So I consider myself just a cover art loving boy. I'm also a highly sensitive person (HSP). Years before I'd ever utter a single original lyric, I designed my first cover art using software called Paint Shop Pro. I might've been 8 or 9. The brief was "Look cool as hell, this imaginary project is called Hollyhood!" With the title written in English Text MT, I was very proud of myself.
At this point in my life I had no real aspirations to pursue a career in music, nor design for that matter, my uncle just always had CDs laying around the house. Little did I know what would happen 18 years later.
Looking back, I guess it makes all the sense in the world that I've been making a career out of hip-hop music and graphic design over the last eight years. Both these spheres of my artistry, spheres of my life, have been coexisting harmoniously since my concerned design lecturer advised me to marry the two together back in 2014.
Cover art became the ideal and most exciting meeting place for the love I had for music and design. As soon as I understood the visual language, I immediately applied it to my own music career housed under my company/label/agency NORMVL. This meant being my own creative and art director every time I released music. A hyper-awareness and appreciation for album art, sleeve design, music branding and marketing, roll-out and visual campaigns developed as a result.
I like to lean into a lot of things with empathy, so my perspective as a consumer first is what primary drives my motivation and ideation. So let me talk you through what I've been consuming over the years.
DOOM & Madlib - Madvillain (2004)
Photographer: Eric Coleman
Designer: Jeff Jank
I formed a subconscious relationship with this cover long before I ever heard the music. I don't have any specific recollections of these previous engagements, but there was always this strange familiarity that accompanied the excitement I'd experience when I'd see the vinyl at Khaya Records in Durban. What was it about this dark, masked figure's portrait that was so fascinating to me? With a portrait, the intent is to display the likeness, personality and even the mood of the person, so, like, who the fuck is this? Are they smiling? What are they hiding? This is a portrait of a masked figure in the shadows, the irony. But I believe that's where they hooked me. The intentionality. Cover art is functional, it's art, yes, but it's mostly design, it has a purpose, an objective, it's communicative, and this cover art was saying something in a very interesting and subtle way, "This is me…" and before you can respond it says "...exactly. Now run along."
Naturally, this fascination and curiosity led me on a path of just wanting to know more about MF DOOM, through his lyricism and published articles about him, where he's from, his approach to his writing, his reasons for the mask. The conclusion I'd always come to was that this is one of, if not, the greatest case studies of branding in hip-hop, and maybe music. Fight me.
I read that Jeff Jank drew inspiration for this design from Madonna's self-titled debut, another grayscale portrait, but of someone we can actually identify. But another element these covers have in common is the subtle yet significant inclusion of a spot color. I can't articulate the emotion that orange square on the top right of DOOM evokes; I don't know if it's because orange is my favorite colour, but if there was anything else they could've done to this portrait to convince me this was the greatest album cover of all time, it was adding that orange square.
Orange square. Thank you, Jeff Jank, thank you, Eric Coleman.
Now let's unpack my relationship with orange a bit with this next cover art.
Frank Ocean (2012)
Designers: Thomas Mastorakos, Aaron Martinez, Phil Toselli
I was introduced to a neurological phenomenon called synesthesia in 2017 while doing research for my thesis on the significance of visual communication on the way we consume and engage with music in the digital age. If you've never heard of it, it's described as a sensation that occurs when the stimulation of one sense evokes an involuntary response in another sense. The point of my research was to sort of prove that music consumption isn't limited to just the auditory experience, the eyes indulge as well.
Enter: channel ORANGE.
It wasn't enough that I had connected to the music of this album as strongly as I did; the unselfish use of orange contextualized and solidified this relationship. I couldn't experience the music (with my eyes closed) without finding myself in an orange-lit room, with the shades of orange varying depending on the mood of the song ("Crack Rock" and "Thinkin Bout You" take you to a bronze/amber place). There's no real subject on this cover that you can connect to, no face, no orange Gusheshe (BMW E30 M3), no sad boi with green hair, nothing but Cooper Black and Orator, which aren't even that interesting as fonts, but it all just says "Shhhhhhh … just get in, trust me" as you're handed a thick strawberry milkshake and a PlayStation 1 joystick.
This synesthetic experience made a significant contribution to my formative years as musician, designer and human child. Color as the starting point of my design process when translating music into cover art was nurtured in this time. I never thought I was synesthetic, that felt like a superpower, and I was very intentional about finding a color. But while Frank Ocean associated orange for this album with a summer love, with my own music, around 2016, I associated it with the enigmatic parts of him that I related to. I believed that orange was a place where everyone who was too yellow for the red and too red for the yellow would sit and chill. I'd never seen Frank in this place, I'd always see the orange Gusheshe from nostalgia, ULTRA parked outside though. Maybe we had our own orange places we went, different shades. The HEX code for mine was #FC642D, you couldn't miss it.
