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The Influence of Kanye West

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Few figures have had the impact on so many varied sectors of culture as Kanye West. After toppling the rap game, Kanye quickly parlayed his influence to the fashion and sneaker arenas. Kanye burst onto the hip-hop landscape by crafting a signature hip-hop production sound by chopping and speeding up old soul music samples, but he quickly graduated to releasing footwear for Louis Vuitton and Nike. His meteoric rise to fame is a case study in a finely-tuned equation involving hubris, hype, and controversy. But even his detractors can’t ignore the raw talent and innovation that go along with his name. And none of us can deny his vast influence in music and fashion.

Kanye brings fine art to the hip hop album cover.

Kanye West has developed an unrivaled sphere of influence. While his latest album, Yeezus, boasted ultra-minimal album art, his previous covers featured works from artists cut from many different cloths. Japan’s own Takashi Murakami designed the album art for Graduation in 2007. After giving Louis Vuitton bags a touch of his trademark whimsical, comic-inspired illustration in 2003, Murakami became a popular figure beyond the art world. For the Graduation album cover, and for the promotional materials that precluded the album, Murakami used the same varsity-jacketed Kanye bear as the central character of the “Good Morning” video from the album. A year after the Murakami-crafted cover for Graduation, Kanye tapped New Jersey’s own Brian Donnelly, better known to the world as KAWS, for help with the iTunes-release design of his 808s and Heartbreaks album. KAWS got the call to rework Kris Yiengst’s original cover design of a crumpled heart, which is torn apart in the retooled KAWS’ version. For a second image, Kanye gets the Kate Moss treatment with a serpentine heart/skull character wrapping its tail around a suited Mr. West.

For his 5th studio album, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, Kanye’s album cover duties went to a Basquiat and Haring contemporary, George Condo. Earlier that year, Condo lent his work to three skate decks for Supreme and kept up his momentum with the 5 “Artificial Realist” covers he designed for what ended up being Kanye’s most highly-acclaimed collection of songs. Controversy, a specialty of Mr. West’s, arose from the album cover that showed an armless nude white phoenix straddling a black man. West insisted that Walmart and other retailers would ban the cover. Condo later suggested that West had intentionally designed a cover that he knew would be banned to stir the pot. Whatever the truth may be, we again saw the artistic mind of Kanye at work with covers that matched the albums’ brooding tone.

Photo:"Graduation" Album Art by Takashi Murakami (Left)"My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy" Album Art by George Condo

Takes publicity to the a new level.

No one does promotion quite like Kanye, who has repeatedly harnessed the Internet age tools in order to generate hype. During the lead-up to the drop of Kanye’s 5th album, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, a series of free weekly songs called “GOOD Fridays” were distributed to build momentum for his GOOD Music (Getting Out Our Dreams) roster of artists and the forthcoming release. The first track, “Power” landed with immediate impact in late August, 2010. Many remember seeing the lifestyle, music, and fashion blogs explode when it dropped. GOOD Fridays yielded a total of 15 releases, three of which ended up on the album--”Power,” “Devil in a Blue Dress (though the album version cut Rick Ross’ verse), and “So Appalled.” Other tracks appeared on later West releases, like “The Joy,” which was a bonus cut from Watch the Throne. Since his weekly free track promotional approach, others blatantly copied the idea like Nicki Minaj’s “Pink Fridays” and “Lloyd Bank’s “Blue Fridays.”


The concept driven concert series.

Kanye’s live show, especially for his latest album, Yeezus, catapulted him yet again into the public eye and certified him as a man whose talents extend beyond the mixing board. His performances during the Watch the Throne tour were marked with performances of “N***as in Paris” as many as 11 times in a row. For the Yeezus tour, however, Kanye flipped the minimal approach into an avant garde, multi-sensory barrage. Immediately after his first show, there was a veritable deluge of cell phone video footage showing a mountain on stage, a full Maison Martin Margiela wardrobe, including multiple bejeweled masks, choreographed orgies, intense visuals, indoor snow, and even a white Jesus. Along with the performance itself, Kanye managed to re-invigorate the merch market with limited-edition Yeezus Tour shirts. To design the shirts, ‘Ye enlisted the help of Wes Lang, an artist who has designed for the Grateful Dead and has works in the MoMA, to craft 80s metal-inspired illustrations of a skeleton bedecked in a hooded Confederate flag and a Native American skull. Predictably, even the tour merch got its due of hype and caused controversy among those who questioned the use of the Confederate flag.

Photo:Kanye West's Yeezus Tour - Splash News/Purple Magazine

Introduces a new generation of consumers to luxury goods.

