There has, perhaps, never been a more perfect hip-hop sneaker pairing than Kendrick Lamar and the Nike Cortez. No one in recent years has repped Los Angeles with more fervor than Lamar, and the Cortez has long been the signature sneaker of the City of Angels, filling the same role for L.A. that the Air Force 1 has held down in NYC. It’s not unusual that Kendrick and the Cortez are finally paired up. What is unusual is that no one else of his stature—sorry, Forrest Gump—has had this kind of relationship to the Cortez before.
The Nike Cortez was first conceived by Nike co-founder and Oregon track and field coach Bill Bowerman back in the late ‘60s as a performance running shoe, that visible EVA wedge in the heel providing pre-Air cushioning to an existing Onitsuka Tiger design. When Phil Knight broke off Blue Ribbon Sports into a new company he’d call Nike, the Cortez was a design he took with him. And when Nike officially launched in 1972, the Cortez was worn by athletes in the 1972 Olympics and emerged as Nike’s biggest and best challenger to Adidas’s established running styles.
Later, as technological advancements made it obsolete on the track, the Cortez seamlessly slipped from performance product to cult classic. A simple design with that visible EVA wedge, a basic reinforced toe and big Swoosh branding on clean side panels, the Cortez took color well and more or less went with everything. It was inexpensive, especially relative to the high-tech basketball shoes that became de rigueur in the ‘80s and ‘90s, so it was a no-brainer for those looking to rep Nike in a clean, classic way.
Because of this, the Cortez became part of a de facto L.A. uniform, along with creased khakis, white tees and flannel shirts. They were worn by the likes of Snoop Dogg—who seemingly had sneaker deals with every brand EXCEPT Nike. It was either the nylon Cortez or Chuck Taylors, simple sneakers that went with everything. Gangbangers made them notorious, yes, but they were practical as well.
Kendrick Lamar was born gang affiliated in Compton in 1987, and grew up in a world where the Cortez was king. They were part of his birthright, a sneaker he would have coveted from the start. When he stated “I ain’t rockin’ no more designer shit / White Ts and Nike Cortez” on his infamous “Control” verse, there was no doubt he meant every word. Then he signed with Reebok.
The thing is, signing with Reebok was the right thing for Lamar to do at the time. The Reebok Classic was another L.A. staple, and Lamar’s red and blue gang unity designs were important. He made money, helped people, sent a message—and the shoes were dope. Still, it never felt quite right. His “Control” verse still resonated, he was still super L.A.. And L.A. meant Cortez and Chucks moreso than Reeboks. So when Lamar dropped Reebok for Nike, it was like a homecoming.
His getting a Cortez of his own, DAMN replacing the Swoosh on the sides, makes the cypher complete. The timing was seemingly just never right before, both for Lamar and Nike and rappers and the Cortez. Nike wasn’t signing rappers like that—Kanye West was the one exception, and as a Chicago guy, the Cortez wasn’t for him. L.A. tattoo legend Mr. Cartoon blessed the Cortez with his graphics a few times, there were multiple “L.A.” versions, but until now the Cortez had not been explicitly connected to an L.A. rapper.
This is the right time, Lamar is the right person. At this point the Cortez has been an L.A. staple far longer than it was ever a performance shoe. It’s only right that an L.A. legend in the making gets to redefine the shoe for a whole new generation. After all, it’s in his DNA.