Who is Kanye West?  A brief history of the hip hop legend and sneaker mogul

September 26, 2021 by Joey Birch

Who is Kanye West? A brief history of the hip hop legend and sneaker mogul

Hot off the back of the release of his long-awaited album, Donda, we look at Kanye West throughout the years.

Kanye will forever be known in the history books as one of the most influential people in history. Many know him for his ‘YEEZY’ brand, with millions of people around the world wearing his limited releases.

However, his story goes back much further. Hailing from small beginnings, all the way to his now packed out stadium shows at the Mercedes Benz centre in Atlanta, Georgia; West has grown his multifaceted empire over many years. 

West’s career started back in the late 1980s when he moved back to Chicago from China around the age of 10. He had moved out there with her a year earlier, so she could teach English at Nanjing University.

Following his return to The Windy City, Kanye met Dion Wilson AKA ‘No I.D’, who became his mentor and helped him develop the sound we all know and love from Ye's critically acclaimed debut album ‘The College Dropout’. 

By 2001, West had produced music for the likes of Jay Z, Ludacris and Alicia Keys, making a name for himself with his own style coined ‘Chipmunk Soul’, which included soul samples, choir features and drums. One of the biggest projects Ye worked on was Jay Z's incredibly popular ‘The Blueprint’ which is still widely considered one of the greatest albums of all time.

West spent a lot of time during his music producing days trying to get through the door as a rapper. However, due to him spending much of his early life in a middle-class area in Atlanta, many members of the rap scene didn’t take him seriously. 

Jay Z later went on to tell Time Magazine in 2005: "We all grew up street guys who had to do whatever we had to do to get by. Then there's Kanye, who to my knowledge has never hustled a day in his life. I didn't see how it could work." 

                     Kanye West signs to Roc-A-Fella Records

Nonetheless, in 2002, Kanye’s relentless efforts to make himself known as a rapper paid off. With Damon Dash, co-founder of Roc-A-Fella Records, signing West to the record label. This paved the way for one of the most prolific careers in the music industry.

February 2004 saw the release of ‘The College Dropout’. Kanye West’s first full project as a rap artist was met with an incredible response. With songs such as ‘Jesus Walks’ and 'All Falls Down’, Kanye opened up the dialogue about everything from consumerism, to race and religion, showing off his ability as a rapper – much to the surprise of many of his peers. The College Dropout went on to peak at No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 200 chart, with West receiving 10 Grammy nominations and winning three awards including Best Rap Song for "Jesus Walks" and Best Rap Album. Following the release, West founded his record label, GOOD music who worked closely with artists including Pus1ha T and Big Sean. 

Once the ball started rolling, it only got faster bringing more acclimations Kanye’s way. With both his second album ‘Late Registration’ in 2005 and his third ‘Graduation’ in 2007, Ye received two consecutive number 1s on the Billboard Hot 200.

To celebrate the release of ‘The College Dropout’, Kanye made his first foray into sneakers. After previously interning for GAP and Fendi, West knew the design language he wanted to communicate and got the chance to put this onto a Nike Air Max 180 released between 2005-2006 exclusively in a size 12 – Kanye’s sample shoe size.

        Kanye West x Nike Air Max 180 (2005)

Shortly after in December of 2006, recently emerged streetwear brand ‘BAPE’ stepped up to the plate to release its now grail-level collaboration with Kanye. Releasing the ‘Dropout Bear’ Bapesta sporting the College Dropout colourway with an image of the bear printed on the heel.

Following these two high-key releases, Ye went on to release three lesser-known sneaker collaborations. These included a pack of patent leather Reebok S. Carter’s featuring the Dropout bear on the heel, a ‘Donda’ Air Jordan 6 sample and finally, a sample pair of highly elusive Nike Air Huarache’s complete with a neon, glow in the dark, upper for his 2008 ‘Glow In The Dark’ tour.

