Nowadays, with streaming services such as Spotify and Apple Music dominating the way fans consume media, fewer hip-hop artists are making albums. Singles have become the primary way that artists make money. This is because as fans begin to curate their playlists, they pick and choose which songs they want from an album and disregard the rest.
This practice disincentivises artists to make albums, as large chunks of them don’t end up on people’s playlists. However, with formats like vinyl returning and gaining popularity, fans might want those tangible projects back.
Making an album is challenging to perfect, and creating a cohesive body of work that truly represents you as an artist can be daunting. However, it is important to try nonetheless. Some achieve, and many do not. But the content of an album is only one of many challenges artists face when trying to create their project. Another critical element that can make or break an album is its artwork.
So many albums are revered for their artwork, whether it’s Nirvana’s Nevermind or De La Soul’s 3 Feet High And Rising, a bold, audacious cover that marries with the music is essential. In this article, we are going to take a look at hip-hop’s five greatest ever album covers and see the stories behind them.
5. Drake – Take Care, (2011)
Drake’s Take Care album cover embodied the album’s heartbroken, sorrowful tone. Sat in a room alone with classic art, golden utensils and a single lit candle, the photo perfectly captures the themes of both wealth and misery through the juxtaposition of gold and objet d’art with a sombre-looking Drake.
Snapped by Hyghly Alleyne, in 2011, Drake told MTV News a little bit more about the person in the picture as he explained, “Who’s sitting on that album cover?! That kid that’s just somehow gone from his mom’s basement in Toronto to becoming a king,” he explained of the image. “That’s what that album cover is about, and there is a lot of deep thought involved in that ’cause you can go crazy doing this.”
4. A Tribe Called Quest – Beats, Rhymes & Life, (1996)
A Tribe Called Quest’s 1996 album, Beats, Rhymes & Life, draws inspiration from one of their previous album covers. With the same figure from their album, The Low End Theory, the album cover for this project features a masked figure in red black and green. This is colour combination is significant for a number of reasons. Red, black and green are the colours of the pan-African flag. The flag is intended to represent the entirety of the black diaspora. It hails back to slavery, and pan-African colours were adopted for the African-American flag, which co-opts the star-spangled banner but instead utilises the pan-African tricolour.
Designed by the Florida rapper and illustrator SKAM2?, Q-Tip prompted the illustrator to design the group’s album artwork after meeting with him in New York City to record music. SKAM2? is an art legend who also designed the iconic artwork for Eminem’s Slim Shady LP re-release poster. Furthermore, he designed the logo of the Drink Champs podcast. A true legend, this 1996 cover was made by a well-known hip-hop graffiti artist and illustrator.
3. Chance the Rapper – Acid Rap, (2013)
Acid Rap was the project that put Chicago musician, Chance The Rapper on the map. The 2013 body of work was lauded as one of the best and most creative hip-hop releases not only of its year but eventually of its decade. The album has been certified as diamond and had over 1million downloads in its first month on iTunes. It boasts a range of fantastic tracks, such as ‘Cocoa Butter Kisses’ and ‘Smoke Again’ featuring Ab-Soul.
However, as well as showcasing amazing tracks, one feature that really lured many people to listen to the project was its cover. Featuring a night sky that delicately descends, fading through hues of purple and pink, the rapper (real name Chancellor Bennett) stares at you dazed. As the sky somehow cascades from intense indigo to pastel peach, the cover is a sight to behold and is quite spectacular.
For his mixtape art, Bennett was loyal to the graphic designer and illustrator Brandon Breaux. Speaking to These Dyas Magazine about the background, Breaux explained, “Well, man, it was pretty crazy, man. It was like stars aligning, and the cover pretty much says that specifically with his face as a constellation in the sky. So this time around, I had to play off of [OJ Hays] work because it was introduced early in the build-up for Acidrap. It kind of set the tone for the trippy vibe, and at the time, tie-dye came back really hard, so it seemed that having an album that really exemplified the climate and was pairing rap (which was really gaining even more widespread popularity at the moment) with psychedelics at a time when it mattered the most was incredibly convenient. So the colours and the vibe came from the current time and inspired by tie-dye and someone tripping on acid watching the sunset.”
2. Mac Miller – Faces, (2014)
The late Pittsburgh rapper Mac Miller was a true artist and wanted to create more than just an album with his 2014 project, Faces. Instead, he wanted to create a cohesive audio-visual package that was sonically and visually connected. The modern, jazz-infused sound of faces needed a contemporary yet timeless piece of art to grace its cover.
What came to be the finished album artwork was incredible and suited the sound of the album to a tee. With a bold, audacious amber backdrop, the centrepiece of the cover is a 21st-century love letter to Picasso. The creative graphic shows a Picassoesque dismantled face, a nose here, an eye there and is unique, to say the least. Moreover, Miller didn’t seek out a specialist. He utilised the ingenuity and skill of his brother to deliver his vision for the mixtape.
1. Kanye West – Graduation, (2007)
Released in 2007, Graduation is Kanye West’s best-selling project to date and was groundbreaking for several reasons. Having been on tour with Jay-Z, West realised that his ‘chipmunk soul’ sound wouldn’t cut through and impact arenas such as Madison Square Garden or the O2. In search of a sound that would penetrate crowds in an arena or stadium capacity venue, West realised that electronic music’s simple, dynamic and catchy sonics seemed to evoke reaction en masse in a high-capacity setting.
Kanye has admitted he looked to songs such as ‘Sexy Back’, ‘My Love’ and Daft Punk’s Alive 2007 album. With a more futuristic-sounding album, Ye knew that he needed a more futuristic album cover. Keeping in line with his signature College Dropout bear aesthetic, Kanye looked to one of the world’s most renowned Japanese anime illustrators, Takashi Murakami. The Japanese visual artist revived the bear in a fresh and new way that was visually exciting and futuristic and even directed the music video for ‘Good Morning’.
Kanye met Murakami for the first time during a visit to his studio in Tokyo, where the rapper was particularly interested in Murakami’s Miss Ko2 sculpture. From there, they built a relationship, and West began sketching out ideas with him, and together they created the now legendary cover of Graduation. You can watch the music video for ‘Good Morning’ in the video below.