As a Hip-Hop musician, Kanye West has been on the cutting edge ever since the day of his first beat for Jay-Z in 2004. More recently, it’s become clear over his career that West is at the forefront of another industry: high-end fashion. In the past two months alone, he’s rocked a kilt by Givenchy and a masked outfit that he apparently copped from designer Umit Benan’s show in Milan last week.
Even before he wore kilts on national television, Kanye West’s fashion sense always played a major role in his ascent to stardom. Fresh on the scene in 2004, he became known primarily for his hit single, “Jesus Walks,” and his pink polo, each of which went against the prevailing street-hardened image adopted by most of his peers. Like a kid on the playground, he was criticized for the things that made him different, as his Roc-A-Fella label-mates “thought pink polos would hurt the Roc.”
Nine years, six platinum albums and, by my count, 167 lyrical references to fashion later (thanks RapGenius), it is clear that ‘Ye’s style has not only failed to hurt his sales, but it has ushered in a new climate in hip-hop where being a fashion-conscious “pretty motherfucker” is not just accepted, it’s celebrated.
Ever since Run-DMC devoted an entire song to Adidas kicks, Hip-Hop and fashion have been inextricably linked. Whether talking about lumberjack shirts (with the hat to match), diamonds on a damn chain, or killing rivals for their shoes, rappers have made it clear that they pay more attention to their appearance than, say, Dinosaur Jr. used to.
That being said, watch any old hip-hop video. Here are some if you’re lazy. What are the rappers in those videos wearing? The answer is usually sports apparel, baggy clothes, jewelry, and basketball sneakers. Apart from displaying wealth, these garments are material indicators of machismo, representing athletic ability (or at least interest), regional pride, and the notion that you have something in your pants that slim jeans wouldn’t conceal (or as Jay-Z once put it, “Can’t wear skinny jeans ‘cuz my knots don’t fit”). There may have been the same amount of attention paid to fashion in Hip-Hop ten years ago, but that fashion was lightyears away from Kanye’s obsession with designers clothes.
But even the self-proclaimed “Louis Vutton Don” began with more traditional fashion goals. Listening to 2004’s College Dropout, you hear more references to Nike Air Force Ones than Louis V., and even some shout-outs to outlet mall favorites The Gap, Banana Republic and Old Navy. Most references to high-fashion come in the form of jealousy toward other, more established rappers’ wardrobes, like his mentor Jay-Z’s Gucci bucket hat in “Last Call.”
Slowly though, West’s fashion references began picking up steam. As you can see in the graph below, his first three albums show about the same average allusions to fashion per song. (Note: I only included tracks from albums by Kanye/G.O.O.D. Music that Kanye actually raps on, and lines that Kanye said himself).
By Graduation, Kanye was no longer rapping about low-level fashion. The first single from that album, “Stronger,” name-checks Christian Dior, Bathing Ape and, of course, Louis Vutton, and another song on the album (“Glory”) houses the most fashion-centric lyrics of ‘Ye’s career, clocking in at 14 separate references.
After the release of that album, Kanye went through a rough year in which his mother died and his fiancé left him. The following album, 808s & Heartbreak, was reflectant of those woes, and contains only three fashion references throughout. The bottom line: if you ever want to know how Kanye’s feeling, pay attention to how eager he is to talk about clothing.
The following years have seen Mr. West rise again to equal his old levels of image-based bravado, culminating with his record label G.O.O.D. Music’s album/sampler, Cruel Summer, which arrived amid a wave of other rappers bragging about being able to pronounce Italian designers’ names (among other things). The most notable of these is arguably A$AP Rocky, the coiner of the aforementioned “pretty motherfucker” label, and wearer of many an opulent outfit.
While A$AP’s 2011 debut mixtape included an eyebrow-raising amount of fashion banter, it wasn’t until a track on his new album that he referenced no less than 26 different designers on one song. “Fashion Killa” takes fashion-rap to an almost gimmicky level, and it’s not even an anomaly on the album. As a colleague recently pointed out, an A$AP Rocky drinking game that involves drinking every time a fashion item is mentioned would probably end in blackouts, puking, or both.
Passing judgement over Kanye’s impact on Hip-Hop fashion would be both pointless and misguided, but you can’t deny that the man’s changed the game. I mean, would 2 Chainz be able to wear this in a music video 15 years ago and still pull women like this? Doubtful. If you’re someone that aspires to look “gangster,” at least be happy that your parents no longer need to tell you to pull your sagging pants up.