A decade on, the genre’s then-rookies have continued to have a lasting impact with several remaining in hip hop’s upper echelon.
When sports fans discuss the greatest draft classes of all time, there are a few that are a necessary inclusion on any list. Whether it be the ’96 NBA draft class, the ’83 NFL draft class or the ’03 NHL draft class, the best ones see a high volume of players go on to become all-time greats within their respective leagues.
In hip hop, while there’s no official “draft” per se, one can still apply that logic to the crop of new artists in a given year and look at the impact they’ve had since entering the game. When you take that into account, it’s clear to see that some of these “draft classes” are stronger than others, but none in recent memory are stronger than the class of 2011.
Now, due to the lack of an objective drafting process, selecting the rappers from this class is based solely on which artists had their breakthrough moments, either albums or singles, in 2011. When looking at these moments, the focus isn’t necessarily on mainstream success, but moments in which they gained considerable notoriety within their respective lanes in the genre.
For example, we can look at artists like Danny Brown who, while swimming in critical acclaim for the last decade or so, may not have the sales figures of a major label artist with a big budget. Regardless, he’s been one of hip hop’s most consistent artists of the last decade, with project after project finding their home on a multitude of album of the year lists, starting with 2011’s XXX. The project is incredibly unique and introspective, and while it wasn’t his debut, it was the first to put Brown in the spotlight, bringing him near-universal acclaim and showing his potential to become one of the genre’s all-time greats.
Similarly, Tyler, the Creator has found his way on many of those lists in recent years as well, following excellent releases like Flower Boy and IGOR. His emergence on the scene in 2011 came as the cockroach-eating shock rapper in the “Yonkers” video, which was one of hip hop’s biggest moments that year. The video went viral and, while his debut album Goblin wasn’t as well-received by critics as his 2009 mixtape Bastard was, it did help to build a cult-like following for the young artist and his group Odd Future. Ten years on, Tyler is now a Grammy winner and one of hip hop’s most prominent and adventurous figures, who’s become revered by both fans and critics alike for his development and experimental nature.
That growth and willingness to take risks is one of the ways that artists ensure longevity and continued success in the industry, and another 2011 draft pick who embodied that growth and progress was the late, great, Mac Miller. Now it’s arguable that 2010 would be Mac’s rookie season so to speak, with his first big mixtape K.I.D.S. dropping that year. However, Mac not only dropped a well-received mixtape in 2011 with Best Day Ever, but he also released his first platinum single “Donald Trump” as well as his debut album Blue Slide Park, which went on to debut at number one on the Billboard 200, the first independent debut to do so since 1995. From that point until his tragic passing in 2018, Miller grew from a traditional rapper to a multi-faceted, genre-blending artist whose creative output grew more and more unique with each subsequent release, becoming one of his generation’s most important voices.
Each generation of music has its defining artists in each genre – The Beatles, Marvin Gaye, Prince, etc. and there aren’t many talents that define this generation of hip hop more than Kendrick Lamar. In 2011, Kendrick released his debut album Section.80 to heaps of praise from critics, gaining notability from fans and fellow artists alike, leading to his eventual signing with Dr. Dre’s Aftermath record label.
The album jump-started what has become one of hip hop’s most impressive and consistent discographies, with his next three albums all receiving platinum and multi-platinum certifications, massive critical acclaim, several Grammy wins and even a Pulitzer Prize. Kendrick has gone on to become an all-time great that many people consider to be a top 5-10 talent in the genre’s history, one of music’s most important voices today – proving himself to be the MVP of the 2011 draft class in the process.
This is no small feat, as the class includes not only the artists mentioned above but also acts like Future, Meek Mill, Big K.R.I.T., YG, 2 Chainz, A$AP Rocky, Frank Ocean and The Weeknd, to name a few — all of whom have a presence that’s still felt today. It’s a group so absolutely stacked with talent that its impact is undeniable and hasn’t even come close to being duplicated since. 2011’s roster is one that represents a special time in hip hop, one that has gone on to shape the genre since.
Graphic by Taylor Reddam