For most music lovers, the cover art is the visual gateway to their sonic sojourn. Before the first beat drops or word is uttered, that first impression is often the packaging for the album or cassette. Album art in itself often tells a story and sets the tone for the auditory journey. While the cover art’s impact has been diminished a tad in the digital times, in the analog era of tapes and vinyl, music fans would spend as much time dissecting the cover as they did the music. And in Hip-Hop in particular, crate diggers have elevated cover art to near mythic status.
So, in celebration of HipHop’s 50th Anniversary, HipHopDX and HipHopWired have collaborated to present the 50 Greatest Hip Hop Album Covers OfAll Time. There are some surefire fan favorites on the list, as well as some more recent installments they may stir some convo, but it’s all for the love of the genre we hold dear and to recognize the efforts of art directors, photographers, artists and the musicians who inspire them.
Additional words by Alvin Blanco
A Tribe Called Quest – The Low End Theory (1991)
Designer/Photographer: Nick Gamma, Jean Kelly & Dave Skillken aka ZombArt
The legend goes that Q-Tip wanted a painted woman, akin to something you would find on an Ohio Players album cover. The live photos, taken by Joe Grant, were just a start and the proper artwork was created by Jean Kelly aka ZombArt JK while Nick Gamma aka ZombArt NG handled the lettering. Along with Dave Skillken they all worked in the art department of Tribe’s record label Jive’s parent company Zomba Recordings. Since Jive was on 4080-mode when it came to getting credit, they were known as the Zombart collective as a compromise. While the music spoke for itself, the classic cover with its afrocentric pallet of colors made the cipher complete. -AB
ODB, Return to the 36 Chambers: The Dirty Version (1995)
Art Direction: Alli True
Photography: Danny Clinch
ODB draped himself in truth like a North Face Denali Fleece. “I came out my momma pussy, I’m on welfare. Twenty-six years old–still on welfare,” he growls on the quixotic confessional “Raw Hide” from his 1995 debut. So it’s no surprise that Dirty would use his own food stamp card to adorn said release, creating one of the most iconic Hip Hop album covers of all time.
“That album cover was completely his idea…he literally came to my office with his welfare card,” A&R Dante Ross confirms in an interview. Thanks to a color Xerox machine (an expensive favor in the pre-scanner days), the head of the art department, a Wu-Tang fan, was able to mock up a 10×12 cover long before the album was even finished. “He was like ‘I’m the realest…I grew up in poverty and I’m not ashamed of who I am’…he was making a conscious decision to be the polar opposite of the shiny suits and to do it in a way that was funny.” – JLB
Nas – Illmatic (1994)
Designer/Photographer: Aimée Macauley
Illmatic’s cover was designed by Aimée Macauley and a features a well-worn photograph of a 7-year-old Nas that was taken by his father, Jazz musician Olu Dara. The city photo young Nasty Nas’ face is superimposed over was taken by Danny Clinch. The legend goes that Nas originally intended for the album cover to be a picture of him holding Jesus Christ in a headlock. While the nod to his Live at the BBQ verse where rapped “When I was 12, I went to hell for snuffing Jesus” would have been welcomed by Hip-Hop diehards, the chosen cover option was for the best. -AB
Lauryn Hill, The Miseducation Of Lauryn Hill (1998)
Album package photographer: Eric Johnson
Art Director, Sony Music: Erwin Gorostiza
Sampling and remixing is at Hip-Hop’s core, so it only makes sense that the debut album from one of the genre’s most revered artists, Ms. Lauryn Hill, would take inspiration from several places. The soulful center of The Fugees had her own visage carved into a desk because she knew she was about to school an entire industry.
“She already had some great ideas that were inspired by the album title. I don’t think I ever had an artist so involved with their imagery before this point. I insisted that the art direction credit be given to her along with myself,” Art Director Erwin Gorostiza, told Okayplayer.com.
A photograph of Ms Hill taken by Eric Johnson at her alma mater, Columbia High School in South Orange, New Jersey, was “carved” into the desk by retoucher Will Kennedy.
“In 1998, Photoshop was not anywhere near as powerful. Retouchers made up for it with all their skills and talent. Will had a knack for getting the art to look just right.” – JLB
The Notorious B.I.G., Ready To Die (1994)
Designer/Photographer: Michael Lavine
Before you even think it, Raekwon and Ghostface have admitted they went too far with their infamous “Shark Niggas (Biters)” skit where they accused the Notorious B.I.G. of “biting off of Nas sh*t!” Also, the baby with the afro was not a seed of Sean “Diddy” Combs or Christopher Wallace as an infant but actually Keithroy Yearwood, who is now about 30-years-old. Apparently, the kid was found during a casting call, and his mother caught a cool $150 for two hours of the child’s cuteness to be forever imprinted on Hip-Hop. -AB
Outkast, Stankonia (2000)
Art direction and design by Mike Rush.
Photograph by Michael Lavine.
After adorning their previous offerings, Atliens and Aquemini with illustrious illustrations, the two dope boys took a more direct approach for their fourth album, posing in a white tee and black leather pants against an ebony and ivory symbiote of the American Flag.