I love channel ORANGE. But speaking of nostalgia, ULTRA.
Frank Ocean (2011)
Photographer: Dricebrug (the original vehicle's owner's BMW forum user name)
Designer: Frank Ocean
Firstly, I think it's very interesting to know that the typography was Frank's design, and it's the same as on channel ORANGE, Cooper Black and Orator, just without the comma. I know I said they aren't that interesting as fonts, but I think it's his keen eye for contrast between an ultra bold, tightly kerned in serif display typeface written in lowercase and a kerned out, condensed, monospaced modern typeface that only has uppercase characters. It's that intentionality again. It's design, it's what cover art is about. I love it.
This was the music that introduced me to Frank Ocean. There was nothing nostalgic about it for me as I didn't know any of the songs he covered and/or sampled, but 11 years later, there's definitely a lot of nostalgia of my own I can associate.
There's that orange again, piercing through its surroundings populated by its fellow secondary color green. I don't know what Dricebrug's experience is as a photographer, but the contrasting of colors seems really intentional, as does the composition of the photo. It also really looks cinematic with what could've been an intentional grade. Those stark shadows, it's as if the Gusheshe just drove out from under MF DOOM's mask.
I think there was some extra grain Frank threw on the version of the image he would later lay typography over. I believe that's the nostalgia grain effect, which makes perfect sense.
Let's take a break from orange a little bit.
808s & Heartbreak
Kanye West (2012)
Photographer: Kristen Yiengst
Art Directors: Virgil Abloh, Willo Perron
I don't believe you can critically discuss COVER art if you haven't heard the music it covers. I mean, you can discuss it as art, like "I like the detail of the illustration." You just can't take it out of its context and really say something profound about COVER art. It's translation, a connection between the sonic and the visual, and I think this particular album truly embodies that notion.
The sonic approach to the production of this album is described as "a minimalist sonic palette." Being a designer and seeing the word "palette" in a musical context couldn't be more appropriate for 808s & Heartbreak. It's said that Kanye West "maintained a 'minimal but functional' approach to producing the album" (so a design approach), and similar sentiments can be shared about Virgil Abloh (RIP) and Willo Perron's approach to the art direction.
If I cared, I'd be embarrassed to say that 808s & Heartbreak was my official introduction to Kanye West's music, but I don't, so I'm not. I caught him at a very fascinating transitional phase musically with this album, and holding the CD case with a bright red deflated heart-shaped balloon contrasted against a pastel light cyan background (a bit reminiscent of our favorite orange square), I had zero expectation, a clean slate, I was excited.
This album's minimalist approach to sonics meant being able to hear and single out each individual instrument used, so each instrument could be interpreted as a single flat color as seen on the left-hand side of the cover art, as opposed to an analogous collection of different shades, gradients and blended colors.
There's something about minimalism and color that creates a metaphorical physical space where one can be transported once you press play, like with channel ORANGE.
Born to Die
Lana Del Rey (2012)
Photographer: Nicole Nodland
Designer: Matt Maitland
I'm a South African listening in, so don't ask me what I mean when I say this cover art for Lana's second attempt at a debut album screams "HOLLYWOOD." I'll explain though.
A lot of what I know about America is through pop-culture references and Hollywood. For a long time I didn't think Hollywood was an actual place, I thought it was what they called the entertainment industry that side.
"This is Hollywood, kid," they say in movies, "Welcome to Hollywood, don't let this town ruin you," Drake raps on "Light Up" from his debut. Some keywords I'd associate with Hollywood are: artificial, superficial, dog-eat-dog, plastic surgery, implants, cameras, ego, toxicity, facade, beauty standards, pop culture, and that's what I believe Nicole Nodland and Matt Maitland tried to capture with the cover for Born to Die.
As with many debut albums, we see this portrait of Lizzy Grant as her Lana Del Rey persona, accused of being manufactured by the pop industry, hair done and neat, red, pouty lips, a semi-visible pink bra under a semi-see-through white button-up blouse, a real tease, posed dead center in her best Jessica Rabbit impersonation—this is Hollywood. Typography spread across the top in a bold, condensed display typeface like the masthead of a pop-culture magazine. "THIS IS LANA DEL REY," it screams. I believe this is also the first usage of the Lana Del Rey logotype that appears on her first three albums.
Then you press play and are immediately sucked into a string-heavy cinematic Hollywood production as you learn that sometimes love is not enough as you walk on the wild side of life, surrounded by drugs, money, swimming pools, white bikinis, constantly watching your back while standing in a cloud of smoke that reeks of toxic relationships—this is Hollywood as told by Elizabeth Grant.
The CD's lyrics booklet is stained with blood on the edges—it's morbid, but it's what they were selling with this album and they sold it! My Lana Del Rey CD collection is just short of NFR, Chemtrails and Blue Banisters.
