Cam'ron's Killa Pink
Track 06 // Vol. 02: PINK
May’s theme is PINK! In case you missed it, here is last week’s intro. This month, I’m wondering if we can map color trends alongside shifts in societal attitudes. Pink is the color that garners the most sexist reactions. Why does pink read as feminine? Pink’s gendered history is actually all over the place.
I learned in The Secret Lives of Color by Kassia St. Clair, that around the turn of the 20th century, baby boys actually wore pink and baby girls wore blue. People considered pink to be “a more decided and stronger color,” with its association to red—the color of soldier uniforms and cardinal robes. (You know, dude power fits.) Blue felt “daintier and delicate,” often referenced with the Virgin Mary’s shroud. My favorite depressing fashion advice is from a New York Times article from 1893:
“You should always give pink to a boy and blue to a girl. The boy’s outlook is so much more roseate than the girl’s, that it is enough to make a girl baby blue to think of living a woman’s life in the world.”
Spot on then, on the nose now. Primal scream.
In 1927, Time Magazine published a chart of “gender-appropriate” colors based on surveys from the infant departments of the top U.S. retailers. Nothing definitive!
According to Smithsonian Magazine, the pink-for-girls and blue-for-boys switch happened in the 1940s with the baby boomer generation. Manufacturers and stores interpreted consumer preferences and marketed accordingly. As seen from the chart above, it could have gone either way! There is always more to the story, but the main point is that pink’s gendered history in the U.S. is pretty arbitrary.
Track 06 is about Killa Pink. Oh Boy.
The hip hop videos I grew up on in the early aughts featured a sparse color palette of reflective chrome, black, and white. This was the era of Hype Williams, with his slick, futuristic aesthetic that imbued Y2K-era hip hop with a taste that distanced itself from the clashing color block, loud patterns, and bright neon of the 80s and 90s. When describing the scene in L.A. at that time, Ice-T reflects, “We were dressed kinda crazy, all pastel colors, FILA sweatsuits, K-Swiss. I had a perm… Everybody looked goofy back then, that was the time, the era.”
Mainstream hip hop in the 80s and 90s embraced a kind of vibrant, funky freshness with a light-hearted, comedic bent, as seen in hits like De La Soul’s “Me Myself and I” (1989), and DJ Jazzy Jeff and The Fresh Prince’s perennial throwback “Summertime” (1991). Women MCs broke through in the late 80s and early 90s as well. Artists like Salt-N-Pepa, MC Lyte, and TLC, added a splash of color through their fashion and new perspectives in a male-dominated narrative.
The transition to early 90s gangsta rap brought a new hardcore image to hip hop. Inspired by Philly rapper, Schooly D’s song “P.S.K. What Does It Mean?” (1985), credited as the first gangsta rap track, Ice-T wrote “6 in the Mornin” (1986) which set off a new sound and look for West Coast rap. Evolving from its origins in dance music, hip hop reflected the realities of the streets, chronicled police brutality, and narrated means of survival.
Across the country, hip hop continued to gravitate towards hardcore images and sounds in the late 90s through the Y2K era, as hyper masculinity pushed lyrics and visuals to new levels of explicit content, violence, misogyny, and homophobia. Controversy dictated who made it onto the radio, the charts, and MTV. Some consider this time in the early aughts as the ‘bling era’ of hip hop, where excessive displays of wealth and women consumed all content. Rappers competed for dominance, fighting to stand out while fulfilling the same type of tough guy persona. Those who tried to conform unconvincingly were called out for being inauthentic (Ja Rule vs. 50 Cent beef); those who didn’t were forced out of the game. With few exceptions, in the quest to crown the loudest, toughest, most hardcore artists, hip hop lost its vibrancy. Unlike the 90s and today, the aughts marked a drought of women MCs on the charts. Being “out” in hip hop was unheard of until very recently.
New strands of hip hop proliferate each year, and while there have always been “softer” acts, hip hop has always valued and promoted masculinity. (It’s Megan the Stallion not Megan the Mare.) But we’re currently in an interesting moment in hip hop: the pendulum is swinging back towards living color. How did we get here?
In October 2002, Cam’Ron wore a pink mink coat at NYC Fashion Week, creating an iconic moment that still influences hip hop fashion today. Capitalizing on the success of it, he patented “Killa Pink” with Pantone, where it still features prominently on his albums and in his other business ventures, including sneaker collaborations with Reebok to a strain of marijuana called Pynk Mynk. His big risk paid off—instead of killing his masculine image, pink became the cornerstone of his brand.