Donda Air Jordan 6 Sample (2007-2008)

The following year, 2009, saw the release of what are now considered some of the biggest sneaker grails of all time. Debuting during Kanye’s performance of ‘Stronger’ and ‘Hey Mama’ at the 2009 Grammy Awards, the first iteration of the Nike Air Yeezy was shown to the public. Coming in three different colourways, sneakerheads and fans of Kanye’s music went into pandemonium trying everything they could to get the highly-coveted collaboration. 

During the hype surrounding Kanye’s first proper release with the Swoosh, Ye earned his name as the 'Louis Vuitton Don' with his collaboration with the designer label on 1st July of the same year. Released in the form of three different silhouettes, each style was named after an individual that Kanye West held near and dear during that part of his life. This included the ‘Jasper’ named after Ibn Jasper - Kanye’s barber and close friend, the ‘Don’ named after his close friend Don C who has had his own impact on the sneaker/streetwear industry with his brand of hats ‘Just Don’ as well as founding the now-famous RSVP gallery - a conceptual retail space in Chicago; and lastly, there was the ‘Hudson’, a low top variant of the LV shoe named after G.O.O.D Music artist, Mr Hudson. 

Speaking to Kanye’s preppy style, his Louis Vuitton collaboration was the catalyst that years later led West to create his own brand ‘YEEZY’ as well as assisting the founder of OFF-White, Virgil Abloh, become the Artistic Director of Louis Vuitton Menswear.

2010 and 2011 saw the releases of two of West’s most highly regarded projects. The first of which was ‘My Dark Beautiful Twisted Fantasy’, released in 2010, was seen as the best and worst of Kanye rolled into one. Being described by Pitchfork as “an instant greatest hits, the ultimate realisation of his strongest talents and divisive public persona”. MDBTF was West’s fifth studio album and displayed the first look into Kanye’s raw emotion following his broadcasted breakup from Amber Rose, as well as his run-in with Taylor Swift at the 2009 VMAs which left a bad taste in a lot of people’s mouths.

Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy Album Cover (2010)

The following year in 2011, the world was treated to ‘Watch The Throne’. A collaborative project between Kanye West and Jay Z that took the world by storm. An album many regards as classic, each song had a strong narrative and expression pushing the boundaries of what hip-hop could be. 

Three years since the first Nike Air Yeezy sneaker was released, the public were starting to wonder if/when there would be a follow up to relive the same level of hype that the first silhouette garnered. However, in 2012, the wait was over. After eagle-eyed fans saw the Yeezy 2 being worn by Kanye in a promo video for Kobe Bryant’s ‘Black mamba’ collaboration with Nike, the hysteria was even greater than before. 

Being officially released shortly after, Ye wore the ‘Black and Solar Red’ colourway at a VMA award show. The rollout of the shoe was surrounded by controversy with a lot of rumours of backdooring to VIPs and many people entering raffles in different cities that they then needed to purchase a plane ticket to collect their win.

        Nike Air Yeezy 2 'Red October' (2014)

The stove was still hot following the release of the Nike Air Yeezy 2, when rumours started to circulate of further colourways of the sneaker being released. After a number of sample images made their way around the web, West finally confirmed the existence of the sneakers by wearing them on Saturday Night Live. However, there was still scepticism as to the wider release with Kanye stating that a number of pairs will be sent to people who purchased his sixth studio album ‘Yeezus’ despite them not being shipped until the following February in 2014. 

However, during the later part of 2013 going into 2014, the partnership between the self-proclaimed God and the Swoosh seemed to be in turmoil. With Kanye West publicly stating his issues with Nike after it was made known that they will not be paying Ye the royalties for the sneakers the two released together.

