Is Album Cover Art Becoming A Lost Art?
Once upon a time, great album covers were almost as important as the content contained within. Growing up during the hip hop golden era, a powerful album cover image could be the determining factor on deciding which record to buy. Sadly, this once essential element is becoming a distant memory, as the digital download era takes over. Great cover art (in most cases) is becoming more of an afterthought than an essential component.
In recognition of the classic rap albums and the images that adorn them, we have compiled a list of some of the Greatest Hip-Hop Album Covers of all time. I have tried to be as objective as possible, judging albums on 3 main criteria: visual impact, composition and relevance, but as with all art-forms, it all comes down to personal taste.
“40 GREATEST HIP HOP ALBUM COVERS”
40. Jay Z – The Blueprint 3
From first glance you would be forgiven for thinking Jay Z’s Blueprint 3 was just bland white cover with 3 red lines painted across it, but look a little closer and you will see the level of work that went in to creating this piece of art. it was actually done with perspective trickery. After stacking the white-painted equipment into a corner, the team dimmed the lights and used a projector to display the three lines across the scene. They then took paint and covered all the areas that were highlighted by the projection. Once these areas were filled in, all they had to do was replace the projector with a camera to obtain the neat perspective illusion seen in the photo.
39. BDP – By All Means Necessary (1988)
For the second album, Boogie Down Productions drew inspiration from Malcolm X in creating the cover photo and the album title. On the cover, KRS-One peeks through a window, opening the curtains with his left hand while holding a micro uzi with his right hand. This image pays homage to a popular poster of Malcolm X, based on a photo of the civil rights leader that appeared in Ebony magazine in September 1964.
38. KING TEE – Act A Fool (1988)
Created by Glen E. Friedman, King T’s 1988 classic debut “Act A Fool” shows the powerful image of a guy, damn near dragging his pump-action along the ground, as he makes his way down the street towards an unknown target that’s out of shot. The perfect visual for
37. CAMP LO – Uptown Saturday Night (1997)
Nice illustration by Dr. Revolt that captures a cartoon style Sonny Cheeba and Geechi Suede getting down “Uptown Saturday night”.
36. SPICE 1 – AmeriKKKa’s Nightmare (1994)
I’m not sure who in Jive records art department was responsible for creating the image of the east bay gangsta Spice 1, rolling with twin “straps on the side”, but it’s a ganster rap classic no doubt….Blaaaaw!!!!
35. GETO BOYS – We Can’t Be Stopped (1992)
The infamous “We Can’t Be Stopped” album cover by The Geto Boys, shows a very graphic image of Bushwick Bill’s horrific eye injury after a failed suicide attempt. This has appeared in numerous album cover lists, including “Worst Album Covers ” lists. I feel it deserves it’s place here for the simple fact it encapsulates the raw and real image of the group. It’s purpose was to shock and grab attention and it achieved it’s objective perfectly, becoming the Geto Boys major breakthrough album.
Bill has since expressed regret over the album cover, saying:
“It still hurts me to look at that cover because that was a personal thing I went through… I still feel the pain from the fact I’ve got a bullet in my brain… I think it was pretty wrong to do it, even though I went along with the program at first.”
34. MASTER P – The Ghettos Tryin to Kill Me! (1994)
Before the days of “Pen N Pixel”, Southern rap houses like Rap-A-Lot and No Limit opted for a more photo-realistic approach to their album covers that captured the essence of southern ghetto life. One of Master P’s earliest offerings finds P ball’s deep in some lady while original TRU member King George lurks in the background with a revolver ready to pop a cap in an unsuspecting P
33. ERIC B & RAKIM – Follow The Leader (1988)
Photographer Drew Carolan’s iconic shot of Eric B and Rakim sitting on the hood of a Rolls Royce, perfectly encapsulated the albums title message.
