For contemporary creatives, the late Virgil Abloh was the pinnacle. Following his death from a rare type of cancer that he’d secretly been battling for many years, aged 41, his mark can continue to be felt everywhere in popular culture.
Abloh practised architecture at the Illinois Institute of Technology, and during his studies, he began to write about fashion for The Brilliance. Then a chance meeting with Kanye West at the t-shirt store he worked at in Chicago would prove to be life-changing.
The two of them struck up not just a close friendship but a creative partnership, too. The duo both then interned at Fendi in the same class together back in 2009.
Virgil was then appointed as the artistic director of the rapper’s Watch The Throne project and was also made the creative lead of Ye’s agency, Donda. Abloh also created the cover art for 808s & Heartbreak, Yeezus, and My Beautiful Twisted Dark Fantasy.
Following his work with Ye, Abloh started working with other illustrious figures in hip-hop and masterminded some of the most iconic pieces of cover art in the genre’s modern history.
Celebrate some of his finest work below.
Virgil Abloh’s best album cover designs:
Kanye West & Jay-Z – Watch The Throne (2011)
When the two most illustrious names in music collided in 2011 for Watch The Throne — they enlisted the help of Abloh to make their vision come alive. His design was inspired by the London riots, which were ongoing at the time, and became the final jigsaw that brought the whole project together.
Stage designer and collaborator Es Devlin remembered to GQ in 2019: “It was August 2011, [Watch the Throne] was about to come out, tickets for the shows needed to go on sale, and the design had to be finalised. We had abandoned the Giant Stone Angel Head version and the Roman Forum version and were on version 28 and hadn’t found the visual language yet, so we agreed to meet at my studio in Peckham and not leave the room until we had reached a conclusion.
“It was the week of the London riots, shops in Brixton were on fire, and Virgil and Kanye managed to get to the studio late in the evening. They played the album. We worked all night, iterating cardboard sculptures. Kanye and Virgil were cutting and glueing with my studio team, replaying the album until we reached the design. It was the sound of ‘No Church in the Wild’ blaring over Peckham.”
Kid Cudi – WZRD (2012)
Another stand out from Abloh’s repertoire is Kid Cudi’s album, WZRD. The record saw the rapper switching it up by incorporating a full-band approach into his sound, which he said was influenced by Jimi Hendrix and Pink Floyd.
Problems with Cudi’s record label would overshadow the album’s release after he claimed they treated his imprint as a “tax write off” which sparked controversy. However, now time has passed since its release, WZRD has grown in reputation, and Abloh’s illuminatingly arresting cover art succinctly represents that era of Cudi.
Kanye West – Yeezus (2013)
The cover art for Yeezus is a lesson in the art of simplicity, and as Abloh explained himself, it signified the “death of the CD”. He said in 2017, “Did Dieter Rams come visit us in a dream, and we finally did something good? But it’s metaphorical. Think about the era in which this came out. Two hip-hop kids that are obsessed with design and progressing forward.
“But for us, it represented the death of a CD. It’s an open casket for a format of music we were raised off of that’ll never be seen. Like, what’s the orange sticker? What are the 30 versions of the orange sticker?”
A$AP Rocky – Long.Live.A$AP (2013)
A$AP Rocky’s debut studio album Long.Live.A$AP, which landed in 2013, immediately transported him onto a level of superstardom. Significantly, the greyscale image of Rocky draped in the stars and stripes flag represented a new America.
Rocky later remembered to GQ where they met, “Standard Hotel. I was like 20 or 21, and all my friends were like 17, 16, and shit. The door was fronting on us, and then we see Virgil, and we were like, ‘Yo!’ He helped us get in and started hanging with us on the regular.
“We’d be at A$AP Lou’s house, and we’d be smoking and talking about clothes, and Virgil would be on the Serato, just spinning. I remember Virgil used to pull up wearing Red Octobers with holes from skateboarding all day in fucking Yeezys. Everyone was like, ‘What are you doing?’ But it was fly.”
Pop Smoke – Shoot For The Stars, Aim For The Moon (2020)
The original cover art for Pop Smoke‘s posthumous debut album, Shoot For The Stars, Aim For The Moon, was the source of much controversy. Fans of the late rapper provoked criticism from his fanbase, who were left angered Abloh used the first image, which appeared on a Google image search of Pop.
Many thought it was a lazy design, and the label intervened by changing it before the record was released. Although the cover was denounced on social media, isn’t art supposed to split opinion?
Abloh later told Complex, “I think it’s important that we as young Black kids and community support and reference each other rather than looking for it outside of our ecosystem. To me, [the original album cover I made] was exactly that. There was a bond and synergy amongst both of us, just being ourselves. It was completely organic.”