One symptom of the streaming era is that making a statement with an album cover has become an underappreciated art. A byproduct of albums going from 12-inch physical records to Spotify thumbnails on a phone screen, it’s much easier to overlook album art (that’s not to say we didn’t have awful album covers 20 years ago).
However, a cover can be an important part of an album’s legacy, and artists should treat it as such. It’s the first thing a listener sees and can be an important part of framing the experience. Hip hop is a genre founded on sending a message with words, and a picture tells a thousand words.
So, what makes good album art?
When talking about album art in hip hop, most people will point to older album covers as the greatest. Naturally, the first ingredient to a classic album cover is that the album itself will stand the test of time. Those classics set the example for good artwork.
First, take what is arguably hip hop’s greatest album cover (an argument that I’ll fight for tooth-and-nail) from the classic group A Tribe Called Quest. The Low End Theory, hailed as one of the greatest and most influential hip-hop records of all time, was an innovation in both sound and cover design. The dark cover features a woman with vibrant red and green body paint across her body, posed on her knees and shot from the side. The woman in body paint was eye-catching, sexy and Afrocentric, capturing the essence not only of A Tribe Called Quest, but of hip hop as a genre. Today she is a timeless logo for hip hop.
A good album tells a story, and so does a good cover. N.W.A.’s politically charged debut, Straight Outta Compton, had many stories to tell about the realities of gang life in Compton, California. So does its threatening cover. In the photo, the group stares menacingly over the camera with the skyscrapers of LA towering behind them. Eazy-E points a gun at the viewer.
There is indeed a tale to the photo on the cover. As told to NME by photographer Eric Poppleton, “We were in downtown Los Angeles … I just lay on the ground and they pointed what hopefully was an unloaded gun down at the camera. I couldn’t say for sure whether it was ready to fire, but it was definitely a real gun. There wasn’t anything fake back then.”
Personally, I like to think Eazy had the gun loaded.
The cover of Straight Outta Compton captured the essence of gangsta rap in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, but The Pharcyde was the first hip-hop group to defy the trend that N.W.A. pioneered. Their debut, Bizarre Ride II the Pharcyde, featured an outrageous cover showing the four eccentric emcees riding a rollercoaster into a toothy vagina. And that works — it’s an album about goofy shit. Few artists were going against the grain in sound during the era saturated in gangsta rap, and The Pharcyde took their sonic rebellion to the extreme with their lighthearted humor — and album art to match.
To answer the question, good album art is iconic, a symbol of the music, the artist, and the era of hip hop that it falls in. Good album art is beautiful, drawn by artists with a vision, or photographed with care. But most importantly, it captures the essence of the album. Music is an experience, and the cover is a part of that experience.
And just as hip hop has spread its influence in sound, so has it started trends in visuals with iconic album covers.
A major theme in hip hop is innocence gone early, a product of the dangerous communities that many hip hop stars have grown up in. The album that kicked this trend off is the masterpiece Illmatic, featuring a young Nas superimposed over the Queensbridge projects. The Notorious B.I.G. followed suit with a baby picture on Ready to Die, which was the subject of many disses for biting Nas. Contrary to popular belief, the child on the cover is not Biggie himself — it was a kid from the Bronx booked through a modeling agency. The baby picture album cover theme would make waves, with baby photos gracing the covers of some of the biggest albums in the next millennium: Lil Wayne on Tha Carter III, Kendrick Lamar on Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City and Drake on Nothing Was the Same.
The comic book-inspired cover trend was extremely prevalent in hip hop in the ’90s, but has since died down, with Czarface being the only group still pumping out albums with beautiful comic covers. Many amazing works of art came out of this trend, however. Earlier I talked about The Bizarre Ride II the Pharcyde as the model cartoony album cover, but several other iconic covers followed afterwards, such as GZA’s Liquid Swords, MF DOOM’s Operation Doomsday and Wu-Massacre from the Wu-Tang anthology.
The most recent phenomenon in album art has been the “meme cover.” Over the last few years, the most memorable album covers have been ones that go viral online. Fans can even generate their own album covers inspired by Views, The Life of Pablo and Ye. Snapchat users have a sticker of their bitmoji inspired by DAMN. Album cover parodies aren’t a new phenomenon by any means. Fans have probably made thousands of variations of famous album covers like Abbey Road and The Dark Side of the Moon. But in recent years, memed-out hip-hop album covers have been making the rounds on Twitter more and more.
Even if it takes a back seat today, the pursuit of innovative cover design is still alive. Japanese contemporary artist Takashi Murakami, the man behind Kanye West’s Graduation cover, designed one of hip hop’s most wallpaper-able covers with KIDS SEE GHOSTS, an instant vinyl purchase for me. The cover of Tyler, the Creator’s Flower Boy is both surreal and beautiful, painted by Ann Arbor native Eric White. Here’s to future classic album covers to come.