Written by Jian DeLeon (@jiandeleon)
For every album, Kanye West has always had “a look.”
It's something that's been documented ad infinitum when breaking down the stages of his style. It’s why he’s elite among the most fascinating figures in hip-hop, and also, why we—Complex, Kanye fans, Kim, whoever—get a lot of flack for “dick-riding” him. But the truth of the matter stands:
Kanye is a true innovator. Every single one of his albums has signified the start of a sea change in hip-hop style.
College Dropout-era Kanye championed pastel polo rugby shirts and Louis Vuitton backpacks, ushering in a neo-prep aesthetic (see: "Louis Vuitton Don"). Late Registration came when bold streetwear was having a moment—the LRG “Dead Serious” hoodie he wore around the time still fetches a hefty price on the aftermarket.
After that, Graduation’s Alain Mikli shutter shades went from obscure ‘80s retro sunglasses to a Canal Street bootleg shop staple. 2008’s 808s & Heartbreak cemented Kanye as a fashion icon, his electroclash mullet and Fashion Week entourage became the stuff of South Park parody. It also marked the crucial juncture at which Kanye started taking a vested interest in high fashion.
Yeezus is an album about self-definition as much as it is about reinvention. And for Kanye, that means defining style and fashion on his own terms.
Since then, Kanye West has received a lot of criticism for his fashion choices (and intensely polarizing ego). Last week’s Yeezus leak felt like a second coming to those eagerly anticipating the follow-up to 2010’s lauded My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. The thing about Kanye’s albums is that they don't just transcend the nature of simple music releases—they’re a spectacle, and at this point guaranteed to mark a shift in the culture.
Kanye West fans with an interest in high fashion, looking for brand call-outs like Maison Martin Margiela on Watch The Throne, or an inside-baseball "Christian Dior Denim Flow" ode to popular models like Joan Smalls, Jourdan Dunn, and Bar Rafaeli, will not find it on Yeezus. If anything, the album is West’s on-the-books statement that his past experiences with the fashion industry have left him with a bad taste, to say the least.
The album's opener "On Sight" begins with a jarring noise leading to the phrase Fuck what, fuck whatever y'all been wearing. Longtime Yeezy fans will see this as a contrast to the stylish rapper's early days. His verse on "All Falls Down" recalls his own self-conscious mindset—how he always needed to be fresh in an expensive watch, a clean pair of Air Force 1s and a jersey. He calls out this institutionalized materialism later on, saying: We buy a lot of clothes when we don't really need 'em/Things we buy to cover up what's inside, but it's evident that almost a decade in the limelight has caused him to see things in a far different way.
Whereas "POWER" presents a bombastic figure in a bright red 3.1 Phillip Lim suit and layered gold chains, "Black Skinhead" seems to be the theme song Kanye has re-created for himself at this point of his style. Enter the studded leather jackets, scoop neck T-shirt, and lone chain from his last SNL appearance. The only boldness that remains in his overall look are is the limited-edition Yeezy IIs that he refers to as the "Red Octobers" on "Hold My Liquor." The self-described "35-year-old 5-year-old" still maintains a bit of self-awareness… or a childhood love for that classic Chicago Bulls color combination.
Yeezus is an album about self-definition as much as it is about reinvention. And for Kanye, that means defining style and fashion on his own terms. Sonically, he puts Chicago on his back, with features from King Louie, Chief Keef, and sampling Gary Glitter’s “Rock and Roll Part 2”—a song familiar to anyone who’s ever attended a Bulls home game—on “Black Skinhead.” It's only natural he do the same with his style.
The leather black jeans and Malcolm X references in "Black Skinhead" spiritually succeed his line I'm like the fly Malcolm X, buy any jeans necessary from “Good Morning.” West is more willing to take a militant stance this time around. He no longer has to conform to buying into whatever denim trends are “in,” now he’s the one making the rules.
He acknowledges his trendsetting past: the pink polos and backpack from College Dropout, claiming he brought real rap back, while also injecting a well-needed dose of style into the scene. Nobody had swag, man / We the Rat Pack he claims before shouting out Virgil Abloh, Don C., and Ibn Jasper—three people in Kanye's Chi-town circle who've been receiving buzz for the way they're mixing luxury fashion with a streetwear edge: Ibn's Diamond collab, Don C.'s snakeskin snapbacks, and Virgil's PYREX Vision. All three are also black, and it's important to note because the fashion industry has a severe lack of popular black designers.
“New Slaves” is rife with anti-establishment imagery, starting from allusions to the fashion industry’s institutionalized racism—from assuming black people have no means to purchase anything to openly inviting nouveau riche rapper-types to buy everything. West, for one, isn’t buying it anymore.
After all, this is an industry he worked hard to ingratiate himself with. From interning at Fendi to cancelling his streetwear line, Pastelle, West has established himself as a true perfectionist. So he made his celebrity appearances, learned the ropes of fashion from lauded designers like Hedi Slimane and Giuseppe Zanotti, who encouraged him to keep at it. While his first collection was widely panned, his second attempt was deemed merely passable. You can imagine the type of toll that would take on someone with Kanye’s mindset.
Perhaps that was the impetus for the rapper to reject the totems of high fashion, shying away from designers like Alexander Wang in favor of supporting his friends' labels—his C-Murder allusion on "Blood On The Leaves" attests to this. Take for example, the #BEEN #TRILL x Yeezus shirts recently spotted at a London party for Hood By Air, where the label took over the century-old Selfridges store's parking garage and turned it into a temporary skate park. The overall neo-punk feel of Yeezus serves the austere, dark aesthetic of these younger labels perfectly.
From the pared-down production values to the soul sound that got him to where he is in the first place, what Yeezus does best is cement West as a true man of style for the right reasons: He is an artist first, a style icon second—not that he gives a fuck about that anymore. He’s become jaded by fashion and just wants to wear shit that makes him feel comfortable.
Kanye’s shift from being a wholehearted fan of the fashion industry to a critic against materialism has allowed him to express himself fully in a more familiar medium: music. Which raises another key question: Does this mean his fashion designer dreams are over?
Quite possibly. But in a world where Yeezy's cohorts are dictating the fashion conversation, where Virgil Abloh is already parading around in a T-shirt emblazoned with "Not For Sale," chances are won’t be long until everyone becomes fluent in “Swaghili.”