Written by Megan Ann Wilson (@shegotgame)
What's in a lyric? Ask Rick Ross. Last month, Rozay appeared on Rocko's "U.O.E.N.O.," dropping a bar that referenced his shoe sponsor and rape in practically the same line: “I die over these Reeboks, you ain’t even know it/Put Molly all in her champagne, she ain’t even know it/I took her home and I enjoyed that, she ain’t even know it.” Needless to say, women's groups were not amused (by the date rape line, not the Reebok plug), and the Bawse was dropped from his endorsement deal with Reebok’s “Classics” division.
The end of the Reebok/Ross relationship spurred a great deal of conversation, much of which resulted in a deeper lyrical analysis of rap and hip hop culture. But for sneakerheads, one crucial question remains: Do an endorsee’s words really, really affect sneaker buyers and their actions?
Truth be told, the Ross incident isn’t an outlier. Rappers have always had a relatively rocky history with sneaker companies. With the exception of artist-designed projects like Pharrell’s Ice Creams and Kanye “jumping over the Jumpman” with his Yeezy, the jury’s still out on whether or not signing a performer to an endorsement contract really pays off from a sales or branding perspective.
As a stylist and personal shopper who works with professional athletes, I can promise you that the cliche of all rappers wanting to be athletes (and all athletes wanting to be rappers) is a cliche for a reason: It’s true. Like Big L said, "Facts on tracks, I recite well/Everybody wanna be like Mike, but Mike wanna be like L." Despite engaging in Jay-Z vs. Kanye rap debates while ironing shirts with NBA players and growing up reading a little too far into the Wu-Tang Manual, I still find that what rappers are seen wearing is (at least in 2013) as influential if not more influential than what they’re heard spitting. Due to athlete sneaker deals they can’t be seen in oft-endorsed kicks like Swizz Beatz’s Reebok Classics, however plenty of requests came in when Swizz wore the Margiela “inspired” snapback by 40oz Van. An Instagram of a rapper in Ewing Athletics’ new colorways of the 33 Hi drives much more business for me than say, a Ross bar about Reeboks.
That’s not to say lyrics about sneakers don’t hold some weight. Nike Air Force 1s may be the sneaker most affected by bars. Nelly’s track about the classic kicks surely helped, and lyrical endorsements from rappers on both coasts from many generations have helped the AF1 remain the No. 1 selling sneaker for Nike. Few rap groups influenced style and buying power like Dipset, as they came up at the height of exuberant, gully attire. “Cop me Air 1s, hon, lime and red, you got pets? Me too: mine are dead. Fox, minks, gators that’s necessary/ Accessories, my closet’s a Pet Cemetery.” AF1s were already part of the classic Harlem uniform—Uptowns—and a new generation began following Cam’ron's and Juelz’s leads (although most didn’t attempt to pull off the pink fur like Killa).
Then there’s the case of Jay-Z—himself a Reebok endorser a decade ago—who’s become one of the ultimate influencers (not to be confused with #influencers) in pop culture. But even Hov can't kill a brand. In 2011 he rapped “Oversized clothes and chains we off that/Timbs’ we off that, rims we off that/Yeah we off that, is you still on that?/And we still makin’ money ‘cause we still on that.” Hov was, more than anything, demonstrating a sense of great timing. While many men took it as a call to sartorial arms to rise up, and change their gear, Timberland boots didn’t, in fact, fall off. They remain a style staple in New York and around the world.
A$AP Rocky’s become the new poster boy for fashion raps, from Rick Owens to Reebok to “Taz Arnold TI$A, Jeremy Scott adidas/Maison Martin Margiela, three-strap sneakers”. His effect on a broader audience has certainly been felt on social media and in the streets, as he helped propel legions of fans to cop Isabel Marant sneakers and helped keep the kicks on the wait list.
Whether or not the endorsee holds on any clout over retail sales rests on the buyer’s personal feelings towards the sneakers, first and foremost. Kobe Bryant’s new Nike deal in 2003 was supposed to bring a signature shoe; instead Bryant dealt with a very public rape trial that left many wondering about his character. His first Nike signature shoe was delayed until 2006, and he is now one of the biggest sneaker sellers in the world—proving that when someone wants a sneaker, politics and personal influences can go out the window in favor of heat. Michael Jordan cheated on his wife and suffered one of the most expensive divorces in history for his philandering, but that hasn’t stopped women young and old from rocking Js.
That’s not to say lyrics that even hint at at a tolerance of rape belong anywhere in hip-hop or in the sneaker community: They don’t. But when it comes down to brass tacks (or eyelets), ‘heads will wear what they love and support who they respect on their own—it’s how I shop for myself and my clients. Or to paraphrase Jay-Z one last time: Politics as usual.