Baltimore City Paper

Unwelcome Freshmen confound what being a rap rookie means

By XXL 's annual "Freshman 10 " issue, wherein the hip-hop magazine declares a group of up-and-coming rappers the next big thing, is a major talking point among rap nerds. The discussion begins with predictions about who will be on the list and, with even more passion, preemptive bitch fits about who should be but totally won't. Then, once the cover of the issue's revealed and those 10 newbies are formally introduced, the list is picked apart further. If the list lines up to one's expectations, then the magazine is safe and predictable. If the list doesn't correspond to predictions, then the issue is bullshit and they just don't know real hip-hop, man. It's perverse fun for rap obsessives.

This year, XXL left one of those spots in the hands of the impossible-to-please hip-hop hoi polloi. Readers got to vote for one of 50 MCs listed in an online reader's poll. The poll closed on Jan. 1, and the results will be revealed in the April issue. The 50 MCs to choose from represent rap's increasingly fractured though multitudinous 2011 scene. There are guys about to break on the radio like Don Trip and Future, and there are blog rap phenomenons like Danny Brown and A$AP Rocky. There's even room for the armpit of internet opportunists like white girl hood wannabe and one-hit wonder Kreayshawn, her friend V-Nasty (best known for being white and unapologetically using the word "nigga"), and frat-rap mega-douches Chris Webby and Sam Adams.

Two Baltimore rappers—arguably the Baltimore rappers—are also on the ballot: Los and Mullyman. Although their inclusion is but another very minor victory for Baltimore rap, and good luck to both of them, it's doubtful that either of them will be picked. Not really all that underground, hardly "hood" in an aggressive, regressive sense, they are sensitive street rappers who both know how to rap their asses off. They don't fit in.

Though both are wise enough to know that harassing people at Lexington Market to cop a physical mixtape is a dead end and you have to give this stuff away for free as a download, they aren't blog rappers flooding the market either. Outsiders may even label them "DMV," but that nebulous, calculated branding doesn't do them any favors. And they're not exactly "freshman" by even the loosest definition of the word. Los was signed to Diddy's Bad Boy Records in the mid-2000s, and Mullyman was actually profiled in the "Show and Prove" section of the May 2005 issue of XXL.

Los is a virtuoso rapper who can bend his voice and flow onto pre-existing radio formulas without being all Flo Rida about that shit. His July mixtape Worth the Wait mostly consists of radio freestyles, and he's got that Lil Wayne ability to make songs that've been drilled into your skull all year feel new again. Over Miguel's syrupy slow-jam "Sure Thing," Los balances melodic rapping with staccato aggression and playfully dips into a parody of Kreayshawn's "Gucci Gucci" flow just because he can. December's DJ Drama-assisted The Crown Ain't Safe sounds like a confident, shiny major-label debut. There's something about Los, though, that seems a little too eager to please and willing to wander onto whatever song's put in front of him. Then again, there's something rather admirable about that too. He's a wily technician.

"We're taking baby steps now," Mullyman told XXL writer Ben Osborne back in '05, "and then we'll see what happens and make the next step." Even then, he seemed wisely skeptical of making pompous, major-label moves. After 2005's Mullymania, which featured the Clipse, Ghostface, Freeway, and Memphis Bleek, Mullyman's music has actually gotten more regional. "Harder Than Baltimore" from last year's free album of the same name got play on MTV Jams and all the production came from local producers DJ Booman and MBAHlievable. In February, he released Mullyman vs. the Machine, sponsored by Atlanta's DJ Whoo Kid but equally provincial. This fall, a modest followup called FanMail was dropped quietly.

Mullyman seems more like an internet rapper, in that he doesn't really seem to have an end game. One of his best tracks is FanMail's "A Bitch Depending," produced by Baltimore's DJ Excel. Over a sample of Hall and Oates' "Rich Girl," which Excel lets ride out on the hook and otherwise slices into a stammering club-rap beat, Mullyman avoids cheap "bitch" tough-talk, cleverly suggesting that "life's a bitch" only if you buy into such self-negating nonsense. What's he supposed do with a song like that? Mullyman needs a shtick besides being sincere and good at rapping.

Maybe he doesn't, though. What does it even mean to make XXL's "Freshman 10" in 2011? Presumably, the publicity develops interest from a major label. But all that means is the chance to compromise for some co-signs and become boa-constricted by commercial demands. Last week, Atlanta rapper Pill, a 2010 XXL freshman who made a name for himself with the 2009 underground hit "Trap Goin' Ham" and now signed to Rick Ross' Maybach Music Group (MMG), took to Twitter to air out his label woes: "Artist sign deals, label doesn't do shit for them or don't even know to work the artist. time wasted."

It should be mentioned that Wale, a 2009 freshman pick also signed to MMG, has seen significant success this year with his album Ambition, so maybe Pill needs to chill out. Then again, Stalley, who accompanies Mullyman and Los on this year's ballot and, like Pill and Wale, is also signed to MMG, had his mixtape Lincoln Way Nights remastered and released in stores and on iTunes with little to no promotion.

In November, two weeks after Lincoln Way Nights was released, music critic Eric Harvey observed that its sales were at 1,197 units; "16 less than Cass McCombs' Humor Risk." This is what can happen to a buzzing rapper signed to a major label. It's easy to imagine past XXL freshman Pill, and perhaps Stalley as well, wishing they were still in Los or Mullyman's free-agent position. Here's to simply rapping really, really well and not worrying so much about a major-label comeup and magazine love. Los and Mullyman have been pretty good at that so far.