Impresario, musical inspiration, DJ, and fashion designer Virgil Abloh has died of cancer at the age of 41. To say that he’s a visionary whose legacy is an aggressive introduction of irony and late-20th century African-American urban influence to the pinnacle of global art and fashion is underselling perhaps his most remarkable accomplishment. His hand in evolving rap music into a juggernaut capable of becoming, by 2017, statistically more popular than rock music for the first time is one of the most audacious feats ever. In hip hop then becoming the lingua franca of popular culture worldwide, Abloh’s influence superseded the boom-bap and street culture realms. Ultimately, he’s one of the engines that boldly drove modern culture.
Abloh achieved many groundbreaking creative victories associated with his time as the first Black American artistic director of Louis Vuitton's menswear collection from 2018 until his death on November 28, 2021, or developer of boutique, 2012-founded Milan-based streetwear fashion house Off-White. However, while working in various capacities with Kanye West since 2002 — namely as the director of Kanye West’s DONDA content development agency — in the period in their partnership from 2010 to 2013, he was the creative visionary in charge of defining aesthetics that helped rap music and hip hop culture to develop value equal to high art.
One listen to West’s albums from that era that Abloh led Donda — 2010’s 'My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy', 2011’s 'Watch The Throne', 2012’s GOOD Music 'Cruel Summer' compilation album, and 2013’s 'Yeezus' — highlight a time where rap music’s commercial value and creative scope dramatically shifted in unprecedented manners. He spurred West’s desire to meld sounds and concepts equally as influenced by impressionist art and FENDI’s timeless Italian fashion with Golden Era battle rhymes and pop-aimed sampling.
West's reasoning for pairing with Abloh in this era was defined by necessity as well as ambition. “In a large part, streetwear is seen as cheap. What my goal has been is to add an intellectual layer to it and make it credible,” said Abloh in a 2016-published Business of Fashion feature. Attempting to develop something “cheap, yet credible” could also easily be the easiest way to define the music industry’s struggle at the turn of the 2010s.
In its debut week on the market, Kanye West’s 2013-released 'Yeezus' sold 327,000 copies. The following week, the album’s sales dropped 80% from the previous week. In regards to the album’s release being one of the first to accept the idea that pirate downloading would freely and readily occur, Washington Post pop music critic Chris Richards offered a dramatic critique: “['Yeezus'] didn’t leak online over the weekend. It gushed out into the pop ecosystem like a million barrels of renegade crude — ominous, mesmerizing and of great consequence.”
'Yeezus' - like the three other previously mentioned early 2010s era West albums (plus his collaborator Jay-Z’s Samsung app-released, thus immediately platinum-selling 'Magna Carta Holy Grail' in 2013) - answered the question of how to make music that is meant to be heard, but not sold. Abloh led a generation of artists as artistes whose greatest victory was audaciously answering the challenge of solving an industry in decline. Their eventual victory supercharged an era of hip hop culture - and music in general’s - unprecedented success.
The album is the perfect punctuation on an amazing era for West, with Abloh’s guidance. This transformative moment for the Abloh-West team started with 2010’s 'My Beautiful Dark, Twisted Fantasy', which took rap music from the streets to conversing with refined opulence, but not without removing the genre’s braggadocious swagger.
There’s a 35-minute super-video that accompanies the Pusha T collaboration 'Runaway', a song that toasts being an asshole while being buffered by lush, string orchestrations. Blaring horns and manic drumming usher in “'All of The Lights',” a gospel sermon on the fleeting brilliance of superstardom accompanied by the 'gospel choir' of sorts of Rihanna, Alicia Keys, John Legend, The-Dream, Fergie, Kid Cudi, Elton John, Ryan Leslie, Charlie Wilson, Tony Williams and La Roux’s Elly Jackson. And yes, the album’s wildest highlight could be Nicki Minaj’s verse from 'Monster' wherein she describes herself, among many things, as a regal presence pulling up to the scene in a candy-colored jeep after visiting her Milanese hairdresser while clad in Giuseppe Zanotti heels and fang-styled gold teeth. And that’s a mere scratching of the gilded surface.
