13 most fascinating hip-hop album covers of all time


Jay-Z, Kanye West, and Riccardo Tesci's art for their freshly announced single "H.A.M." seems a love-it-or-hate-it type situation. Rotts, nautical stars (remember high school, when the seniors started to get tattoos?), scopa crowns, and platinum does not a consensus make, apparently.

All up in that spirit, here is a smattering of equally detestable and/or huggable album covers from the history of rap, plus the stories behind each of these noble contributions and sometimes ill-fated attempts.


The Don Killuminati contains some of the last material from Tupac Shakur, being released two months after his shooting in Las Vegas in 1994. It was supposed to mark the switch from his nom de plum 2Pac to Makaveli, which for obvious reasons didn't really stick. The cover is wonderfully aggressive, and far more tasteful than a certain other far less talented rapper's similar gambit. And from the album: Makaveli explains himself.

This is most certainly Pen and Pixel's finest hour. Who wouldn't go to this party? The Houston-based design company is the progenitor of a very specific type of album cover, a blatant-bling barely-composed type of early Photoshop wondrousness that to this day informs our idea of what a rap cover should (or absolutely not) look like. It's something that they will very happily oblige you for a probably manageable amount of money. And their website is a treasure trove.

Indo G here missed his opportunity for an Oscar when he was disinvited from Three Six Mafia around the turn of the century, which is a shame for very obvious reasons, as it left him to his own devices which in turn led to recording Christmas N Memphis in 2002. I can't cop to having heard it, but judging from that cover, I (and you too, probably) absolutely want to. In eleven months.


Okay. Jesus. We don't have a fucking year here, gang, which is what the Geto (pronunciation: jee-toohg) Boys deserve. See that seemingly little man there? He just got shot in the face, and is barely stoked about it and really seems to just want to fake-talk to someone on a giant phone whilst being wheeled into certain anaesthetic bliss. See everyone else in the photo? That's what they call straight-to-god business.

I wish there was more to say about this record but: ALAS, it drinks not from the cup of extant, extinct or any middling gradation. It's fake. Not just any kind of fake, but Internet fake. So especially fake. If you have one-fourth an imagination then kindly use this as a mindpainting starter exercise: If Peter, Paul & Mary were trapped in a very frustrating rap contract that allowed very little in the way of budget for graphical branding and large-scale publicity, you'd probably look at this piece of what-will-be-called seminal graphic art in a very golden way.

The Arpanet-cum-Newsgroup foundation of Trick Daddy's Nostradamously forward-thinking cover for is, in full hindsight, an amazing thing. Yeah, its a web page, we all get it. But making the artwork of your relatively overlooked record a Netscape/Web .80 thinkpiece that is as relevant now (especially now, really) as ever is no thing to blow your USB turntable's nose at.

Most writers mention the Illmatic-ness of Lil' Wayne's cover for the record that would put him on top of the mountain - which sold an absolutely massive mid-internet million copies in its first week - and that does and doesn't miss the point. Wayne wanted to conjure memories of Illmatic and other rap keystones, but also making the point that III was to behis most personal and perfected piece of work, synthesizing years of ridiculously prolific output on mixtapes, guest spots, and his previous records. Who's that baby? It's a Photoshopped, adorable picture of Little Baby Lil' Wayne.

The story of Percy 'Master P' Miller should be inscribed in granite and read to children like The Polar Express; it's a tale as wacky and improbable as Zeus or Jesus or Willy Wonka, and deserves to be canonized in the marrow of humanity right with them, alongside magical carnies and unthinkable billionaires. He's a conflicted, troubled, genius-or-savant type man; an in-the-right-place or made-the-right-place kind of business twat. While the cover for MP Da Last Don would define him in most peoples' brains as, well, what he is (maybe?), he later turned towards a bevvy of more benevolent ventures (Better Black Television, One Million Gifts are two examples), possibly after realizing he'd been barking up the wrong ultimate Christian reward white velvet tree house mansion. Percy Miller is absolutely as American as they come: from bad to good and good to gone.

Sandy Brummels is a fucking frustrating designer. She's the one responsible (maybe? I get the feeling it was Weezy's idea) for the art on Tha Carter III, which fully makes up for in concept what it absolutely lacks in typographical loveliness (a complete opposite of her work here, for some reason). Brummels also has her name on the vanilla nice, vastly appropriate, and vaguely Saharan cover of India Arie's breakout record Acoustic Soul. Buuut...she's also responsible for half-cocked cut-and-paste dreck like David Banner's Mississippi and Nelly's Sweat. And this piece of Sega Saturn trash right here. "You may catch me in the park playing chess studying math signing seven in the sun..."

Resembling an immaculate version of a sorta well-known piece of installation art composed of musical equipment cast in salt, the cover for The Blueprint 3 is a bold stroke for anyone but Mr. Carter, basically saying "I've got all this on lock." Everything considered, it's pretty fair.

Methinks the starchild doth tweet too much! For all the time we've given to Kanye with or without our consent over the past year, it's helpful to remember 2004. On the shelf, The College Dropout looked like a Smashing Pumpkins record made love with a Japanese cartoonist. The record was West in full prove-it mode after his great success as a producer; comparatively tender and subdued (the ascent of the teddy bear visual hook for God's sake), with those weakish lyrics that West got so much shit for initially but in retrospect are fascinating; a chance to hear someone with the possibility work out the practice. Just look at him go.

David Kellogg was a seemingly lucky man, working for Playboy directing gauzy nudies destined for basement VCRs with exotic-sounding incestuals like the Van Breeschooten twins, during what must have been one of that magazine's most debaucherous decades: the '80s. I'd give a nickel for a tape of his inner monologue while filming Cool As Ice in 1991, the Mansion in the rearview and an Inspector Gadget movie starring Matthew Broderick looming as his swan song. To play devil's advocate, Cool As Ice netted around $400,000. When did we ever make that much from anything?

A gallon or more of pig's blood covers a bare-chested DMX in the photograph for his second, Bibleyish-sounding record, reaching towards The Passion and/or just plain 'ol ultraviolence (you can read an interview with the photographer here). Seemingly every mention of the album brings up it's "controversy," but a search for specific examples of anyone getting the vapors from this little piece of pop drama came up nil. Wikipedia accuses DMX of using "anal slurs," which struck me as weird; a friend was dead right calling the cover metal as hell. Flesh of My Flesh, Blood of My Blood was a massively successful album, which really did very little for the guy in the long run.