Cam’ron is the most successful rapper out of Harlem-based trio Dipset, aka The Diplomats. They peaked in the early 2000s, with Cam’ron’s biggest hits, “Oh Boy” and “Hey Ma,” two of my favorite ~*HiGh ScHoOL*~ throwbacks. While those tracks aren’t necessarily “hard,” Cam’ron presented tough, usually donning baggy pants, an oversized jersey, a snapback, and long iced-out chains.
In 2004, he told the New York Times that he wore pink to stand out: “I did it so I wouldn’t be dressing like everybody else.” Knowing he would probably catch heat for this look, he did it anyway with his trademark cocky, yet cheeky swag. Dazed writer Calum Gordon puts it best, “He wasn’t just supremely confident, he was tough too – perhaps best illustrated by the fact that he’s the only person ever, probably, to be shot and then subsequently drive themselves to the hospital in a Lamborghini, as he did in 2005.”
The pink mink was a defining moment for Cam’ron, with an immediate and lasting impact. Emil Wilbekin, former editor at Vibe Magazine noted in 2004, “Cam’ron was the first hardcore rapper to rock pink. What was interesting was how fast the streets caught on.” The look even had the staying power to become a meme nearly a decade after memes became a thing.
I love how hip hop is a collective, self-referential art form that’s constantly evolving. MCs assert their place in the canon by showing their participation in its history. Kanye West captures this moment in time in the first verse of “Touch the Sky” (2005), expressing his label’s attitude on pink:
Back when they thought pink polos would hurt the Roc,
Before Cam got the shit to pop,
The doors was closed, I felt like Bad Boys’ street team,
I couldn’t work the locks (The LOX)
For reference, here is Kanye circa 2004-2005. Cam’ron walked so that Kanye could pop.
In 2013, he refers back to this time in “I Am a God” off of Yeezus:
Pink-ass polos with a fuckin’ backpack
But everybody know you brought real rap back
Now to give credit where it’s due, Cam’ron was not the first person in hip hop to rock pink so overtly. Let’s give a shout-out to the ones who did it before him: Big Boi and André 3000 of OutKast.
In 2019, I went to an exhibit called Pink: The History of a Punk, Pretty, Powerful Color at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York. There were lots of pretty, floofy dresses as you could imagine, but I was delighted to see Cam’ron represented, in a true art history meets hip hop moment in the museum. Read the placard below:
True to form, OutKast found success outside the hyper-masc world of the 00s. They were known for their crazy outfits, especially André 3000, who always channeled a Prince vibe in how he bent an effeminate style sense towards greater sex appeal. This look for Big Boi (below left) was probably a stretch for him, but very much in line with their usual ostentatious garb. André 3000 also wore pink fur on the Tonight Show with Jay Leno in January 2002 (below right), predating Cam’ron’s pink mink by several months.
Cam’ron’s pink mink gave other artists permission to play. He left a greater impact with pink because he deviated from the masculine expectations people had of him while still being himself. Post-pink mink, hip hop began to embrace the color—both as homage to an iconic moment, and also, because pink became its own power statement. Artists known for challenging gender and sexuality norms in hip hop—Lil Nas X and Young Thug for example, wear pink in videos, performances, and at award shows in ways that feel unpredictable and subversive. In a 2016 Calvin Klein campaign Young Thug says, “In my world you can be a gangsta in a dress, or a gangsta with baggy pants. I feel like there is no such thing as gender.”
Janelle Monae, one of the industry’s most outspoken activists, wore vag-pants in her 2018 bubblegum dystopian video for “PYNK” and in her Dirty Computer tour. And as we discussed last month, Nicki Minaj famously out-raps Kanye, JAY Z, and Rick Ross on “Monster,” all in a pink wig. She named her first two albums Pink Friday and The Pinkprint, a nod to JAY Z’s The Blueprint, to claim her own place among the greats. In all of these contexts, pink effuses an unbridled, unapologetic joy. Pink is the color of the assertive and fearless.
Could a pink polo actually hurt one of the most successful record companies in the world? No, but never underestimate the fragility of toxic masculinity. Is it a stretch to say our shifting attitudes on pink predict a more inclusive future? Hmm. We’re in a Millennial pink-turned Gen Z rainbow sherbet-swirled world, but we still have a long way to go, and our current political climate threatens this progressive trajectory. The conservative crackdown on reproductive rights puts other hard-fought rights into question as well, as proposed in this New York Times article, “If Roe Fails, is Same-Sex Marriage Next?” The values placed on historical precedent gone unchecked and unchallenged can be irrelevant and damaging when applied in making decisions for the present and future—from arbitrary baby colors to life-endangering legislation. Why are we still shackled to the historical precedent of—in the words of bell hooks—“imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy?” Once again, primal scream.
Thanks for reading.