Following this rough patch, the news broke on the 3rd of December that Kanye was making a move away from Nike. And not just that he was leaving his early collaborator, but he was partnering with Nike’s arch-rival, adidas

        Kanye West signs to Adidas (2013) (Adidas CMO Eric Liedtke, Left)

The announcement of the new relationship was celebrated with the first sneaker of the collaboration being released, the adidas Yeezy Boost 750 "Light Brown". Limited to only 9000 pairs in the first release, the new sneaker-boot had hints of previous collaborations with Nike with the strap over the foot arch along with an all suede upper and gum rubber midsole utilising the new ‘Boost’ technology in the outsole.

After the foray, Kanye and adidas seemed to lay dormant for a couple of years. With many people wondering what was coming next. 

Fast forward to 2015, when Primeknit sneakers with boost outsoles were in their prime with sneakers such as the adidas Ultra Boost and the NMD flying off the shelves in minutes - the Yeezy Boost 350 was unveiled. 

                adidas Yeezy 350 'Turtle Dove' (2015)

Initially releasing as part of Kanye West’s YEEZY Season 1 fashion show at New York Fashion Week in the ‘Turtle Dove’ colourway, Kanye’s latest silhouette challenged what consumers thought they knew about sneaker design and provided comfort and wearability whilst also going against any previous sneaker design he had been a part of. 

In addition to the tonal collection consisting of heavyweight outerwear as well as the new 350 silhouette, Kanye released further colourways of the Yeezy 750. Working with NMD designer Nic Galway and Fear of God founder Jerry Lorenzo to produce the sneaker boot hybrid that looked reminiscent of the Nike Air Yeezy line. 

Shortly after the introduction of his new YEEZY apparel line with adidas, West was back in the spotlight swiftly following up with his release of ‘The Life of Pablo’ on the 14th February 2016. Taking another approach to his sound and style, TLOP was met with some controversy with certain lines and tracks creating a stir including the track titled ‘Facts’ which proclaimed ‘Yeezy jumped over Jumpman’ alluding Ye’s sales outdoing those of the Jumpman which he later apologised for as well as making edits to the body of work despite it being released to the public. 

No half measures for Kanye West, Ye rolled out his new album alongside a preview for his YEEZY Season 3 release at Madison Square Garden in New York. Following in the footsteps of the first two seasons, the event caught the attention of music fans but arguably more so, his ever-larger sneakerhead following. 

With a number of fans eager to see what sneakers adidas and West had cooked up, it’s safe to say that their hopes were met. On the feet of the models including Lil Yachty, the Yeezy Boost 350 V2 was debuted in the ‘Beluga’ colourway. Boasting a similar design to the V1, the new 350 design included a bold orange stripe on the lateral side of the shoe with ‘SPLY-350’ written within it. 

In the years that followed this release, a vast variety of colourways for the 350 V2 were released keeping to Kanye’s promise in 2015 that everyone would one day have a pair of Yeezys. The most coveted colourways included the Zebra iteration in 2017 and the Core Black/Red (Bred) in 2020. 

2017 was host to the release of three further Yeezy silhouettes, the Powerphase that looked back at the adidas basketball archive and reinvigorated the 1986 Workout 2 with a simple rebranding by adding the word ‘Calabasas’ on the side. While the Powerphase sat on shelves for longer than other YEEZY releases, there were two additional sneakers that met similar hype levels to the 350s. 


        adidas Yeezy 'Calabasas' (2017)

The adidas Yeezy 500 ‘Desert Rat’ was one of these silhouettes. Utilising the sole of the 1999 adidas KB8 3, an EQT basketball sneaker, the 500 served as an ‘ugly’ sneaker. Despite removing the obvious 3 stripe branding as well as the Boost cushioning, the 500 still became a sought-after release even with its polarising design. 

Lastly, the third release of 2017 was the adidas Yeezy Boost 700 ‘ Waverunner’ Designed by ex-Nike designer and industry veteran, Steven Smith, the 700 was bold and brash in comparison to its counterparts. With the height of the ‘dad shoe’ trend at full effect, the Waverunner quickly became one of the most popular sneakers in the Yeezy catalogue, mixing premium suedes, mesh, 3M on top of a thick rubber midsole. 

