shell blasted from a shotgun. He understood branding, pushing the ethos of hustle and grind like Ross did before him, but with more tenacity. His albums never sold very well, but he always made noise with his bangers, which kept his name alive. Between 2009 and 2014 he would have moments where he would vanish, but before you could forget his name he’d give you another hit—”Hustle Hard,” “Body 2 Body,” “Bugatti”—and countless remixes to serve as a reminder that his ship would continue to sail even if he was slowly drifting further out into the open sea.
A few years ago, it stopped. The ship went far beyond where our eyes could see. The momentum ceased as if frozen like a glacier, his voice could no longer reach the masses the way it once did. He got a big start making music that exploded on radio, but he never really captured the online market. The transition could be what killed him. I’ve seen more posts about him and his lovely wife than his music these days.
Ace didn’t master the internet, but Khaled was able to reach new success through social media. It’s sad that at the height of Khaled’s resurgence, the artist he brought into the game, the one he promoted the heaviest, is nowhere by his side. One thing about Ace Hood—he’s never to be counted out. If the viral clip of his Thanksgiving rap proved anything, it’s that Ace will always be one hit away his whole career.
I remember the first time I heard Cory Gunz rap, only because he did something that was rather abnormal at the time; he outshined Lil Wayne on a rap record. This is prime, heavyweight, I’m-the-best-rapper-in-the-world, '08 Lil Wayne. That Wayne being outperformed just wasn't something that happened, especially by an artist that was relatively unknown. The first version of “A Milli” that leaked online had the son of Peter Gunz rapping as if he was possessed by the spirit of a mass-murdering machine gun. His flow is faster than Barry Allen running late for a meeting with the Justice League and with wordplay sharp enough to be a knife in Caesar’s back. All it took was this one song, this one leak, to bring him enough attention to be hailed a problem in the making.
Wayne would eventually remove Cory from the final version, replacing the show-stealing verse with a new one which was far more crafty than how he closed out the original. Not making the final cut didn’t erase what the internet had witnessed; Wayne couldn’t erase the knockout. Cory’s big break came due to a leak, but all ears were waiting to see what he would do next.
Not only was he a legacy, he was talented—only the deaf could ignore the potential and prowess he possessed. The Bronx spitter had style and a penmanship that even masters could salute. If any wordsmith needed a Genius account it was Cory. A rapper’s rapper, if he could send Wayne back to Mars, just imagine what he could do with the spotlight on him? After “A Milli” he did tours to radio stations freestyling, leaving great impressions wherever he left mics scorching.
What sadly happened to Cory is what happens to so many artists—the window simply closed before he could completely climb into the palace. He’s had label issues, legal issues, management changes, and he starred in a reality show—but the album never came. Corey went from being one of the most promising lyricists of the '09 class to another could’ve been, would’ve been, should’ve been hip-hop story. At least Wayne would put him on “‘6 Foot 7 Foot” and allow his light to fully shine without shade.
Decatur Bobby: Atlanta’s only prospect to make the cover. He had a single that was bubbling on the city’s airwaves, and mixtapes that flooded the streets—early on there seemed to be a foundation that would allow him to prosper. Atlanta knew he would be something, we were just waiting for the world to catch up. This wasn’t someone following in the footsteps of T.I. and Jeezy, this was a rapper who tuned guitars instead of standing over the water whipping pot. When it happened for Bobby, it happened big. “Nothing On You” was the break-out single, “Airplanes” showed he would stay on the charts, Bobby Ray's debut sold well in its first week, and the wins continued to roll in as if he had the luck of 100 leprechauns.
B.o.B was the first and only freshman to achieve a No. 1 record on Billboard Hot 100. He crossed over with an ease that suggested a gift for making hits that went beyond hip-hop. Overseas he became a big deal; a huge market to tap into. No other freshman was on such a traffic-free highway to success.