32. BUCKSHOT & 9TH WONDER – Chemistry (2005)
Chemistry was one of a number of collaboration albums put out by Black Moon/Boot Camp Clik member Buckshot and 9th Wonder of Little Brother. The combination of seasoned emcee, talented producer and dope cover art by Romeo and Raphael Tanghal, provided all the elements for a classic…… that wasn’t quite a classic.
31. GANG STARR – Daily Operation (1992)
Gang Starr’s Daily Operation reminds me of one of those old magazine picture puzzles back in the day, were they had two identical images side by side and you had to spot differences and missing items in each one. And man does this pic have a lot of random and obscure items in it to spot. A globe, a skull, suitcases full of money, a typewriter, a portrait of Malcolm X, a copy of Message To The Blackman by Elijah Muhammad and even a hogs head sitting on the mantle. The usual shit you find in a Boston mansion.
30. JUNGLE BROTHER – Done By The Forces Of Nature (1989)
The Jungle Brothers’ 1988 debut, Straight Out The Jungle, was a landmark release in the development of conscious hip-hop. That album’s successor, 1989’s superior Done By The Forces Of Nature, builds on the innovations of the group’s debut and adds the polish of major label production. The classic cover art was created by Abdul Rahman.
29. FREESTYLE FELLOWSHIP – Temptations (2001)
If purely conventional graphic illustration cover art is your thing, then the Freestyle Fellowship are the ones you need to check for. Virtually all their albums and singles from the past 2 decades boast top notch graphic work.
28. DILATED PEOPLES – The Platform (2000)
As a general rule, most artists place the track listings on the back of their albums, but Dilated Peoples chose to break the mold and incorporate the track list into the albums front cover illustration instead. The Platform is designed like a tube map with each station representing a track from the album. All of these train lines then merge together to form the albums final destination which is the groups one-eyed mascot.
27. GRAVEDIGGAZ – 6 Feet deep (1994)
Sometimes, mean mugging stares from a menacing looking, knife-wielding crew with fanged metal grillz, is all it takes to get the message across.
Yaaaahhh here come the Gravediggaz!!!!
26. DIGITAL UNDERGROUND – Sons Of The P (1991)
Sons of the P is the second album by Digital Underground, released on October 15, 1991. The cover image was taken by Victor Hall and depicts Shock G as a kind of “funk Lord” sending down lightning bolts on to some kind of cryo-chamber containing his alter ego (Humpty Hump) as well as other DU family members. The album also contains a comic book insert created by the DU frontman himself, Shock G aka Greg Jacobs.
25. FUNKDOOBIEST – Which Doobie U B? (1993)
is the first album by the Los Angeles-based Latino rap group Funkdoobiest. The album title comes from a line in an episode of the 1970s sitcom, What’s Happening!!, when the main character, Raj, is introduced to special guests The Doobie Brothers. The wacky cover illustration was done by Glenn Barr.
24. 2 LIVE CREW – As Nasty As They Wanna Be (1989)
2 Live Crew contributed greatly to the Miami bass scene during the late-’80s to mid-’90s, and they soon saw their music expanding worldwide. The lyrical content of their songs certainly added to the notoriety of the group, but who could forget their infamous album covers? Depicting the members lying on the beach wearing heavy gold chains in between the legs of four bikini-clad babes, the iconic imagery for As Nasty As They Wanna Be captured the essence of 2 Live Crew’s music—good ol’ fun.
23. THE GOATS – Tricks Of The Shade (1992)
One of my all time favourite hip hop albums. To truly appreciate this cover art you need to first listen to the album and then view the cd insert in it’s entirety. Those who are familiar with this long forgotten gem will understand how well the artwork matches the albums overall theme and concepts. The Goats 1994 follow up album “No Goats No Glory” also had a bad ass cover, but the album flopped.
22. ICE CUBE – Death Certificate (1991)
Cast your mind back to a time when a politically charged Ice Cube was at the very peak of his game pumping out some of the most classic hip hop material the world has ever witnessed. With it’s depiction of Ice Cube sarcastically morning the death of uncle Sam who lays dead on a stretcher complete with toe tag and US flag, symbolized the death of an era that was rapidly changing. Ironically 23 years on it is the old 90’s Amerikkka’s Most Wanted Ice Cube that myself and so many other fans still morn after.
