Style is about more than just fashion. Style is a way of living life, putting your mark on the world, identifying who you are and what you care about. And looking like a fucking boss. There is no question about who is directing style trends right now: the hip-hop elite. It’s not even close. Every brand has a relationship with someone who is spitting bars, and even if they don’t their customers are influenced by them. / It’s time to name names. Here are the 21 style elite from the world of hip-hop, with some explanation as to why they’re here with us today. / Hip-hop is not the oldest music genre, but in 2016 it’s not the youngest either. There are icons who have come and gone who have left their marks in important ways, but we’re focusing on who is still alive — whether they’re still on the charts or not.
21. Two Chainz
Two Chainz launched a career with a name based on an audacious style move: Literally wearing two chains. This guy might look like pure flash but his has stood up to that criticism after that initial press of fame. His extracurricular activities have been centered around spending a lot of money (see: GQ‘s Most Expensivest Shit series), and he always wears his money on his neck — or wrist, or waist — but make no mistake, this guy is putting down rhymes and glittering while he does.
20. Flavor Flav
Admit it, you’re looking at the photo of Flava Flav and you don’t recognize him but you see the big clock around his neck and know it must be him. We could post a picture of a cat wearing a big watch as a collar and you’d think it’s Flava Flav. That’s the value of a signature look. It takes balls to wear something like that around your neck every day forever, but Flav has done just that. Maybe you can’t name a single song of his, maybe you only know his voice from his dating show, but thanks to a commitment to the clock around his neck, he’ll never be forgotten.
19. Andre 3000
The most iconic thing about Andre 3000 is his broad smile, but next to that are his glasses and eclectic taste. Never afraid of a Pork Pie Hat, a bowtie, or a ridiculous costume, Andre employs style as a tool for self-expression, not as a burden for building an identity. In an industry where everyone takes themselves far too seriously, Andre is just having fun with the whole thing which is ultimately more impactful that some of the other looks on this list.
Few artists go through the intense focus of living a positive life like Common has, and fewer still do it in public. In 2011 he faced a race-fueled controversy for performing at a White House poetry reading, but his style has adhered to a focus on clarity of message and living healthfully. His style has followed suit. If he’s not wearing a collared shirt, he’s wearing a sweater or turtleneck. He’s a half step away from being a bad Men’s Warehouse ad, we’re giving him the benefit of the doubt.
17. DJ Khaled
There’s nary a Jordan sneaker that DJ Khaled doesn’t get early, and it makes sense — his social media following is crazy. His followers are loyal and impassioned, exactly the audience open to learn about the keys to success. They follow his every move and take notes — it helps move product for any brand involved. A lot of it. Does that mean that everything he wears is a good look? Hell no. But he is incredibly influential. (Also, we’re still confused about what he does. Can anyone help with that?)
Future is best known for his hats, which almost isn’t fair. If we’re going to pick anything out the list Future for it’s his hairstyle. Black hair has historically been a topic that white racists have used to turn people of color into the “other,” so it’s a powerful statement for Future to maintain his locks as a powerful, affluent black man. The idea that dreadlocks are “dirty” falls apart immediately with Future, with his very cleaned and polished looks. Even if your only interaction with Future is his music, know that he’s quietly filing testimony every day.
15. Wiz Khalifa
Most of the fashion houses design for tall men who look more like telephone poles than the Vitruvian Man. Enter Wiz Khalifa. The dude is skinnier than a pine needle and uses that to juxtapose super skinny pants with billowing shirts that he rarely buttons. His unique body shape allows him to play with silhouettes in ways that no one else in the industry can, making his signature un-copyable. We’re not going to say that he often looks like the dopest two stick popsicle you’ve ever seen, but he’s making it work. Either that or he’s keeping the shirts loose so he can smoke trees without constraint.
We know you’re mad about Macklemore being on any list that awards hip-hop figures, but this dude is singlehandedly responsible for a resurgence of thrift shopping and a generation of white boys with the same haircut. His unplanned success was literally because of a song about going to the local Goodwill and copping a fur coat for less than a dollar. Although every season sees inspiration from vintage looks and classic pieces, it’s a harder sell to kids to grab a D.A.R.E. tee-shirt off the rack at Salvation Army. And then there’s the hair. Everyone had that haircut. Thank God almighty that trend died last year.
13. Big Sean
There’s something about Big Sean. Either it’s his height or his wallet, or that he’s wearing a lot of extra yardage, but everything he wears looks crazy expensive. He’s into big jackets and roomy hoodies, decorating his looks with plenty of jewelry. His choices have a tendency to introduce fans to new brands that play with bold colors and prints, mixing casual volume with ritzy class. His style is a blend of high fashion and Art Deco, countered by his calm demeanor when he doesn’t have a mic in his hand. The whole thing is a blessing.
12. Pusha T
The stereotype of hip-hop fashion is baggy clothes in bright colors with big prints and flashy jewelry. It’s a trope that’s as tired as it is wrong but artists like Pusha T prove that. Pusha plays with shapes and sticks to neutral colors, as evidenced by his sneaker collaborations with Adidas. He works with textures and basic shapes, layering and mixing them up. And then there are his signature braids. His look is emblematic even if he’s not flashy. Subtlety is a strength in fashion and no one is using it to greater effect than King Push.
