When the Japanese fashion designer and cultural figure known as Nigo set out to make his first album in 20 years, he was interested in creating a project that was as rich as it was expansive. “I wanted to express the totality of how I’ve been influenced by and what I’ve experienced from hip-hop culture,” he tells Rolling Stone.
Released last week on rap heavyweight Steven Victor’s label and with Pharrell and Nigo serving as executive producers, the album is a collaborative testament to the genuine admiration Nigo has earned for himself in the world of hip-hop. It also makes for one of the most fun rap albums of the year.
With features from Lil Uzi Vert, A$AP Rocky, Tyler, the Creator, Pusha T, and more, I Know Nigo offers a window into Nigo’s unique and eclectic sense of style, one that has endured within the rap world for a generation. It makes sense that listening to the album feels like playing the compilation CDs of yesteryear when a galaxy of different artists might briefly coexist in your portable CD Player. Even more fitting is the fact that Nigo released the album as a physical CD in addition to streaming platforms.
“My whole career is about making and collecting physical objects,” he says. “For me, a music release still needs to have a physical version.” Nigo recalls the era before streaming when CD culture became the defining medium for hip-hop: “In the early 2000s, when I was spending a lot of time in the U.S. and making friends with people in the U.S. hip-hop world, everything was on CD.”
Nigo’s introduction to the rap world coincides with the rise of artists who would redefine the sonic and aesthetic texture of the genre. You could very well call a certain period in early 2000s hip-hop the “Bape era.” From the iconic Clipse record Hell Hath No Fury to Pharrell and N.E.R.D.’s run of hits, a number of rappers at the time coalesced around the streetwear powerhouse that Nigo built. The iconic full-zip hoodies from the brand were a uniform for the period’s rap futurists. The friends he made around that time show up on the album, proving just how ahead of their time they were. “Punch Bowl” features a reunited Clipse sounding as menacing and effortless as ever. We get a rare verse from No Malice, and Pusha T casually flexes his friendship with President Obama.
The A&R Steven Victor, known for discovering Pop Smoke, recalls meeting Nigo after enlisting the designer to create a logo for his label, Victor Victor Worldwide. “Honestly it was an honor to work with him,” Victor says. The album’s concept started with Nigo’s fascination with what was going on with New York’s drill scene. “Originally, he was into this whole drill scene so he reached out and we were talking about having Axl do the music for the fashion show, and having Axl be a part of the album,” he explains.
Axl, the London-based producer often credited with bridging U.K. and New York drill, is responsible for one of I Know Nigo’s most exciting cuts, the Lil Uzi Vert-assisted “Heavy,” which offers a perfect distillation of Nigo’s creative talents. Sometimes it’s all about introducing the right people to one another. “It was more conversations like that,” Victor continues. “Like, ‘Oh, Nigo likes this person. Nigo’s interested in this person’s music.’ And then we would figure out a way to collaborate with them.”
The album opens with “Lost and Found Freestyle 2019,” an ebullient romp featuring A$AP Rocky and Tyler, the Creator, two rappers who seem like fitting heirs to aughts-era hip-hop, rapping over the kind of elastic drums that fans of the Clipse and N.E.R.D will surely find familiar. A Lil Jon sample even flutters in the backdrop, almost like a whisper from the past.
“There are old friends, people with whom I’ve had a relationship of mutual respect and inspiration over many years, together with newer friends, who have influenced me greatly, assembled in a kind of natural and not very planned way on this album,” Nigo explains. “The mutual respect between all of the collaborators is something that I will never forget. I consider them all great friends.”
In many ways, I Know Nigo defies the logic of rap music in 2022. Where streaming has all but obliterated the attention span of the casual listener, Victor and Nigo are counting on a new generation of the same kind of rap obsessives that defined a particular niche in the aughts. “I think people that have similarities to Nigo, people that really do deep dives into history and things that they’re interested in or that influence them, that’s the audience,” Victor says. “At least, that’s the audience that we’re trying to cater to.”
Victor sees the album as a useful format. Where singles have come to dominate the way we listen to music, the world-building that’s possible on a full-length album offers something distinct. “The way kids are today and how they consume music, it’d be better to have a body of work and have these kids enter into this whole world,” he explains.
For Nigo, the project feels like the stars aligning. The album was initially supposed to come out before the pandemic. “The delays gave me more time to think,” he says. “I was eventually able to travel to New York, and I shot videos there and in Paris. Finally, my debut show for KENZO in Paris in January gave us a point to focus on in terms of timing. It ultimately all seems to have been planned this way, somehow.”