Inside XXL’s Freshman Issue

This article originally appeared on this site.

It is difficult enough to get one overscheduled rap star in a room during business hours; it’s a herculean task to get ten of them there before noon. On a Monday in April, Vanessa Satten, the editor-in-chief of XXL, the hip-hop magazine, pulled off this feat for the tenth time. The occasion was a daylong photo shoot for the cover of the magazine’s annual Freshman Issue, which anoints ten new artists as the rising stars of hip-hop. The selection process involves hundreds of rappers coming to XXL’s offices to pitch themselves and to play new music. (Kendrick Lamar, Future, and Chance the Rapper have all made the list.)

The identities of the chosen ten are kept secret; even the artists and their managers don’t know who else has been selected until the day of the shoot. As the rappers began to trickle into a photo studio in Bushwick, it felt like the first day of middle school. XXL staffers checked off names on lists, and one played watchdog, monitoring social media to make sure that none of the artists or hangers-on leaked any information. “Stylists are always trying to post something on social,” Satten said. She wore a hoodie, has short platinum hair, and speaks in a raspy, authoritative voice.

The call time was 8 A.M. By eight-thirty, half the group had arrived. An artist named Ugly God strolled in, wearing a gray hoodie and glasses. Behind him came the lone female of the group, the Oakland rapper Kamaiyah. She had on a bonnet to protect her pristine braids. She headed to a dressing room, without acknowledging her peers. In 2016, she had threatened that if XXL didn’t offer her a spot on that year’s freshman list she’d never accept one. “I was just talking my shit,” she said, with a shrug.

By nine, three security guards had arrived, followed by a beanpole of a rapper named PnB Rock, from Philadelphia. He whooped loudly and fist-bumped everyone in sight, then began surreptitiously snapping pictures on his phone. (He got a scolding from Satten.) The most sociable of the group was MadeinTYO, who stood not more than five feet four. Dissatisfied with the wardrobe options presented, he put on a green Supreme T-shirt he’d brought with him. He sat down near Kap G, a lanky Atlanta rapper of Mexican descent. Kap had shown up early, since he needed to leave by 6 P.M. for a gig at the Barclays Center.

For some, an invitation to be on the Freshman Issue cover is a chance to flaunt their nonchalance. In 2014, the Atlanta superstar Young Thug cancelled the night before the shoot. Last year, Lil Uzi Vert made his fellow-freshmen wait five hours. “Not to give him a crown,” Satten said, “but that was probably the latest person we ever had.” This year’s wild card was a nineteen-year-old Florida rapper named XXXTentacion—XXX, for short. He’d just been released from jail, having been held on charges of home invasion and aggravated battery, and was facing a court date for charges of domestic abuse of a pregnant woman. Satten’s job occasionally involves writing letters to judges and parole officers to explain the importance of the photo shoot, and she’d lobbied hard on his behalf.

At nine-forty-five, XXX reported for duty. He looked like Cruella De Vil, with half of his dreadlocks bleached white. His smile seemed to contradict the tattoos on his eyelids (“BAD VIBES”) and he embraced PnB Rock. The two had made a bet about which of them would pick up more girls during their trip to New York. The bet was for a dollar. “Real player shit!” PnB said.

Satten’s brother Travis, who was videotaping the proceedings, said, of the shoot, “It’s like they say about World War Two: hours of boredom punctuated by moments of sheer terror.”

By ten-fifteen, his sister had started to panic. All ten rappers were accounted for, but they were waiting on the d.j., Sonny Digital, who had left with his manager after being asked to sign a non-disclosure agreement. Without him, there would be no beats for the day’s cyphers, taped sessions in which groups of rappers take turns freestyling. Satten got Sonny on the phone. “So far, you’re the most difficult one,” she told him. “Mad unprofessional.” Within the hour, he was back.

“I’m surprised that Young M.A. isn’t here,” XXX said, referring to the female Brooklyn rapper, whose breakout single, “OOOUUU,” topped the charts last year. Satten explained that when Young M.A. had met with the XXL staff she’d said that she felt like too big a star to be deemed a freshman. The staff, for its part, considered her recent singles a bit flat. “It’s almost like dating,” Satten said.

At one point, a staffer divided the group into cyphers. A-Boogie, a solemn rapper from New York, sulked when he was separated from PnB Rock and stuck in a dorkier group. “Get over yourselves,” Satten said later.

By 6 P.M., the freshmen were wilting. Aminé, an impish rapper from Portland, Oregon, tried to keep spirits up by goofing around. “I was trying to convince Playboi Carti to throw Cheetos,” he said. “It’s cool to meet other artists and find that they’re not, like, dicks.” ♦