Ok so here’s the thing: a Mt. Rushmore of hip hop album covers is essentially an impossible task. There are too many iconic images to sort through; too many all time great creative statements made by artists who knew they had to grab your attention visually first before you could hear them express their musical brilliance. How can someone whittle down decades of artistic genius into just four slots? Answer–you cannot. So I changed my approach. What follows is not a ranking of the greatest hip hop album covers of the 2000s or 90s or 80s, or any time period. This is my personal Mt. Rushmore; feelings, not objective facts. These are the four covers that speak to my interests the most, or that I find had the biggest cultural impact and influence at the time of release. Feel free to disagree, or tell me how brilliant I am. Let’s dive in.
Follow the Leader–Eric B and Rakim (1988)
Rakim’s haircut. The dope jackets with their names emblazoned. The burgundy Rolls Royce with the album title edited into the center. This is just an incredible image. It can be argued that their first album “Paid in Full” has an even more classic album cover, but in my heart of hearts I had to go with Follow the Leader. Hip hop is built on a foundation of cool, and it doesn’t get cooler than this. One of the great rap duos ever, looking over the Brooklyn Bridge with all the confidence in the world. Who wouldn’t want to follow these two?
Paul’s Boutique–Beastie Boys (1989)
This has to be included on any all time hip hop album cover list. A simple shot of a bodega in Manhattan, the absence of the group itself is as striking as the clothes and store signs that jam pack the picture. It’s an eclectic image that represents New York culture and an album markedly different from their previous effort, Licensed to Ill. The image seems to invite you into the store to see the new direction the group is taking. Any vinyl collection worth its salt has this record.
Ready to Die–The Notorious B.I.G. (1994)
It was a year of two iconic album covers featuring the artist as a child, but this one stands (or sits) above the other. Of the albums listed here, the debut album from Biggie Smalls may be the one most identified with its featured image. Ready to Die is an origin story; a narrative about the rise of a kid from Brooklyn who went from high school dropout to paranoid drug dealer to rap superstar. And since it’s an origin story, we need to see our hero in his early days. The stark white background and the black and red fonts are remembered, but baby Biggie is the star of the show here. One of the most influential album covers ever, this image would inspire rappers to take liberties with their toddler pictures for years to come.
Mr. Scarface is Back–Scarface (1991)
If Ready to Die is an origin story, then Mr. Scarface is Back takes place in the present, and what a present it was. No one better encapsulated the bleak, hopeless nature of trying to survive in the hood like the Geto Boys, and group member Scarface’s debut album cover tells that the story without using words. Scarface himself is relegated to the background here, as we see a drug deal gone south about to end in the bloodiest way possible. If the purpose of an album cover is to make you stop what you’re doing and just look at it, there aren’t many covers in any genre that do the job better than this.