The 15 Best Hip-Hop Album Covers of All Time

Written by on May 24, 2018

15. Kendrick Lamar—Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City (2012)

Rapper: Kendrick Lamar
Photography: Dan Monick, Paula Oliver, Dwane LaFleur, Danny Smith
Art Direction: Kendrick Lamar

Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City is about growing up as an ’80s baby on the gang-infested streets of Compton, and the cover brilliantly captures this period of Lamar’s life. In a polaroid, toddler-aged Kendrick is situated on his uncle’s lap — who is throwing up a Crip sign, naturally — alongside his father and grandfather. The censored bars covering their eyes displays the anonymity that everyone affiliated with gangs embodies. On the table, next to a baby bottle is a “40”, representing Kendrick’s life situation growing up: a good kid in a mad city.

14. Ghostface Killah — Iron Man (1996)

Rapper: Ghostface Killah
Photographer: Daniel Hastings
Art Direction: CARTEL

Never has a cover captured the style of the times in hip-hop as well as Ghostface’s Iron Man. By the mid ‘90s, Ralph Lauren’s infusion into hip-hop culture was reaching a fever pitch. In 1994, when Raekwon wore the Polo Snow Beach Pullover in the video for Wu-Tang Clan’s “Can It All Be So Simple,” Ralph Lauren became the go-to clothing brand for hip-hop’s finest.

https://youtu.be/7m148vZDwJA

On the cover, clad in multi-colored puffy Polo jackets, Ghostface, Raekwon, and Cappadonna represent the apex of a particular style moment in hip hop history.

13. Wu-Tang Clan — Enter the Wu-Tang: 36 Chambers (1993)

Rapper: Wu-Tang Clan
Art Direction: Jacqueline Murphy
Photographer: Daniel Hastings

Every rap crew’s album cover is the same: just line up each member and have them look as mean as possible. Wu-Tang took it a step further, having each member don a mask that obscured their identities.

Already known for their extensive roster, the intimidating group shot, on which not one face is discernible, further solidified the group’s status as NWA’s East Coast successors. With that said, whereas NWA basked in the limelight, with Eazy-E riding a wave of popularity as a solo-artist, Wu-Tang presented a united front.

12. Ice Cube — Death Certificate (1991)

Rapper: Ice Cube
Art Direction: Kevin Hosmann
Photographer: Mario Castellanos

In an effort to shed light on the disenfranchised, Ice Cube became a voice for police brutality and anti-government sentiment on his solo debut. With his highly anticipated follow-up, Cube took it up a notch. In a dark room that doubles as a morgue, Cube strikes a pose that straddles the line between digust and resistance, while standing over a dead body. The kicker — the dead body is covered with an American flag, with a toe tag that reads, “Uncle Sam.” The cover only set the stage for his second project, in which he takes aim at every race, while calling out the good ol’ USA for its inequities.

11. Drake — Take Care (2011)

Rapper: Drake
Photography: Hyghly Alleyne, Lamar Taylor
Art direction: Martin “Drop” Wong

Putting Drake 11th on any all time list makes the old-heads uncomfortable. But there’s good reason to, in this case.

At the time, Drake was on the cusp of superstardom. Following his radio-friendly, but commercially successful debut, the hip-hop world assumed Drake would double down on hit records. Instead, Drake used his second album to lyrically express the age old “money can’t buy happiness” theme. The result is that the Drake we hear on the record is perfectly encapsulated by the melancholy Drake we see on the cover. The cover’s excessive display of gold, suggestive of success, is juxtaposed by the look of entrapment on Drake’s face. The cover could have reflected the joys of living a “money over everything, money on my mind” life of unrestrained excess, but Drake gives us a glimpse of the downside of fame.

10. Kanye West — 808s & Heartbreak (2008)

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)

Rapper: DMX
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
Photography: Alli
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)

Rapper: Jay-Z
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)

Rapper: Geto Boys
Art Direction: Cliff Blodget
Photographer: Cliff Blodget

After Bushwick Bill forced his girlfriend to shoot him in the face in a drunken standoff, Rap-A-Lot thought it wise to take a picture of him, alongside his Geto Boys partners, in the hospital that very night. On a gurney, bandages off and bloodied, Bill is still handling his business on his cell phone. If your cover is made up of the greatest in-the-moment hip-hop picture of all-time, while representing the peak hysteria of early ’90s rap, in an age before the ubiquity of cell-phone cameras were available to document everything, it warrants said cover’s placement in the top two greatest hip-hop covers ever.

1. Nas — Illmatic (1994)

Rapper: Nas
Art Direction: Danny Clinch
Photographer: Uncredited

“To every baby on the album cover existing’/This trend I was settin’ it came to fruition.” — Nas, “Nas Album Done,” on DJ Khaled’s 2016 album, Major Key

When the idea for this column started, I already knew what album held the top spot — Illmatic. For an album that still serves as a blueprint for hip hop seriousness, for an album that offers storytelling as an artistic imperative, for a sense of determinism — that one’s upbringing and environment is responsible for who they go on to be — the cover is perfection. We see a young Nas at the forefront, while the album’s setting — Queensbridge Projects — serves as the backdrop.

We are still seeing babies on album covers 22 years later. Long live Illmatic.

Thank you for reading

Brad Callas


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