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.”