FKA twigs (2012)
Imagery: Jesse Kanda
Designers: FKA twigs, Phil Lee
If you're familiar at all with his work, you might easily miss this cover in his portfolio. Inspired by internal organs, Jesse Kanda is popularly known for his grotesque animations and sculptures that might make you uncomfortable if you're as hyper sensitive as I am. Outside of his own personal projects, his work accompanies a handful of releases by Arca.
This cover for FKA twigs' debut album is an exception. It's textbook debut album cover with its fully frontal portrait of twigs starring vaguely into the viewer's eyes. I'd say it's an interesting lovechild of Madvillainy and Born to Die. This isn't twigs as she's known to look in real life. Kanda's touch isn't terribly obvious without a closer inspection.
Up close you can clearly see the artificial texture akin to Kanda's works, a sort of dollification, if you will. It's a different kind of artificial compared to Born to Die, which seems more man-made with makeup and Photoshop, twigs looks slightly inhuman, but still human, maybe an humandroid. She looks a little zoinked out, too, with her facial expression, looking like she fell face first and bruised her entire face.
I believe it's the perfect accompaniment to the sonic component you're introduced to at play. Her sound is described as avant-pop, alternative R&B and trip hop, all variations of sounds we know, which really contextualizes the visual, something that looks like something we know (a human being), but isn't quite it (an humandroid).
In a tone of voice similar to that of Madvillainy's cover, just a bit more glitchy and futuristic, this cover says, "This is me … come in at your own risk."
Arctic Monkeys (2013)
Designer: Matthew Cooper
When I create visual campaigns for releases I consider the cover art to play a similar role to a logo in a brand identity. It's the main branding element, but it's one part of a whole brand identity that consists of type, colors, identity systems, etc. I was taught that logos at their very core are minimalism personified, flat vectors, to be designed only in Adobe Illustrator (not Photoshop), because their purpose requires them to be very adaptable and flexible for the various formats they'll exist within.
The first time I saw illustrator Matthew Cooper's cover art for AM was in the music video for "Do I Wanna Know?" by David Wilson (also an illustrator) and the agency Blink. It was an incredible experience, being introduced to Arctic Monkeys through such an engaging visual. It was the perfect conversion moment from hearing a great song, watching a great music video, to me buying the CD and streaming the music. A cohesive brand identity throughout.
Matthew Cooper and David Wilson basically invented Apple Music's Motion Cover and Spotify Canvas features. Obviously not, but in principle, the idea of creating a cover art that's so minimalist that it's functional and dynamic, opens up a world of potential especially in the animation and merchandising spaces. It went from wave lines vibrating in synchronization to an entire animated short film. C'mon, man! Just c'mon! There's very little you can do after the fact with photographed cover arts.
Bravo, Matthew Cooper and David Wilson! But let's take minimalism a step further with the next cover art.
Kanye West (2013)
Creative Director: Kanye West
Art Directors: Kanye West, Virgil Abloh, Matthew Williams, Justin Saunders
Designers: Joe Perez, Jim Joe
So how much more (or less) than a white curvy line on a flat black background can you take minimalism? "Hold my drink" —Virgil Abloh
Described as an open casket for the format of music (CD), the cover for Yeezus was no cover at all. It's a very passive "fuck you" reminscent of works such as The Treachery of Images (1929) by Belgian surrealist painter René Magritte, "this is not a pipe," and readymade Fountain (1917) sculpture by Dadaism's Marcel Duchamp.
The music of Yeezus has been described as "hostile, abrasive and intentionally off-putting" by critic Greg Kot; "intentionally off-putting," there's that intentional word again from earlier. It's said that Ye was determined to undermine the commercial, resulting in the more commercial-sounding songs being left off the project. Much like Dadaism, this Ye era was a protest of sorts, a response. The term anti-art comes to mind, one that is synonymous with the Dadaism movement, used to describe works that challenged accepted definitions of art.
The intentionality and functionality took priority over aesthetic, and I, for one, absolutely love and appreciate it. Going into the music of this album with all of this in mind really gives you the necessary context to really appreciate this Ye era of music.
Functionality reigns supreme in my life as a designer and music branding enthusiast, I think this is mainly because the nature of the work I pride myself in—that being developing visual campaigns and roll-outs for music release—we need to be creating moments that expand far beyond just a static image of cover art, how do we create a dialogue around it? How do we turn it into a stage design? How do we make it merchandise? How do we give it a taste and smell? How do we stretch the narrative long enough to stay memorable in a time of short attention span and a saturated music market? That's always the brief.
And with that said, this is the conclusion of the brief I had to answer. These are my eight great album covers.
Art of the Album is a regular feature looking at the craft of album-cover design. If you'd like to write for the series, or learn more about our Clio Music program, please get in touch.