“The flag cover, that came to me when I was on an airplane,” Andre 3000 tells veteran journalist Craig Seymour in an 2000 interview. “I was thinking of a fly way to use the flag…make it a black and white flag. No color. More than anything. Like America is a no color state and we bring splashes of color.” Andre composed a drawing as an alternate cover to be a collectors item, but considers this image the “official” Stankonia cover.
Art Director Mike Rush was hired by L.A. Reid to head the urban music art squad and calls the monochromatic flag with its stars titled drunkenly in an almost demonic salute as “one of the most iconic album images in hip hop history.” -JLB
Lil’ Kim, Hardcore (1996)
Designer/Photographer: Michael Lavine
The cover for Lil’ Kim’s debut Hardcore album went viral before doing so was ever a thing. “When I did the Hard Core photo shoot, I was just posing to do them. It wasn’t like I’m just going to pose and squat and show my kitty cat; that was not on my mind at all. For me, it was just being a model and posing in a cute, sexy way,” the Queen Bee told XXL in 2016. – AB
Kendrick Lamar, To Pimp A Butterfly (2015)
Photo: Denis Rouvre
Art Direction: Kendrick Lamar, Dave Free, Vlad Sepetov
The cover art to Kendrick Lamar’s third studio album encapsulates the inherent rebelliousness of simply surviving in America. Even with the achievement of having an actual Black man in the White House, K.dot and his people posted up at the gate relegating the President’s residence to a backdrop, taking the directive to “paint the white house black” a defiant remix.
“It’s me and my homeboys in front of the White House,” Kendrick explains to Mass Appeal. “It’s really taking people from around my neighborhood and taking them around the world to see things I’ve experienced. [the baby he’s holding] is one of the homey’s kids, people I grew up with since elementary school all the way up to now. A lot of the individuals I talk about on Good Kid, Mad City is on this cover. It all spins around full circle.”
As for the judge laying on the ground with his eyes crossed out: “The one person that represents their lives negatively is a judge. Only God can judge these individuals.” – JLB
Tyler, The Creator – Flower Boy (2017)
Designer/Photographer: Eric Wright
Tyler, The Creator is always hands on so his Flower Boy album cover was no different. After peeping artist’s work in one of his books, the rapper commissioned Eric Wright to create the cover brought him his own sketches with ideas of what he wanted. “I was really impressed with his drawings and especially with his use of color. I think he has a much better innate capacity for working with color than I do,” White, who happened to be an Odd Future fan, told Complex in 2017. The final work is a jarring mix of color and weirdness, so it’s perfectly aligned with the Tyler, The Creator ethos. -AB
J. Cole, KOD (2018)
Cover art: Kamau Haroon
Whether you go with “Kids On Drugs,” “King Overdosed” or “Kill our Demons” as the meaning behind J.Cole’s KOD title, there is no debate that artist Kamau Haroon nailed all three interpretations with his vibrant yet haunting portrait.
Known artistically as Sixmau, the artist was in the studio with J.C Cole watching the NBA All-Star game when he created the cover. Evidently, the on-screen spectacle did little to distract him as the theme captured Cole’s vision: a monarch in the midst of a narcotic-induced daze shepherding equally dazed youth under his royalty capes.
“It was definitely a collaboration,” Kamau told Vibe of the creation. “It was a marriage of art and music. He told me what direction he was going in and then he gave me freedom to portray it how I wanted.” -JLB
Check out the remaining list of iconic album covers in Alphabetical order below:
2 Live Crew, Nasty As They Wanna Be (1989)
2Pac – The Don Killuminati: The 7 Day Theory (1996)
50 Cent, Get Rich Or Die Tryin (2003)
ATCQ, Midnight Marauders (1993)
Big Sean – Detroit 2 (2020)
Boogie Down Productions, By All Means Necessary (1988)
Busta Rhymes – Extinction Level Event (2020)
De La Soul, De La Soul Is Dead (1991)
DMX, Flesh Of My Flesh, Blood Of My Blood (1998)
Dr. Dre – The Chronic (1992)
Drake, Take Care (2011)
Eminem, The Slim Shady LP (1999)
Eric B & Rakim, Paid In Full (1987)
Fugees, The Score (1996)
Gang Starr – Daily Operation (1992)
Gucci Mane – Everybody Looking (2016)
JAY-Z, The Blueprint (2001)
Juvenile, 400 Degreez (1998)
Kanye West – Graduation (2007)
Kanye West – Yeezus (2013)
Kendrick Lamar – Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers (2022)
Lil’ Wayne – Tha Carter III (2008)
LL Cool J – Bigger and Deafer (1987)
Ludacris – Word Of Mouf (2001)
Lupe Fiasco – Food & Liquor (2006)
Mac Miller, Faces (2014)
Missy Elliott, Supa Dupa Fly (1997)
Nipsey Hussle, Victory Lap (2018)
N.W.A., Straight Outta Compton, (1989)
Outkast – Aquemini (1998)
The Pharcyde, Bizarre Ride To The Pharcyde (1992)
Public Enemy, Fear of A Black Planet (1990)
Queen Latifah, All Hail The Queen (1989)
Raekwon, Only Built For Cuban Linx (1995)
Redman, Dare Iz A Dark Side (1994)
Snoop Dogg, Doggystyle (1993)
TI – Paper Trail (2008)
Tierra Whack – Whack World (2018)
Travis Scott – ASTROWORLD (2018)
Tyler the Creator – Wolf (2013)