Back in 2007, Plies appeared on the cover of XXL’s first Freshman 10 issue, along with the likes of Lupe Fiasco, Saigon and Gorilla Zoe. If the Florida rapper’s future felt uncertain at the time, Plies has since shown and proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that he was a “leader of the news school.” He has gone on to release more albums than any freshman in his class, garnering plaques and Top 10 Billboard singles along the way.

Of the back of his T-Pain-assisted lead single “Shawty,” the Ft. Myers goon released his debut album, The Real Testament, in August 2007, then followed up a mere 10 months later with his sophomore effort, Definition of Real. Both albums are certified gold. Just six months later Plies was back at it again, releasing his third LP Da REAList in December 2008 and now is ready to release his forth album, Goon Affiliated in May.

With XXL’s 10 Freshmen for ’10 cover on stands now, caught up with the inaugural goon to get his thoughts on rap’s next generation. How did you feel when you saw yourself on that first XXL Freshmen cover in 2007?

Plies: The first time I actually seen the cover, I got it from an airport in New York. For me, that shit meant so much to me because it gave me an opportunity to know that my brother [and label CEO Big Gates] can see me physically in a space that he was never able to see me in because he was incarcerated. How so?

Plies: I knew internally from the inside of being locked up and incarcerated that was a badge of honor for him because this is what gets niggas that’s locked up through. If you take away the magazines, especially the hip-hop magazines, if you take away the little visual that they get on television, then you would never know what’s goin’ on in the urban world without it. Looking back on it now, what does it mean to you?

Plies: Me and my brother always [laugh and say] we made XXL look smart. You mean with your success?

Plies: [Yeah]. When people take a chance on you and you prove them to be right, it’s always a great thing. Even the artists that you got on their now, it’s millions of niggas that rap and for you to take chances and put your neck out there and put your company’s brand and say that these are the next 10 niggas that we feel like is gonna make some noise in the industry, that’s a big move. Out of this year’s Freshmen cover, are they’re any artists that you recognize or are a fan of?

Plies: Yeah, I actually met Nipsey Hussle at the BET Awards. Visually, I knew who he was, but he came up to me and said that he loved what I do and what I stand for. Being from the South, I definitely knew about [OJ Da Juiceman’s] situation and Jay Rock’s situation I actually knew about in regards to his underground hustle. It’s always good when the veterans, notice the new guys. It’s good for the game, right?

Plies: For me, man, I feel like life is about perception. Somebody on here gotta win and somebody’s gotta lose. Some of these guys are going to win, some are going to lose. Right, this is just a platform, the artists gotta put work into it.

Plies: Yeah, exactly. —Rob Markman