As much as a cliche as it might be, a picture really is worth a thousand words. Visuals have always played a prominent role in hip hop culture. In the early days, it was graffiti (as decreed by DJ Afrika Bambaataa); Since then, the music video and the album cover have replaced tagging. It’s no surprise then that a lot of the most consequential records in hip hop also happen to come with pretty memorable cover art that says as much about the album and as the songs in it. With that framing in mind, here are seven of the realest and most ballin’ album covers in rap history.
Straight Outta Compton — NWA (1988)
Everything about NWA’s debut album is transgressive in a punch in the mouth, “yo, I’m here!” sort of way. Straight Outta Compton not only put west coast and gangsta rap on the map, it brought it to middle American suburbs. Their songs scared and offended parents and law enforcement—so much so that the FBI sent the group an angry letter (currently on display at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland) telling them to quit it. Even the album’s cover wasn’t messing around.
“We were in downtown Los Angeles, we didn’t have money for locations and most of our shots were just really simple set ups,” Eric Poppleton, the photographer behind the iconic image, recounted to NME. “There was no artificial lighting or anything, I just lay on the ground and they pointed what hopefully was an unloaded gun down at the camera. I couldn’t say for sure whether it was ready to fire, but it was definitely a real gun. There wasn’t anything fake back then.”
We Can’t Be Stopped — Geto Boys (1991)
In the summer of 1991, Bushwick Bill, one third of the Geto Boys, needed $500 to pay off his mom’s medical bills. The dwarf rapper didn’t have the money so under the influence of grain alcohol, PCP-laced weed, and depression, he decided to get himself killed so his mom could cash out his life insurance policy. Because suicide is a cardinal sin and isn’t actually covered by insurance, Bushwick Bill violently coerced his girlfriend to pull the trigger of a gun aimed at his head. For some unexplainable reason, he survived the gunshot and only managed to lose an eye.
All of this took place just days before the Geto Boys were scheduled to do a photoshoot for the cover of We Can’t Be Stopped. Instead of postponing, the record label just straight up did the shoot in the hospital, with a heavily-sedated Bushwick Bill displaying his jacked up eye. Fellow Geto Boy Scarface was not pleased, which is very visible on the album cover (he’s the one to the right of Bushwick Bill).
“I didn’t really want to put Bill out there like that,” he said in a Vibe interview. “How many people have gotten their eye shot out and captured it on an album cover for everyone to remember? It’s hard to wake up in the morning and deal with that one.”
That “My Mind Is Playing Tricks On Me” — the best rap song ever written about depression, paranoia, psychosis, and self-destruction– was the biggest hit in an album whose main art is the consequence of one of Geto Boys succumbing to these very urges feels preordained.
ATLiens — Outkast (1996)
To understand why ATLiens is such an in your face album, you need to know that Outkast made it after they were booed at the 1995 Source Awards when they won “Best New Artist.” This was at the height of the Death Row/Bad Boy, West Coast/East Coast rap feud, so attendees weren’t exactly down with having someone who didn’t belong to either camp get the recognition. Instead of cowering down, a pissed off Three Stacks grabbed the mic and matter-of-factly said, “The South got something to say!” At that precise moment, Outkast became the de facto superheroes of Southern Rap.
That feeling of exclusion in a game they were clearly more than good enough to play in led to the overall theme of this perfect 10 of an album. “We’re still ATLiens,” a 21-year-old Andre 3000 (neé Benjamin) explained to The Los Angeles Times in 1996. “The ATL for Atlanta, and the aliens for our status as foreigners in the hip-hop game.”
According to the Undefeated, the idea for the cover was born in the meeting where Outkast told LaFace, their label, the album title. D.L. Warfield, creative director for LaFace at the time, thought ATLiens “sounded like a movie [and] comic books are basically like paper movies,” so that’s what they should go for. Everyone seemed to like this idea, so they hired comic book artist Frank Gomez to illustrate what is now considered to be one of the greatest hip hop covers of all time.
The Don Killuminati: The Seven Day Theory — Makaveli (1996)
Recorded in seven days a month before Tupac was fatally shot in Las Vegas and released under his Outlawz moniker Makaveli, The Don Killuminati: The Seven Day Theory has the sense of urgency of a man who knows it in his bones that his time is running out. That feeling of persecution — along with a desire to reassert himself once and for all as the greatest rapper to ever live — is very much present in every aspect of this album, but especially in the cover art.