In July, 2009, Kanye released a collection of three shoes he designed for Louis Vuitton, and the sneaker game was officially rocked to its core. The models were named for members of the Kanye inner sanctum, the Don (manager Don “Don C.” Crawley), the Jasper (Ibn Jasper, Kanye’s long-time barber), and the Mr. Hudson (fellow GOOD music artist). These expertly-crafted shoes, as expected, came with luxury price tags, ranging from $1,140 to $860 at retail. Today, they fetch much more 5 years later on the secondary market--between $3,000-6,000 for models in new condition. West’s close friend Riccardo Tisci, who just crafted three models of the Nike Air Force 1 in two different colorways, is the creative director of GIVENCHY, a label you’ve heard in tracks from Jay-Z (“Picasso Baby”) and Kanye (“Looking for Trouble”--a GOOD Friday release). Kanye famously wore GIVENCHY leather skirt/pants and hoodie for the 12-12-12 concert for Hurricane Sandy relief, which raised more than a few eyebrows on the streets and some questioning whether Kanye was still connected to the ‘hood. His influence proved to be so powerful that many in the street followed suit in following more upscale trends. With connections to Vuitton and GIVENCHY (who is under the LVMH umbrella), and regularly seen rocking upscale sneakers like the Balenciga Arena, Kanye is instrumental in bringing the looks of Milan and Paris closer to Harlem and ChiRaq.

Photo:Kanye West x Louis Vuitton Don's - Sole Collector

The first non-athlete with a Nike shoe deal.

In 2009, when news hit that ‘Ye would partner with Nike for his own model, first seen during his Grammy performance, instant internet mayhem ensued. The hype for the release was fueled by Kanye himself, as he wore multiple colorways, some of which have never been released, before the drop. With each new photo of someone in the Nike Air Yeezy, blogs responded with multiple posts, and by the time the actual date in April 2009 drew near, people had lined up for days to purchase them. The shoe boasted visible influences from the elephant print and sole of the Air Jordan III to the lacelocks of the Air Jordan VI, and it an instant hit, and the secondary market saw record highs in sneaker prices. With subsequent colorways sending collectors and fans into a frenzy (Atlanta’s boutique, Standard, had some line-up for 5 days for the black and pink model), the hype was the highest ever seen for any sneaker in recent memory.

In early 2011, there were scattered blog posts that appeared across the Internet showing a new model of the Air Yeezy (later known as Nike Air Yeezy 2). When ‘Ye wore the Black/Pink model on stage at Coachella on Halloween, fans snapped photos of the model, and people gobbled up news of the second iteration of the Yeezy. With an early release date postponed and rescheduled to June, the release again showed the unstoppable combination of Kanye and Nike. In 2013, with the releases of the “Solar Red” and “Pure Platinum” pairs a year behind, information slowly emerged that a pair called the “Red October” would arrive, and after a series of rumored release dates and Nike tweets, the year ended with many thinking the release would be forever shelved after announcements in November that he would be leaving Nike. Another supposed date passed in December, leaving most with no hope. On a Sunday afternoon in early February, to the surprise of absolutely everyone in the sneaker game, Nike sent out a tweet that the “Red October” was available for sale, and the shoe sold out in a flash. This time, there were no boutiques with Yeezy-themed release parties and no RSVP systems or raffles. Many quickly realized that the Red October was Kanye’s last Nike sneaker, and it quickly became clear that there were no restocks. Most pairs still sell for between $3,000-$6,000 after the initial hype spiked a few prices over the 10k mark.

Nike capitalized on the Yeezy line by co-opting his solar red colorway on other models like the Air Foamposite Pro, Air Force 1, Roshe Run, and Air Max 1. Nike even brought the thick forefoot strap onto other models in what were obvious Yeezy spinoffs. With the release of Kanye’s Nike’s making the TV news, it wasn’t long before peripheral items like backpacks and lace tips lifted from the Yeezys made their way into lookbooks and eventual releases from other brands.

Photo:Kanye West x Nike Air Yeezy 2 - Nike

The future.

Kanye had some choice words on his way out the door from Nike. On a few radio interviews, when asked about the Red Octobers, he became angry at not receiving royalties like Michael Jordan and reported that the powers that be at Nike told him, “We can’t give you royalties because you’re not a professional athlete.” Miffed by the Nike execs, he left and signed with adidas. While no official images have yet released from the collaboration, there have been rumors of up to 20 pairs already designed. adidas has seen an uptick in interest in many circles, and even in the resale market, so when the adidas Kanye models do eventually drop, will that push adidas even closer to bridging the gap with the boys in Beaverton?

Photo:jrplante | tvollebregt