Sadly, a quick rise was followed by a slow fall. The music was good, but the charts weren’t being conquered like they used to as the years moved on. His name was still huge overseas but had begun to lose steam in the states, and then it got almost silent worldwide.
Last year, Bobby made headlines for tweets and music stating the earth is flat and cloning is real, along with other theories and conspiracies that showed the once eclectic artist reached a new stage of enlightenment without the rest of us. It was hard to relate, only making the wedge between us widen. When an artist ceases to be compelling it’s hard to regain all those that once followed your every move.
Asher Roth, the man who brought Frat Rap into the veins of mainstream America. He’ll be remembered always and likely forever for his ode to the lighter, more carefree side of college life. “I Love College” is how he was able to reach radio, but before singing of the never-ending beer haze, Asher proved himself to be a sharp-tongued rapper worthy of respect.
Wit and wordplay can be heard on his breakout mixtape, The Greenhouse Effect Vol. 1, a DJ Drama/Don Cannon Gangster Grillz release. This was before the police raids when Drama and Cannon had the loudest voices when it came to breaking artists through the mixtape circuit. There was no real gimmick other than the fact that Asher had bars and people wanted to hear more. They gave Asher the platform to prove himself, while Scooter Braun worked his magic as the manager. Leading up to his debut album, Asleep in the Bread Aisle, the only thing holding Asher back was being linked to Eminem—a lazy comparison that only contrasted two artists because of skin color and no real reasonable connection.
Asher went on to sell 69,000 copies of his album first week, reaching No. 5 on the Billboard 200. The reviews were mixed, failing to achieve the same applause as his mixtape release. Five years went by before RetroHash, his sophomore release. The long journey came with cutting ties with Scooter, finding a home at an indie label instead of a major, and evolving beyond the immaturity of the music he once made. His focus shifted, the sound changed, and before us was almost a new artist. The sales dropped, but the critics were far more impressed. It was a case of an artist getting better, but no longer enjoying the same spotlight.
Asher is still creating in the underground while Shia LaBeouf butchers the very style that once received praise on The Greenhouse Effect. It's painfully obvious that we didn't appreciate Roth enough when we had our chance. Asher didn’t live up to the initial hype, but for those that still listen, he is far more enjoyable than he once was.
Curren$y has had one of the most interesting careers of all the freshmen, a title that never fit an artist who signed with No Limit Records in 2002—his first record deal. From No Limit to Young Money, Spitta became a member of Lil Wayne’s squad, a position that brought him more attention than ever. Before he was on XXL, many knew him for his mildly successful single “Where Da Cash At,” or for one of his countless features alongside Weezy and Mack Maine.
He was slated to be Wayne’s successor, but he would separate from the label before his album could be purchased in stores. Wayne’s true dominance didn’t come until after Spitta’s departure—somehow Spitta missed the heyday of No Limit and the forthcoming explosion of Young Money. He seemed cursed to always be outside right before the party begun.
When XXL put him on the Freshman cover, he was still working on finding his footing, but buzz started to build. Who knew that buzz would erupt into a lifestyle brand that would day conquer the underground?
Everything changed for Curren$y when he decided to take his destiny into his own hands, building his own party instead of waiting to be handed an invitation. He took the work ethic of Wayne at his most alien, releasing music and touring as if he would cease breathing without a microphone and a tour bus.
Free music is the real estate that allowed him to build a castle, and he hasn’t stopped living by the law of giving the people what they want. Supply and demand, rinse and repeat, he is not one to give fans a chance to miss him. No seer or oracle could’ve predicted that Curren$y’s lifestyle raps would make him into a star far away from popular music. You can see the XXL cover as the beginning of Curren$y’s rebirth, the first true sign that he was flying solo.
Keep it locked for Part 2 tomorrow, where we dive into the remaining five artists in the storied '09 XXL Freshmen Class cover.
By Yoh, aka '09 Yoh, aka @Yoh31.
Photo Credit: XXL