According to Ronald “Riskie” Brent, the Death Row Records in-house artist who did the controversial painting, it was Tupac’s idea to be crucified. In an interview with HipHopDX, Brent remembers Pac spelling out a very specific vision:
The cross hadn’t been filled in yet. 2Pac asked me, ‘Yo, can you make the cross into a road map?’ He told me the cities he wanted on there, where he wanted them, and that he wanted a compass on top of it to signify east to west. The compass was real important to him.
Brent would later add that the cities the rapper chose were ones he felt had crucified him.
“It’s got New York, Harlem, Brooklyn, everything,” Pac said in a Vibe interview that ran shortly after his death. “And I’m on the cross bein’ crucified for keepin’ it real.”
No one can accuse Shakur of ever being a fake. He was so real, in fact, that he could portray himself as a Messiah killed for speaking his truth and people were like “yo, where’s the lie though?”
Also, without the main art for The Don Killuminati: The Seven Day Theory there are no “Tupac is alive!’ conspiracy theories, and that’s reason alone to include it in this list.
Flesh of My Flesh, Blood of My Blood — DMX (1998)
Everything about DMX exudes menacing toughness. His vocals were less a human voice and more a menacing bark that told you to back off lest you wanted to get seriously mauled. His lyrics are the thoughts and beliefs of a man who has experienced nothing but suffering and is therefore more than okay at causing you equal amounts of pain. Even his album covers were terrifying, perhaps none more so than the art for Flesh Of My Flesh, Blood Of My Blood, the second number one album he had in 1998 (fun fact: DMX’s first five studio albums all hit number one, a record only Beyonce has surpassed.) which features a dangerous-looking X drenched in blood. It’s unclear whether the blood belongs to him, or to someone else.
The concept for the album cover was the brainchild of legendary hip hop photographer Jonathan Mannion, who claims he had to convince the rapper into getting inside a bathtub full of 60 gallons of fake blood:
“He was like, ‘Aw man dawg, I’m not going to get in it because man, I don’t know if it’s right. I’ve got these new pants on…’ — I was like, dawg, are you really going to use the pants excuse to not get in there? I was like, ‘Here, why don’t you just wear my pants?’ and I dropped my pants in front of a studio of 20 people. Everybody’s looking at me like I’m totally insane, but it showed how much I believed in my work, and he couldn’t deny it… so he got in. I had chills the entire time I was shooting. He got in with his own pants [on], realizing that he had 14 other pants on a rack in the other room that the stylist brought.”
Get Rich Or Die Tryin’ — 50 Cent (2003)
Literally everything you need to know about 50 Cent can be learned from the album cover of his major label debut. Like for real, it’s his autobiography.
The glass with the bullet hole tells you that 50 is legit AF because someone once tried to kill him but failed, which did actually happen in 2000. “After I got shot nine times at close range and didn’t die, I started to think that I must have a purpose in life,” 50 wrote in his actual autobiography, From Pieces to Weight: Once Upon A Time In Southside Queens. The matching Gucci gun holster and belt tell you that his bigger purpose was to be stupidly rich, which also did happen by way of becoming one of the most commercially successful rappers of all time and taking equity in Vitamin Water before it sold for billions to Coca-Cola.
Amazingly, this iconic image almost never happened. Julian Alexander, the album cover’s art director, said in a 2013 interview that the initial concept was to have a bloodied and gunshot-wounded 50 Cent lean on a glass door. That idea was eventually scrapped because it “…only represented the Die Tryin’ part of the title,” but “…didn’t represent the Get Rich at all.” This was obviously a very smart move.
To Pimp A Butterfly — Kendrick Lamar (2015)
Kendrick Lamar is the rapper of his generation,a fact he made very clear in his competition-annihilating “Control” verse. “To Pimp A Butterfly” is his masterpiece, an instant classic that will forever be one of the most important albums in hip hop. The album is a deep exploration and critique of the black experience in America.
The same can be said about the To Pimp A Butterfly cover art. Like the record itself, the main image is full packed with levels upon levels. On the one hand, according to an interview he did with MTV’s Rob Markman, it’s K-Dot flexing and using his success and fame to take his crew out of Compton and taking them to places they’ve never been to before, including the lawn if the White House (which for a couple of more weeks, is still occupied by a black man).
The cartoon-like dead judge is also a visual play on To Kill A Mocking Bird the Harper Lee novel about an innocent black man sentenced to death for a crime he didn’t commit. That the judge looks a lot like Ronald Reagan, whose administration is considered to be a devastation on Black America, is no accident either.
“Every little detail that you get out of it was well thought out,” Lamar said in a 2015 interview with Mass Appeal Magazine. “Everything you see on there is not no coincidence.”