21. COMPTONS MOST WANTED – Music To Driveby (1992)
This is as classic as gangster rap covers get. Photographer Peter Dokus’s aerial view of Eiht and his homie just chilling in the ride with the top down and the heat on the seat. It also had a clever mirroring effect, having a copy of the album placed in the back seat of the car, perfectly complimenting the albums “Music To Driveby” message. That said, I’m still to this day trying to figure out what they played that vinyl with?
20. EPMD – Business As Usual (1992)
Marvel Comics Bill Sienkiewicz took on the task of creating EPMD’s third album cover, taking a cartoon-esq Eric and Parish and placing them in the line of fire immortalizing the ‘microphone doctors’ in the process.
19. DE LA SOUL – 3 Feet High And Rising – (1989)
The album artwork for De La’s debut 3 Feet High and Rising was designed by radical British artist collective the Grey Organisation. It has become one of the most recognizable album covers in the history of hip-hop. The brightly coloured hippy 60’s flower power imagery fitted in nicely with the groups “D.A.I.S.Y. Age” concept, an acronym standing for “da inner sound, y’all”.
18. A TRIBE CALLED QUEST – Midnight Marauders (1993)
Midnight Marauders‘ unforgettable cover design was the creative brainchild of Jive Records head art director Jean Kelly with assistance from fellow art director Nick Gamma and Q-Tip. It featured the group’s signature striped female figure from the previous album (The Low End Theory) and was released in 3 different variations, with different headphone wearing rap stars on each; One black frame, one red frame, one green frame.
17. ICE-T – The Iceberg (Freedom of Speach) (1989)
ICE T – The Iceberg, Freedom Of Speech…Just Watch What You Say…
Ice T has always had a knack for putting out strong album covers with powerful statements, Power, Home Invasion, O.G and let’s not forget the notorious and crazy dope Cop Killer cover, which had to be re-edited. Ice’s 1989 Iceberg is no different. The albums sub-title “Freedom of Speech…just watch what you say” couldn’t have been any more perfect in
16. ACTION BRONSON – Rare Chandeliers (2012)
Johnny Samson created a masterpiece with this one. Exploding cars, wizards, machine gun carrying crocodiles, but naked dagger wielding women, and Bronson himself in a suit and wolfs-head hat, holding a double barrel shotgun. Sheeeeeit what’s not to like.
15. SCARFACE – Mr. Scarface Is Back (1991)
Being a huge old school RAL fan this one has always been a favourite of mine. No description needed for this classic action ‘freeze frame’ from Face. The picture paints a thousand words
14. KOOL KEITH – Demolition Crash (2014)
Dr Octagon Kool Keith’s latest double album is a brand new contender for the greatest album covers list. It was dreamed up by illustrator Jesse Philips.
13. PUBLIC ENEMY – Fear Of A Black Planet (1990)
The man responsible for bringing Public Enemy’s black planet concept to life as an illustration was B.E. Johnson. The iconic Public Enemy target logo that scorches the planets surface was created by non other than Chuck D himself
12. SA-ROC – Nebuchadnezzar (2014)
Also known as the starseed, Sa-Roc is the queen and poster child of the God Hop movement. Nebuchadnezzar is her 9th album to date and apart from the fearsome lyrical content contained within, the album also boasts one of the best cover artworks you will ever lay eyes on. It was Illustrated by the very talented and definitely deserves its place in our list.
11. HEADNODIC – Red Line Radio (2011)
This amazing Salvador Dali style illustration was created by Ethan Parsonage for producer and bassist Headnodic, aka Ethan Parsonage.
