Rapper: Kanye West
Photography: Danny Clinch
Art direction: Virgil Abloh, Willo Perron, Kris Yiengst, Brian Donnelly (KAWS)
From 2004–2007, Kanye went from underappreciated hip-hop producer to surprisingly solid rapper to a highly respected rapper to global pop superstar. By 2008, the game was his. And then tragedy struck. Following the unexpected death of his mother, Kanye recorded this 13-track masterpiece, rooted in vulnerability.
While the cover-art for his previous album, Graduation, donned a radiant display of vibrant colors, encapsulating the triumphant soundscape of the record, Kanye took a minimalistic approach with 808s. The sadness that surrounds the album is displayed perfectly with one simple image — that of a deflated heart.
9. Dr. Dre — The Chronic (1992)
Rapper: Dr. Dre
Photography: Kimberly Holt
Art direction: Daniel Jordan
With a helping hand from then-unknown Snoop Dogg, Dr. Dre brought hip-hop further into the mainstream with The Chronic. While rap had broken through commercially in the mid to late ‘80s, by way of Run DMC and NWA, this album captapulted the genre into the suburbs of white America. More so, Snoop’s laid back flow, backed by Dre’s West-Coast G-Funk production, birthed weed-rap. Naturally, the only way to symbolize the sub-genre they tapped into would to make it a theme. On the cover, that’s exactly what Dre did, jacking the packaging design for the best-selling joint rolling papers — Zig Zag — with Dre solidifying his position as the face of a new generation of stoners.
8. DMX — Flesh of My Flesh, Blood of My Blood (1998)
Photography: Johnathon Mannion
Art direction: Johnathon Mannion
With a persona that tapped into the intimidating factor of Suge Knight and Death Row, DMX steered the genre into its most raw-sounding era. After introducing the world to “Ruff Ryders” on his debut, X took it one step further on his follow-up, becoming even more unhinged. And so, the cover exemplifies all of the anger, aggression, depression, and sadness — with our hero dripping in blood.
7. Ol’ Dirty Bastard — Return to the 36 Chambers: The Dirty Version(1995)
Rapper: Ol’ Dirty Bastard
Art direction: Danny Clinch, Illustrator: Brett! (Design)
One of the strangest characters in hip-hop history gives us one of the greatest album covers ever. While the tracks display his uncontrollable quirkiness, the album art further doubles down on the bizarre mindset of ODB. Half comical, half outlandish, the cover is literally a copy of his Public Assistance card. Clearly, there was no shame in ODB’s game.
6. The Notorious B.I.G. — Ready to Die (1994)
Rapper: The Notorious B.I.G
Art Direction: The Drawing Board
Photographer: Butch Bel Air
Despite shamelessly biting the transcedent artwork of an album released six months prior — Nas’ Illmatic — Ready to Die’s cover would top the list if not for one glaring problem: the baby isn’t Biggie. It’s some random kid. Regardless, the cover’s simplicity, with its all-white background, positions the baby, who very much resembles a young BIG, at the forefront. The timelessness of the cover is in the image itself — that of an innocent baby looking content, above a headline that reads “Ready to Die.”
5. Jay-Z — Reasonable Doubt (1996)
Art Direction: Cey Adams
Photographer: Jonathan Mannion
On Reasonable Doubt, Jay-Z manifested a street-hustler turned “Remy on the rocks” don. The album’s concept, if there is one, is simple: rags to riches. Here was a 26-year-old drug-slinger by day, rapper by night, finally getting his chance to shine. For an album that helped create the Mafioso Rap subgenre, the cover is perfection. With a tilted brim shielding his face, all we see is a Cuban cigar and gold pinkie ring. In retrospect, this was Jay channeling his inner Frank Lucas, the American Gangster, a decade ahead of time.
4. Snoop Dogg — Doggystyle (1993)
Rapper: Snoop Dogg
Art Direction: Kimberly Holt
Illustrator: Joe Cool
Having one of the coolest rap names alongside an unprecedentedly laid-back persona would’ve been enough to make Snoop’s debut album a classic, but Snoop wanted more. So he tapped his cousin to illustrate the cover, which has become incredibly iconic. The “beware of dog” sign, Snoop’s canine doppleganger, the female dog, the dog-catcher, the brick wall—the cover is a classic!
3. 50 Cent — Get Rich or Die Tryin’ (2003)
Rapper: 50 Cent
Art Direction: Stang Inc.
Photographer: Sasha Waldman
I’ll never forget the album cover — the way it was equally parts terrifying, intriguing, and fun. Though 50 certainly didn’t intend it this way, the cover hearkens back to an album just as rugged, Black Flag’s Damaged. The album title is even better — a caption-worthy proclamation in the pre-social media days. Those of us familiar with 50’s background were aware the title was no exaggeration.
2. Geto Boys — We Can’t Be Stopped (1991)