XXL Freshmen have produced their share of standout albums over the years. The album's impact has taken many forms. Some—despite generating underwhelming sales—were praised by critics. While, others, found a perfect balance between commercial and critical acclaim. In celebration of the Freshman classes’ fifth year anniversary, XXL Presents the Top 10 Albums by an XXL Freshman.—XXL Staff
Blu’s Below the Heavens album is a critically-acclaimed project that tells the story of man’s struggle through rousing production solely handled by Exile and cunning lyricism by the West Coast MC. Beginning with “My World Is..,” the album displays Blu’s penchant for wearing his heart on his sleeve. Containing a number of gems, including "First Things First" and "No Greater Love," this is one album that shouldn’t be slept on.
Curren$y’s major label LP showcased the rapper’s ability to take chances that worked in the end. Featuring guest spots by Jay Electronica, Mos Def, Snoop Dogg, Devin the Dude, Big K.R.I.T., among others, the Ski Beatz-produced project (also featuring production by Nesby Phips) was a sonically cohesively offering. With repeat-friendly tracks like the spacey “King Kong” and the breezy “Breakfast,” this is one album from Spitta’s catalog that’s nothing to sneeze at.
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Big Sean proved he’s here to stay on his 2011 ‘toast to the good life’ debut, Finally Famous. Bringing No I.D. along to anchor the album's soundbeds, Sean's made a mark on the charts. ToppingBillboard's Rap Albums charts, the album saw the G.O.O.D. MC’s stock rise as high-charting singles such as the Chris Brown-assisted “My Last” and the Kanye West and Roscoe Dash-featured “Marvin & Chardonnay” each earned a gold certification by the RIAA, while the tantalizing “Dance (A$$)” went double-platinum. Whatever Sean's LP lacked in substance, he more than made up for in bangers.
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Narrated by Common, Cudi's psychedelic tale of a man —struggling with inner-demons ("Soundtrack to My Life," "Mr. Solo Dolo") while attempting to piece his life back together (“Heart of a Lion,” “Sky Might Fall”)— on the "Pursuit of Happiness (Happiness)" is a soundtrack like no other. Sporting his grief-stricken heart on his sleeve, Cudi succeeds in that he isn't afraid to pour out his feelings and even sing a song or two. He isn't rapper nor singer, he's a kid named Cudi, which is effectively presented throughout the album’s five acts. Receiving commercial appeal in singles like the smoker’s anthem "Day ‘N’ Nite (Nightmare)," the hypnotic "Pursuit of Happiness (Nightmare)" and the lighthearted "Make Her Say," Scott Mescudi's out of this world debut was named Best Hip Hop Album of 2009 by Entertainment Weekly and garnered two Grammy nods for aforementioned singles “Day ‘N’ Nite” and “Make Her Say.”
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Wale's debut may have initially been the dud that haunted the D.C. MC, but it's artistically superior to its follow up—the commercially successful, Ambition. The project showcased Mr. Folarin’s diversity as he dishes out club floor-fillers in “Pretty Girls” and “Let It Loose,” social commentary within tracks like “90210” and “TV in the Radio,” inspirational cuts (“Beautiful Bliss”) and lyrical gems (“Prescription”). Though it didn't make much of a dent on the charts, the Lady Gaga-featured "Chillin'"—the only rap song to feature the pop icon—is a welcomed bonus.
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B.o.B’s debut album The Adventures of Bobby Ray incorporated tracks like “Nothin’ On You” and “Airplanes (Part II),” both of which went multiplatinum, were nominated for a Grammy and made the top ten of Billboard’s Hot 100. Thanks to those bangers and others like the platinum single “Magic” that was used in B.o.B’s Adidas commercial and in spite of numerous pushbacks, TAOBR garnered much success, going gold and also topping both the Billboard 200 and Rap Albums chart. But, there's more to this album than smash singles. Songs like the Lupe Fiasco-featured, "Past My Shades" and "The Kids" featuring Janelle Monae made the album complete.
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Though released digitally, Kendrick Lamar's independent debut, Section.80 stood tall among major-label releases last year. Equipped with jazzy production handled by in-house producers Sounwave, THC, Tommy Black, Tae Beast, Willie B, Wyldfyer, Kendrick left no subject untouched. “You wonder how I could talk about money, hoes, clothes, God and history all in the same sentence,” he mocked on "Ab-Souls Outro." The project's commercial shortcomings did nothing to prevent Lamar's stock from rising. Section .80 received critical-acclaim and earned the Compton MC respect as a lyricist—thus resulting in collaborations with the likes of Game, Drake, Birdman and more.
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After a string of key guest spots and garnering praise for his well-received mixtapes (The Warm Up, Friday Night Lights), Roc Nation’s diamond in the rough J. Cole delivered a debut that effectively complimented the age-old saying, “good things come to those who wait.” Though it was a long time coming, Cole World: The Sideline Story succeeded in that it not only appeased long-time fans and critics, but also landed the Fayetteville, NC MC at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 after selling 218,000 copies its first week. An underdog tale that commences with the ambitious “Dollar and a Dream III” and ends with the compelling “Breakdown,” Cole’s debut shines and the sidelines are now a thing of the past.
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Lupe Fiasco, a member of the inaugural Freshman class, kicked off his career in a big way with his debut album, Lupe Fiasco’s Food & Liquor as it was nominated for Best Rap Album at the 49th annual Grammy Awards, charting at No. 8 on the Billboard 200, No. 1 on Rap Albums chart and No. 2 R&B/Hip-Hop chart. Its lead single, "Kick, Push" helped spearhead the album’s success, being Grammy-nominated for Best Rap Solo Performance and appearing on Billboard’s Hot 100. His Jill Scott-assisted “Daydreamin’” would win the coveted award for Best Urban/Alternative Performance.
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Lupe Fiasco’s The Cool did what Food & Liquor couldn’t. The vision is still ambitious, but easier to digest on Lupe Touche’s sophomore set—cramming standout after standout into 19-song player. Opening with a though-provoking spoken word piece by Iesha Jaco which later segues into the blitzing “Go Go Gadget Flow,” and on to other gems like the inspiring “Hip-Hop Saved My Life” and the serene “Intruder Alert.” The LP also produced Fiasco's highest-charting single to date, "Superstar" featuring Mathew Santos. With The Cool, the Chi-Town MC added another stellar piece of work to his catalog and collected his first of two gold plaques.