It could be argued that a rapper’s extra-curricular activities are just as important as the lines they rhyme in the booth. With the rise of tabloid culture and the online sphere, rappers are more than just urban storytellers – they’re all-encompassing youth icons and media experts with multiple voices. In an era where visibility is so paramount – on the Internet and IRL – some have capitalised by expanding their wingspan to embrace hip-hop’s intertwined colleague: fashion.
While hip-hop has always been linked to apparel (just try throwing on a Coogi sweater without rapping a line from Biggie’s Ready To Die), their interdependence now seems more apparent than ever. Trends like ‘street goth’ have been popularised by rappers who are street-snapped in Harlem, then re-blogged endlessly on Tumblr and fashion forums alike. Meanwhile, Donatella herself is playing ‘Versace’ at Milan Fashion Week, and Travis Scott is walking down the runway for Mark McNairy.
But when it comes to Kendrick Lamar’s latest collaboration with Reebok, it’s clear that he intends to address much more than the latest incarnations of swag. News of the partnership arrived in the form of ‘I Am’ – a three-minute video of Lamar rapping furiously around his hometown of Compton, alongside the city’s youths in a fresh pair of Reebok Ventilators. It’s a thrilling homage to the city that shaped who he is today.
“The way we got it out, doing live video – it’s not about just selling a product, it’s about pushing a culture forward and keeping that history of hip-hop and fashion… It comes from the youth. These are the real creators of the world, not what’s on commercials or what’s in corporations. I recognise that, I’ve always recognised that. I wouldn’t be who I am today if I didn’t grow up in the city,” Lamar says.
Indeed, his last album Good Kid, m.A.A.d City was a beautifully woven snapshot of life in Compton, and unanimously hailed as one of the best rap albums in recent memory. It’s a tale of the same city that spawned rap colleagues like Dr. Dre, The Game, YG and many more. While Lamar’s years in Compton remain a clear driving force behind his lyricism, it’s also taught him important lessons in style and originality.
“You have to stand for something. Compton is there with the culture of gangs and things like that… you have to represent your community and where you’re from. With style, you have to be just that. Anything that you wear is a representation of who you are,” he says.
While Lamar recognises that he comes from “a negative place”, he also takes solace in the fact that Compton’s youths are “a little bit more optimistic” nowadays. It’s a mentality that he wishes to build upon further with Reebok.
“They’re dreamers. They know they have somewhat of a potential to do something different than be on the streets… We have these 16 and 17 year old kids, they’re looking up to Kendrick. They’re looking up to myself and TDE – so they’re a little bit more optimistic in doing something rather than just hanging out,” he says.
The ‘I Am’ video is a natural progression from Lamar’s last single, the similarly titled ‘i’. It’s infectious hook sees Lamar boldly state “I love myself! One day at a time, sun gon’ shine.” It’s an anthem for positivity and self-belief, and it seems that Lamar’s relatively newfound global fame has also brought newfound obligations.
Speaking on artists’ responsibility for their messages, he says “it’s something that artists hate to admit. I used to hate to admit it a lot, until I went out there and see these kids actually dangling onto every word… The moment I put 10% of positivity in it, it just represents who I am – both the ups and downs and emotions of being a human being. These kids will be there too, so it’s only right that I keep it genuine.”
While Lamar’s collaboration looks into the future with his own spin on the Ventilator silhouette scheduled for 2015, he also points out that empowering cultures is “something that Reebok have always been doing. Now they just see it in another light into 2015 and beyond.” He acknowledges that this partnership wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t for Reebok’s previous relationships with two of hip-hop’s most notable entrepreneurs: 50 Cent and Jay Z.
But before Reebok had official relationships with hip-hop big players, they were already a staple in burgeoning Southern rap scenes driven by Cash Money Records and the ilk. Lamar tells us of his favourite Reebok moment growing up – featuring Birdman and a fresh-faced New Orleans rapper who eventually became of hip-hop’s biggest stars.
“You go look at Hot Boys’ ‘Bling Bling’ – one of their biggest records, with Lil Wayne on the hook. If you look at that video today on YouTube, you’ll see them wearing Reebok Classics, all white – each and every one of them,” he says.
Lamar is still a Compton kid at heart – he takes time to reflect enthusiastically on the trend of knee-high socks that populated Los Angeles “all day, every day… with the stripes at the top.” But with the rapper helping Reebok celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Ventilator sneaker, where does Lamar see himself in a quarter century? His answer is simple:
“At peace. Hopefully at peace, and in a great situation where I can look back and reflect on the game, and say that I contributed my best as far as pushing the culture forward.”