Since rap exploded beyond its native New York in the mid-80s, its most consistent must-have fashion item has been a good pair of baggy jeans. Whether in Los Angeles, New Orleans, Atlanta, Minneapolis, Brooklyn, Tokyo or Paris, wide-legged jeans hanging around the hips or lower were a sure-fire sign of someone’s listening habits and cultural inclinations. Lately, though, a set of young rappers whose most unifying trait is obsessive fashion savvy is starting to rock tight jeans. The resulting fashion rift is a symptom of a larger cultural cycle whereby the rappers who made their name in the 90s are slowly losing touch with the kids. The conflict is becoming so heated that Southern California duo The New Boyz titled their September 15 debut Skinny Jeans and a Mic. On the opening track, they make the terms of the disagreement plainly clear: “Jeans stay skinny like I starve my fabric… hey, another damn thing/you’ll never see me care about another man’s jeans.”
The stakes of the jeans debate have escalated since Pharrell Williams, Kanye West and Lupe Fiasco—the style’s most high-profile purveyors in hip hop—made the switch to skinny. As Skillz taunted in reference to Kanye on his annual rap-up song for 2008: “Is it hard to fight paparazzi when you got on skinny jeans?” Joe Budden, meanwhile, posted a bizarre video from the road last year in which he interviewed an employee at the Ramada Inn in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan about his skinny jeans for about three minutes, explaining that “hip hop is doing the tight jeans thing right now, and these are the next biggest things in hip hop.” For the rappers who’ve been signed in the wake of Kanye and Lupe’s success, tapered denim is a marker of youth. As much-hyped Washington D.C. rapper Wale put it on the intro to “W.A.L.E.D.A.N.C.E.” from his 2007 mixtape 100 Miles and Running: “I used to be on them nice, high quality, raw denim, shrinked-to-fit Levi’s/they be like ‘them jeans too tight yo’/and now you know niggas trying to wear they shrink-to-fits.” On “Wonder Why” off Wale’s most recent mixtape, Back to the Feature, another up-and-comer, Big Sean, acknowledges the cultural conflict engendered by the wearing of tight jeans: “Skinny jeans but a nigga still ‘hood.”
Most 90s and early-aughts rappers who’ve weighed in on the subject, though, see ‘hood identity as fundamentally incompatible with the wearing of skinny jeans, which they’ve basically conflated with being either too feminine, completely queer, or something in between. When Jay-Z first mentioned the issue on “Swagger Like Us” off T.I.’s 2008 album Paper Trails, he didn’t seem opposed to the trend, just uninterested: “Can't wear skinny jeans cause my knots don't fit/no one on the corner got a pocket like this/so I rock Roc jeans cause my knots so thick.” Tight jeans, you understand, prohibit the pocketing of large amounts of cash, which in rap is basically like being impotent.
Chamilionaire helpfully literalizes the metaphor on “Swagga Like Koop” off last year’s Mixtape Messiah 5: “Let me start like this/tried to put on skinny jeans and couldn't zip my zip/nah, let me be blunt real quick/I don't wear skinny jeans 'cause my dick don't fit.” Ever the moderator, Jay-Z translates the sentiment into less crass, more confrontational terms on “D.O.A. (Death of Autotune)” from Blueprint 3: “You niggas' jeans too tight/you colors too bright, your voice too light.”
That statement handed down from hip hop’s incumbent president seems to have opened the flood gates. Sheek Louch echoes the sentiment on the remix to Jadakiss’s “Who’s Real”: “Yeah, you real and you know it, take the skinny jeans back/take the Auto-Tune off and stop actin’ all soft.”
Crooked I leads the conflict in a different, more insightful direction on “Sound Off” from Slaughterhouse’s self-titled debut, where he gets at the crux of the problem: “You rappers chasin’ popularity by any means doin’ silly things/buyin’ too many size 20 skinny jeans.” Wearing tight pants is a way for rappers to be popular with their listeners (among whom skinny jeans are increasingly the norm), which of course is pretty much exactly what hip hop is about.
Besides, pro-baggy rappers making the claim that skinny jeans are somehow antithetical to hip hop culture should look back at the hot streetwear from the days of the genre’s genesis. Not that an appeal to origins will solve this debate—rap is about newness—but simply to say that rap style wasn’t always about baggy jeans and rappers resisting its next evolution are starting to sound a lot like grumpy old cranks. Wale hits the nail on the head rapping on “The Sun”: “So they threw me in the skinny jeans crew/’cause I rap about shit that the people really do.” In a culture that places as much value on style as it does on music, the debate over tight jeans seems poised to become more and more polarizing as the generation gap widens.