Outside of the relationship between himself and adidas, Kanye West was going through a turbulent time. After a myriad of public outbursts and tweets, the rapper seemed to be in the public eye every week for the wrong reasons. From harbouring a seemingly close relationship with Donald Trump to saying some very controversial statements in an interview with TMZ. Rumours began to spread that Kanye had moved to Wyoming with Pusha T confirming that a new album was in the works in 2017. 

In June 2018, ‘Ye’ was released. Hosting a large listening event for industry insiders in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, the new project consisted of 7 tracks and seemed to act as a way for Kanye to express his thoughts. Despite being described by Pitchfork as “a low point in his career”, the project still managed to debut at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 making it Kanye’s eighth chart-topping release matching the records set by Eminem and The Beatles.

        Kanye West 'Ye' Listening Party (2018)

The beginning of 2019 seemed to set a new start for Kanye with his move to a heavily gospel-based sound and his introduction of ‘Sunday Service’. Initially circulating online, West seemed to be channelling a whole new sound, once again taking hip-hop as we know it to a completely new place, showcasing the venture on a large scale at Coachella in April 2019. 

During this process, Kanye West had another album in the works titled ‘Yandhi’ which, regrettably, never saw the light of day after being pushed back from a late 2018 release to being delayed indefinitely at the end of the year. 

However, on the 25th of October 2019, ‘Jesus is King’ was released along with a 35-minute film showcasing a Sunday Service session which continued the gospel flavoured tracks and continued Kanye’s innovation and development in his sound. 

Come the end of 2019, two further silhouettes to the adidas Yeezy line were unveiled. These came in the form of the Yeezy 380 - a futuristic release that was initially meant to be the design for the 350 V3 but was later to become its own sneaker after West held it in such high regard. 

Following this, came the Yeezy Slide. Kanye West’s answer to the more affordable footwear choice, the tonal slides are made of EVA foam, managing to keep the usual features you’d expect from an adidas x Yeezy release. 

        Yeezy 'QNTM' Giveaway, Chicago (2020)

After leaked images saw West wearing a new basketball silhouette after coming from a recording session that sent die-hard Yeezy-heads into a craze, the Yeezy Quantum was finally released. In true Kanye West fashion, residents in Chicago were able to get their hands on the sneakers first as a convoy of Sherp ATV’s rolled through the city handing out the sneakers during All-Star Weekend. 

Additionally, the release of the Yeezy Foam Runner subverted the idea of footwear by blurring the line between footwear and art. Produced out of an algae-based foam, the release has been met with high regard providing comfort alongside an innovative and surprisingly wearable design. 

Alongside the high profile releases within his partnership with adidas, West was also running for president as per his promise back in 2015. However, this proved to be an unsuccessful venture with the artist and designer and conceding his run whilst alluding to a possible second attempt for 2024. 

So far, 2021 has continued to hold Ye in the public eye. Kicking off the year by releasing yet another brand new silhouette with the Yeezy 450 on March 6, with a full primeknit upper, along with a rubber outsole that stretched up the medial and lateral sides of the shoe. 

        Donda Listening Party, Mercedes Benz Centre (2021)

Kanye West has just released his latest studio project titled ‘Donda’. Ahead of the launch, West held a number of listening parties in the Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta, where West seemingly lived prior to the release.

The album features a number of beloved artists including Pusha T, Young Thug and to many people's surprise, Jay Z - giving many the hope that a ‘Watch The Throne 2’ may one day be released.

        YZY x GAP Collection (2021)

Trying to predict what the future may hold for one of the most highly regarded artists in history is near impossible. However, with his upcoming 10-year partnership with GAP, initially announced in 2020, yet to come to full fruition as well as the release of ‘Donda’ and future adidas x Yeezy releases, one thing is for certain. The world will be watching.