10. SNOOP DOGGY DOGG – Doggystyle (1993)
When Snoop said “It ain’t no fun if the homies can’t have non” he wasn’t bullshitting. He gave the task of creating his eagerly anticipated debut album to his cousin Joe Cool, who was actually banged up at the time. Snoop ran the idea by Dr Dre who agreed and gave him the go ahead. Joe came up with the iconic cartoon illustration, and the rest is history.
9. WU TAN CLAN – Enter The Wu Tang 36 Chambers (1993)
The Wu’s groundbreaking album cover was shot by photographer Daniel Hastings. who at the time had joined forces with Christian Cortes and Miguel Rivera to create a mix of mystery and grime, a lost scene from a blunted and dusted-out Shaw Bros movie that never was.
8. SEAN PRICE – Mic Tyson (2012)
One of the most anticipated albums of 2012 also came with one of the best covers. Sean Price’ ‘Mic Tyson’ features album cover illustration by Marc Ecko’s lead designer, who also created the cover art for Monkey Barz. The cover was also brought to life in the form of a motion-graphics animated video set to one of the tracks from the album.
7. GZA – Liquid Swords (1995)
One of the greatest hip hop albums of all time wouldn’t be complete without an iconic album cover to accompany it and GZA’s chess “battle field” concept was just the thing. GZA had originally intended to use the idea on “Da Mystery of Chessboxing,” single but decided to save it for “Liquid Swords
6. MF DOOM – Mm… Food (2004)
MM.. FOOD, is an anagram of MF DOOM. Throughout the album, DOOM employs many food-related, and many of his lyrical themes are based on food metaphors. The original cover art was painted by Jason Jagel and designed by Jeff Jank. The paintings contain scenes of MF DOOM eating breakfast, mixing chemicals in a forest, and people tied to trees. A bonus disc entitled,Mm..LeftOvers was released by Rhymesayers and Hiphopsite.com to promote the album. The re-release comes with a bonus, Tour Poster, and a chocolate-scented Mm.. Food sticker.
5. ERYKAH BADU – New Amerykah, Part Two (2010)
I was in two minds about adding this one as I wouldn’t consider Erykah hip hop in the purest sense but the album cover was too good not to feature. Erykah is well known for her spiritual eccentricities, and her visual art is just as provocative. For this one she enlisted award-winning artist, EMEK. The symbolism and detail that went into this piece is incredible.
4. ICE T – Power (1988)
I wonder if Ice T’s classic album cover would be quite as iconic if he had used Coco instead of his then girlfriend Darlene Ortiz? We doubt it. And lucky for us, photographer Glen E. Friedman’s controversial image of Darlene wearing a white thong-bikini will forever conjure up fond memories for the old-schoolfans. Darlene we salute you.
3. GHOSTFACE KILLAH & ADRIAN YOUNGE – Twelve Reasons To Die (2013)
This album just reeks of class from the cinematic production to the dramatic movie-style cover art. It’s clear that producer Adrian Younge is thoroughly obsessed with authenticity. When shooting the artwork for 12 Reasons he spent months learning the same equipment that would have been used in the late ‘60s. There are dozens of different versions of the album cover, each one as visually impressive as the one featured here.
2. OUTKAST – ATLiens (1996)
After the smoothed-out Cadillac vibe, some listeners were taken aback when the group re-fashioned themselves as aliens and genies out for black rights in space with ATLiens. For its cover, artist Frank Gomez built a world around this ideology. Though it wasn’t the first rap record to feature a mock comic book cover, it might have been the first to make good on that promise—the CD booklet included an 18-page comic that looked
1. THE PHARCYDE – Bizarre Ride II The Pharcyde (1992)
The debut album of the west coast alternative rap group The Pharcyde. Released during the dominant Gangsta rap era of West Coast hip hop, Bizarre Ride was described as “refreshing, light-hearted humor with lush, jazzy production”.
This iconic rollercoaster cover art by Fuct, captured the groups wackiness perfectly.
That concludes our “40 Greatest Hip Hop Album Covers” countdown.
What are your favourites? Leave a comment