Lil’ Wayne wants you to buy his latest CD Tha Carter II. He’s topless and leaning against a Bentley, wearing designer shades, black sneakers, and baggy jeans that sag nearly to his knees. And what looks like an attachment to his outfit is actually a wad of money protruding from his pocket to let you know he’s paid. If you know nothing else about Wayne except that he’s a rapper, his marketers believe his image should convince you to buy his CD anyway.
On the cover of The Massacre 50 Cent appears without a shirt, exposes his muscular chest that’s so shiny it sparkles like the diamond studded necklace roped around his neck. His facial expression is hard as though he’s transmitting a message that says, “You better buy my album.”
I can only imagine the reaction of a mature mother who must decide whether or not to buy Tha Carter II or The Massacre for her son. She’s probably as confused as my mother was when wondering why my sister wanted Kurtis Blow’s self-titled album, on which he poses glossy and bare-chested. Similar marketing strategies were used to sell the albums of old-school hip-hop artists such as Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, Run-DMC, Salt N Pepa, and Eric B. & Rakim—except they actually wore clothes: multicolored jackets, MCM suits that made them look polished. By comparison, today’s hip-hop artists have gone from “ashy to classy” (in the Notorious B.I.G.‘s famous words) to just plain ol’ ashy.
In the 20-plus years between Eric B. & Rakim and Wayne, the basic white T-shirt, baggy jeans, do-rags, excessive platinum jewelry and/or partially naked bodies speak more to today’s artists’ lack of visual creativity than their ability to sell images. Although there remains a group of artists who are just as creative and effective as their predecessors—Outkast, Missy Elliott, Kanye West, and Ghostface Killah, to name a few—back in the day, you didn’t question whether you’d spend your last $13, on MC Lyte’s Eyes on This or A Tribe Called Quest’s The Low End Theory before knowing if those albums were wac or dope. The covers were interesting enough that you’d wait and find out.
But today’s covers provoke no curiosity. Even though Jay-Z ditched basketball jerseys for crisp black suits and leather jackets, for all the talent and money contemporary hip-hop artists appear to have, they settle for a look of sloppiness. On the cover of newcomer Chamillionaire’s CD, The Sound of Revenge, he reveals just enough of his face to show he’s wearing a do-rag, and T.I.‘s Urban Legend presents him in an army fatigue jacket over a hoody, wearing a platinum diamond ring. Three 6 Mafia’s The Most Unknown cover is even less inspired. They don’t bother to exchange T-shirts for at least button-down shirts or fractional headshots.
If album covers are marketing tools meant to sell music, then why are images of hip-hop artists now reduced to the amount of bling they show, or a lack thereof, instead of a creative sense of style? “I think it’s more important for contemporary hip-hop artists to maintain that street creditability,” said Chaka Wilson, vice president at Enyce, an urban clothing line based in New York City. “In the 1980s they had to already look like they were successful, because no one wants to ride with someone who’s broke, so you had to act like you’ve already made it.”
It’s true that jewelry is a mainstay in hip-hop fashion. In fact, the more of it you have is the more successful you appear to be. But on album covers of old-school artists, jewelry was not the only exhibition of style. Kool Moe Dee appears dressed in white slacks and a jacket, with a hat to match on the cover of How Ya Like Me Now. He wears gold chains, a watch, bracelet and ring, yet the emphasis is on his clean style of dress. On the cover of Bigger and Deffer, LL Cool J has on one of his notorious thick gold chains, but he also stands before a dimly lit green background, wearing a black Kangol hat, black leather pants and a jacket. EPMD, Big Daddy Kane, Slick Rick, and other artists who wore excessive jewelry still dressed in a style that presented their best self.
B.J. Coleman, public relations director at Baby Phat—a sub-division of hip-hop entrepreneur Russell Simmons’ Phat Farm clothing—said that he doesn’t see much of a difference in hip-hop album covers from the 1980s to now. “Those artists were wearing the hottest items, and what they wore defined luxury for hip-hop at that time.”
Cash Money’s Hot Boys took hip-hop into another era, which spilled onto their CD covers. Their last LP, Let ‘Em Burn, (2003) features the group’s name in gold letters with diamonds sparkling around a star. Let ‘Em Burn is even spelled out in diamonds as they sit, wearing T-shirts, jeans, baseball caps, and do-rags, as if to say “we’re so paid, we don’t have to dress up.”
At first this uniform seemed regional, but soon more hip-hop artists traded fresh and clean get-ups on CD covers for $20,000 Rolexes and medallions. For the cover of Stillmatic, Nas, though dressed in an orange velour sweat suit, hangs his hands over his knees to display the heavy platinum watch and bracelets that look as though they are pulling him down. It makes the album cover look gaudy. Lil’ Kim’s Notorious K.I.M. is equally extravagant. On the cover, she poses topless, like Wayne and 50, but covers her chest with her arms, which are draped in diamond encrusted bracelets, and rings.
“Right now there’s an urban luxury movement in hip-hop,” Coleman said. “Artists are simply mixing highs and lows, making luxury fun.”
Granted, given that we live in the downloading age, CD covers may not be as important to sell music as they once were. And contemporary artists have resources such as television, the internet, and many other vehicles in which to sell CDs. In 1996, MTV created MTV2, which now airs commercial-free hip-hop video programs such as “Sucker Free” and “My Block.” VH-1, also owned by MTV parent company Viacom, has developed a series of shows devoted to hip-hop, including “Hip-Hop Honors,” and the “Top 30 Hip-Hop Videos of All Time.” Record companies now set up MySpace accounts for their artists, and Interscope, home to artists like Eminem, 50 Cent and Eve, developed AllHipHop.com, a hip-hop news source for fans. In addition, television commercials, like Verizon’s, feature hip-hop music to advertise ringtones, and Target recently featured a song by old school hip-hop group Blue Cheese, “The Choice is Yours,” for their 2005 back to school campaign.
Perhaps old school hip-hop artists had an advantage over their contemporaries in that album shoots were like dress rehearsals, or possibly, because they had less advertising dollars, album covers had to represent them at their best. Old-school artists derived imaginative cover concepts from history: Big Daddy Kane’s Long Live the Kane shows him dressed as a Roman Emperor surrounded by tantalizing women, and on By All Means Necessary by Boogie Down Productions, KRS-One strikes a pose identical to a photo taken of Malcolm X shortly before his death in 1965.
Despite the high fashion trend in hip-hop during the mid-1990s, some artists continued to use creative concepts to sell their albums. On the cover of Biggie Smalls’s Ready to Die, a baby sits in the center of a white background like a red dot on a blank canvas—simple, yet exemplary of creative thinking. Busta Rhymes’s solo debut, The Coming, had a cover that was equally creative and tasteful, though more intense. His contorted face juts through a portrait sort of in the way children imagine Mary Weatherbee appearing in the mirror before snatching them into hell.
It comes down to presentation. As we proceed into the downloading era, it would be nice for artists to strive for originality in the same way they make an effort to be real instead of fake. Whether dressing to impress like Eric B. & Rakim, or using themes like Common’s Like Water for Chocolate, the album cover remains one of the purest forms of advertisement to sell music. It stays with a consumer like a jingle in a commercial, and interprets the ideology of an artist. It would be nice, for a change, to say there’s more to that ideology than gaudy jewelry, baggy jeans, and for God’s sake, white T-shirts.