How Kurt Cobain's Iconic Sunglasses Became a Hip-Hop Style Obsession
The past couple years have seen the balance of power in the hip-hop world tip decisively away from the traditional star system to a legion of young rappers coming up off of cheaply made digital mixtapes and, increasingly, tracks posted straight to SoundCloud from the laptop they were recorded on. The SoundCloud rapper phenomenon covers a broad range of sounds—everything from "King of Teens," Lil Yachty's candy-colored dream rap, to sad-boy cult hero Lil Peep's relentlessly sulky emo styles—but there are a few common aesthetic qualities: sing-songy vocals, trap beats stripped of their usual bombast, and a trend towards conspicuously cheap keyboard sounds.
There's also a distinctive SoundCloud rapper look. Aside from Yachty, who recently took on a gig as creative director at Nautica (and dresses the part), most upstart rappers these days wear a variation on the same basic outfit, which includes meticulously shredded jeans, chin-length dreads dyed in Manic Panic colors, and oval cat-eye sunglasses, which are quickly becoming the must-have accessory of the year thanks to Internet-buzzy rappers and producers like Yachty, Lil Uzi Vert, Rich the Kid, Migos member Offset, and Mike Will Made It. Most elements of the look can be attributed to general '90s nostalgia, but the shades give away its specific inspiration: Kurt Cobain.
It's not a coincidence that these young rappers have adopted Kurt as an icon. In a post-Future zeitgeist, hip-hop's become increasingly depression-prone and nihilistic. If the typical rapper a decade ago presented himself as a Sun Tzu-quoting street entrepreneur swaddled in luxury goods and drunk off $3,000 cognac, today's SoundCloud rappers are more likely to play up their self-destructive drug habits and existential angst that can't be dulled by any amount of hedonism. The chorus to Lil Uzi Vert's biggest solo single so far, "XO Tour Llif3," repeats the line "Push me to the edge / All my friends are dead" like a mantra nearly a dozen times over the course of the song. Spiritually—if not sonically—it's the most Nirvana-like thing to hit the radio this decade. So far it has over 111 million plays on SoundCloud alone, and it made its debut at number 49 on the Billboard Hot 100.
But today's rising rappers share more in common with Kurt than a predilection for morose lyrics. They're also pop revolutionaries in the same way that Nirvana was: young, eccentric performers with palpable star power who've leveraged underground success into a level of popularity sufficient to shape the sound and look of pop culture in general. Rap's not in its "punk phase," as some ill-informed critics have claimed—it's in the early days of its alternative rock boom.
Monolithic superstars like Kanye and Drake have ruled popular hip-hop for long enough, from such a place of unimaginable privilege, that they're now begging to be toppled. They're the Guns N' Roses of hip-hop, making grandiose albums about the trials of being incredibly wealthy, misunderstood geniuses that are as unrelatable to the average listener as they are luxuriously produced. They're just now starting to wake up to the fact that their grasp on pop's steering wheel isn't so strong that a swarm of young weirdos with fresh ideas can't break it. (This would make Drake's continual biting of SoundCloud rappers' flows the rap version of Axl Rose wearing a Nirvana hat in the "Don't Cry" video: an attempt to seem relevant that only highlights exactly how out of touch he is.)
Lil Uzi Vert
Of course, these young rappers aren't exact Kurt Cobain clones. They don't seem anywhere near as conflicted about their ambition as he was (or at least as he liked to present himself). And while plenty of SoundCloud rappers have developed zealous cult followings, with the music market flooded with an uncountable number of artists playing to increasingly niche audiences, it's hard to imagine any of them reaching the quasi-religious level of iconhood that Kurt did. But the similarities are still there, not only embedded deep in their musical DNA but right on their faces.
This story originally appeared on Esquire.com.
* Minor edits have been made by the Esquiremag.ph editors.