2011’s Kanye/Jay-Z collaboration 'Watch The Throne' featured a GRAMMY-nominated gold foil album cover designed by Abloh with Riccardo Tisci, fashion brand Givenchy’s then-Creative Director. The album successfully grapples with questions including how two superstar rappers deal with the surreality of exchanging Nike sneakers and Polo brand rugby shirts for “[suffering] from the [new, perhaps, unexpected] realness” of wearing designer fashions from Gucci and Maison Margiela while marauding on the Champs-Élysées.
By 2013 and 'Yeezus', it’s arguable to note that Abloh, if judging by album covers alone, had perfected the art of vitriolic yet mainstream-adored transgression in popular music. Abloh’s concept of a clear case and red-taped cover was Abloh’s statement that the CD era of music - which included, for physical album copies, the most commercially successful era of the industry from 1995 to 2005 - was dead. In the album’s tracks, West raps that Black people are slaves to luxury, plus makes a litany of misogynistic, narcissistic, and blasphemous allusions. It indeed is an album wherefrom the packaging to the songs, there are very few traditionally pop-friendly reasons for making it a purchase. However, everyone absolutely had to hear and see what Abloh and West had released.
In the years that have existed past 'Yeezus', Kanye’s evolved and embraced the precedent that music and aesthetics set for his life. As well, for the DJs, fashionistas, creators, and auteurs who have emerged in the wake of Abloh’s excellence, he notably served as a steward of their brilliance.
In his passing, it feels as though there isn’t a creative person of note from the past two decades of popular culture that hasn’t offered profound condolences and referenced his generous support. In regards to why this has occurred, A-Trak, who as Kanye West’s touring DJ from 2004-2007 had significant interaction with Abloh - that continued throughout both their careers - noted the following, via Instagram:
“I love how [Virgil] paid respect to the OGs just as much as he championed the newest of the new. For every young designer who says that Virgil made them believe in themselves, there is a Cybotron, a Goldie, a Futura, a Saul Williams who is grateful for the way Virg shared his platform and paid homage...I feel a special kinship towards anyone who plays a role in shaping cultural scenes that I care about too. And I love when someone is able to remain a fan throughout their growth. He was a fan of DJing, graffiti, skating, fashion of course, and also conceptual art and design. He knew how to synthesize all those things and package them for the world at large. He shared, he gave, and he touched a lot of souls. I hope everyone will continue to dream big.”
As a musical curator, Abloh’s frequent use of textures and styles familiar with dance music and culture was an intrinsic part of his work. He favored Ed Banger Records’ French touch, hard electro and German techno in great abundance. His travels as a DJ in his later years proved notable and included high profile festival and DJ sets everywhere from Ibiza to Tomorrowland. As well, his work with Bromance Records’ Creative Director Guillaume Berg yielded the Paris, IL collaboration. Abloh also released his first single, 'ORVNGE', with German DJ/producer Boys Noize in January 2018. Moreover, in 2019 he was named a resident DJ at Wynn Las Vegas's XS Nightclub, which also included Wynn agreeing to open an Off-White store. 2021 was highlighted by his launch of a monthly two-hour internet radio show on Worldwide FM, "Imaginary Radio" c/o Virgil Abloh.
At present, all art - music included - is headed to a non-fungible reality of being a unique and non-interchangeable unit of data with undefinable wealth. If anything, the real tragedy of Virgil Abloh’s demise is that the auteur best able to usher the universe into this era has died. In a 2018 interview for The Guardian, the dynamic cultural juggernaut noted, “Tides change when positions evolve...fresh energy [emerges] for something to be represented.” If confused as to what that means. and how it highlights his ultimate awareness of where the world was headed as a commercially sustainable creative entity, refer to the sampled voice of comedian Will Farrell from the 2011 film Blades of Glory in Kanye West and Jay-Z’s 'N***as In Paris'. That quote sums up exactly who Virgil Abloh was and why he was so essential.
Virgil Abloh was provocative. He got the people going.
Marcus K. Dowling is a freelance journalist, follow him on Twitter