11. Theophilus London
Before every rapper and his squad got super interested in fashion there was Theophilus London showing us all the ropes. You can find him in wide brim hats before Future, Clarks lookbooks before Drake was in Monclair, wrapped in scarfs before Lil Wayne. This is a dude who knows what he likes and doesn’t give a shit whether you come along with him or not. Being that ahead of his time might be why he’s not as well known as everyone else on this list but he’s stayed true to his vision and influenced the influencers.
10. Run DMC
It’s not every day you come across Run DMC anymore but the mere mention of the name brings up imagery of tonal outfits, wide brim hats, shell toes, and fat laced sneakers (They prefer Adidas.) Even though all of those style elements went out of style after Run DMC fell from the charts, each has come back making the group either timeless or prescient. Hip-hop isn’t so good at respecting its elders, always moving onto what’s next (while deifying those who pass on), but Run DMC is still playing, maintaining the style choices that they made popular. When you lace up your Fenty Creepers remember where that came from.
Queen Bey may not be the top artist when it comes to fashion, but Beyoncé’s style is on point. After all, style is about more than just clothes. Style is about the way a life is lived and how one looks while doing it. This is a woman who used one of the most visible and powerful positions in the world, the Superbowl Halftime Show, to sit America down and have a conversation about race — all while dressing herself and her dancers up in a look that is still replicated all these months later. That, ladies and gentlemen, takes a lot of style.
8. Yasiin Bey
More like Yasiin Bae, amirite? The artist formerly known as Mos Def brought that OG “hipster” look to fashion. We think of “hipsters” as gentrifying white people in flannels, but in reality the term was coined in the 1940s to classify Jazz aficionados. Bey’s affinity for well-cut jackets and pants from quality suiting, oxford shirts, and sophisticated hats bring in a flair that is hard to find in any genre. Although his style is subtle, in context his looks challenge expectations and that is crucial for anyone worthy of being named as a part of the elite. There’s a history to what he does, even a touch of social subversion. But you don’t have to think too hard about it – just admit he looks good.
2016 was the apex of Normcore, the style trend that made it cool to dress like your dad. Nobody mastered this look quite like Drake with his turtleneck sweaters, big glasses, and puffy winter coats — even wearing them throughout his “Hotline Bling” video that became a living meme. The whole thing was a meme! Now that Normcore has reached its expiration it’s time for Drake to find his next niche. We’re giving him the benefit of the doubt that he’ll find the new incarnation of Drake and that we’ll love it like he loves every girl he’s ever seen.
Although maybe not widely considered the queen of hip-hop there’s no other lady that can hold a candle to Rihanna’s style right now. She’s revolutionized Puma’s identity while sitting as their Creative Director, bringing a whole generation or two back to the brand — making her one of the most powerful hip-hop figures in sneakers, regardless of gender. She’s not only killing it in streetwear, but she’s also challenging everyone in couture. Even when the Wests draw eyes for whatever wild thing they’ve chosen to wear to any given Met Gala, it’s Rihanna who ends up dominating the conversation for weeks. Part of her power comes from her underdog status, something that is long overdue for reconsideration. Bow down.
5. Young Thug
We’re going to say this loud and clear: America needs more Young Thug. At a time of mass uncertainty and a resistance to learning about the experiences of others, Young Thug is at least eight breaths of fresh air. His rejection of gender norms and ability to wear clothes that he likes because he fucking likes them — regardless of whether its a Alessandro Trincone dress, gold lame pants, or a fuzzy hat — is not just awesome, it’s necessary. Fashion and style are about clothes and conventions. Young Thug uses one to disrupt the other. Perfect.
Tupac’s death in 1996 meant that he would miss out on hip-hop’s current obsession with style, and the variety that came along with it. Tupac lived with baggy pants and the inelegantly named “wife beater” undershirt, two looks that have mostly expired. But Tupac’s signature — the tied bandana with the knot out — has become an icon and far outlived him. That’s why he’s on this list of the living style elite: One element of his look has survived the tides and turns of fashion that most everyone else on this list rides every season. His has been a stalwart.
3. Kanye West
There was a time that Kanye would be at the top of this list but boy have the mighty fallen (Just to number 3 though.) Kanye’s touch has set trends that lived for seasons, from bringing Louis Vuitton, Balenciaga and Saint Laurent to the forefront of the street, to ushering in a generation of kids wearing neutral sweats that are far too big for them. But as of late his more — shall we say “without home” — comfortable style has made us reconsider. We hope he’s just going through a phase and that he’ll jump back to the top soon enough.
2. A$AP Rocky
Hip-hop’s identity has been tied to street fashion from the beginning. Blended with that has been a deep vein of taking inspiration from high fashion houses, and no one has engaged that better that A$AP Rocky. Not only have his looks been impeccably tailored but he’s mixed high and low so expertly as to almost make his own world out of it. Everything he wears, whether it’s Topman to the Met Gala or filling his mouth with diamonds for a film screening, is a meditation on conventions.
When you think of Pharrell and style it’s a wild mishmash of risk taking, boundary breaking, and failed trends. He’s not batting 1000 over here, but no one swings as much as he does. Style is about more than getting it right all the time, it’s about experimentation challenging expectations and revealing a vision for possibilities beyond what people think. Pharrell does this time and time again, whether he’s working with Domeau & Pérès to make a bicycle or Kiehl’s to make an Acai Spray, he’s always cooking up something. Don’t forget Adidas went to Pharrell before they went to Kanye. Pharrell might not have the pervasive star power as others on this list, but when it comes to vision and living that vision: There’s no one better.