When we learned that bad girl Azealia Banks had dropped her latest single, “Yung Rapunxel,” ahead of schedule, we weren’t too taken aback. The offbeat rapper/singer, known for her potty mouth and erratic behavior, often does the unexpected; it’s par for the course at this point. When all was said and done, what struck us much more than the single’s impromptu arrival was its head-turning artwork. The image, shot in black and white and featuring Banks with gaping mouths where her eyes should be, is just like the artist herself—aggressive, shocking, and, if you aren’t prepared, a little off-putting.
The image was so striking that it got us thinking about the seemingly endless parade of album and single cover artwork we’ve seen over the years, and how each one has managed to make its own statement without saying a word.
Is there such a thing as the perfect cover artwork? And if so, is it something formulaic and calculated, or completely spontaneous? Does it feature the artist themselves, or highlight other visuals? Is it photographic, or illustrated? With much to consider, we dove in.
THE SHOCK AND AWE COVER
Continuing in the tone Azealia set with “Yung Rapunxel,” consider the cover of grunge music pioneer band Nirvana’s multi-Platinum selling album, Nevermind, released over twenty years ago. The artwork is far from idyllic, featuring a naked baby underwater, pursuing a dollar bill on a fishing hook. The cover proved shocking for two reasons: in the first, perhaps more expected way, the image posed as a rebellious representation of the band’s counter-culture ethos, foreshadowing the effect they would have on music and popular culture over the years. The second element of surprise was the male genitalia of the baby, prominently featured as he paddles after the money baited before him. When DGC Records, Nirvana’s label at the time, wanted to censor the image, lead singer Kurt Cobain explained that the only way he would let that happen was if he could also include a sticker that read, “if you’re offended by this, you must be a closet pedophile,” as quoted in Michael Azerrad’s tell-all book Come As You Are: The Story of Nirvana. Cobain’s attitude toward his band’s album artwork—that it should be bold, uncensored, and make a statement—reflected the band’s music as well as the droves of young fans that eventually made the album Nevermind, and grunge music in general, an entire cultural movement.
THE SCRATCH ‘N’ SNIFF (INTERACTIVE) COVER
Whether it’s a recent digital-era release or a record pressed on vinyl from the ‘60s, interactive albums never fail to do one thing: work! As album sales have consistently waned over the years, mere music is no longer enough to captivate some shoppers’ wallets, for whom laying down hard-earned money for the purchase of a new album brings the expectation of “extras”—bonus tracks, behind-the-scenes footage, music videos, posters, and even apparel are all fair game in the music industry’s more-is-more sales model. Interactive album artwork takes this concept to the next level by inviting users to play from the get-go.
In 1967, The Velvet Underground released their debut album, The Velvet Underground & Nico, with the well-known Andy Warhol image of a banana front and center. Listeners were invited to peel back the Warhol picture to find an image of a ripe banana underneath. Simple concept, but engaging nonetheless. (And smart—by choosing a famous piece of artwork for their album cover, The Velvet Underground ensured that their album didn’t only grab attention by way of recognition, but had the potential to one day grace walls in living rooms, dorm rooms, and office spaces around the world. Much more affordable than an original Warhol, that’s for sure.)
A few years before The Velvet Underground, The Rolling Stones released their own version of interactive album artwork, just slightly more provocative than TVU’s interpretation. The band used their eleventh American album Sticky Fingers to showcase an image designed by Andy Warhol (apparently, the go-to artist for creative album covers): a jean-clad crotch with a zipper you could actually unzip. The cover was, unsurprisingly, seen as controversial, and was even banned and replaced when released in Spain. But, good or bad, that’s the point of interactive album art. Without even hearing the music behind the cover, the artwork can engage the public by creating a buzz all on its own.
Contemporary offerings of interactive album artwork can be found courtesy of rock bands like Blink-182 and Arcade Fire. Blink-182 revealed the art for their 2011 release Neighborhoods digitally, allowing fans to hover over certain areas of the image with a computer mouse to open links to music videos, iTunes, and contests online. Arcade Fire took a slightly different approach on their Grammy-winning album The Suburbs, by creating an animated slideshow in place of stagnant album art, full of changing images and song lyrics that users could follow as they listened. In general, many acts embrace new media and all of the opportunities that come along with it. Look again at Azealia Banks’ “Yung Rapunxel;” besides the shocking image, she chose to write the single title as a hashtag, “#YUNGRAPUNXEL,” instead of in plain English, urging her fans to hype up the release via Twitter—a truly 2013 move.
THE PLAIN JANE COVER
Some album covers shun the new-fangled feel of interactive artwork and rely solely on their simplicity to be remembered. There’s no shock factor and nothing to unpeel, but the impression can be striking nonetheless. Two very different rock and roll giants, The Beatles and AC/DC, each made use of the understated album cover in their own time. While both bands released their fair share of colorful, involved album covers over the years, The Beatles and AC/DC are possibly best remembered for The White Album and Back In Black, respectively, the simplistic artwork of which doesn’t seem quite coincidental. Both records use a minimalistic approach to make a lasting impression by using color (or lack thereof) to draw in shoppers where once they used intricate designs. Neither album said much, and in doing so both said a mouthful.
One of our recent favorites, No Smoke, No Mirrors by The Holloways, employs a similar method of simplistic engagement, contrasting the stark white background of a room with four simple paint streaks. Reservoir writer 2 Chainz also played with this concept by making the cover of his debut studio album, Based On A T.R.U. Story, no more than the illustration of two gold chains. Not only does this straightforward image stick out among busier options (compare that to Nicki Minaj’s Pink Friday: Roman Reloaded, which came out the same year), it helped to solidify 2 Chainz’ own brand by visually representing the unpretentiousness of his stage name.
THE GLAMOUR SHOT COVER
Speaking of branding, how important is it for an artist to feature their own image on their single and album artwork? Most A-level talent is recognizable by name alone; say “Beyoncé,” “Madonna,” “Prince,” or “Rihanna” in a crowd, and we highly doubt anyone will follow up with, “I’m sorry, Beyoncé who?” But even when their faces are as well known to us as our own, many artists choose to appear on their own single and cover artwork, perhaps as a way to reinforce their existing image, or to create a new one.
For example, Beyoncé’s debut solo album, Dangerously In Love, features the artist in a sexy but equally fierce pose, a concept that was especially important at a time when she was struggling to build an identity separate from her roots in girl group Destiny’s Child. Years later, words like “sexy” and “fierce” continue to describe Beyoncé, thanks in part to how she presents herself in materials like her release artwork. Justin Timberlake took an even stronger approach back in 2002 when he took the leap from boy-band member to solo artist—after years of brightly colored ensemble pictures like those used on N*Sync album covers, the artist made sure that the cover from his first album, Justified, was darkly colored, relatively simple in design, and focused completely on Timberlake himself.
THE SPECIAL-BY-ASSOCIATION COVER
In the same way an artist can benefit from visual reinforcement even when their faces are well-known, they can sometimes benefit from positive association, even when their persona is strong. Take, for example, Bruce Springsteen’s Born In The U.S.A. At this point, Springsteen was no rookie—this was his seventh album, following other wildly successful efforts The River and Nebraska. Still, for Born In The U.S.A., Bruce “The Boss” Springsteen teamed up with famous celebrity photographer Annie Leibovitz when it came time to shoot cover artwork options. The final selection was a photo of Springsteen’s rear posed in front of an American flag. A playfully bold statement, the cover solidified the achievement Springsteen had already been climbing toward: that of American pop culture icon.
So there it is. Countless artists and genres and followings and movements mean as many ways to depict it. Our list of artwork styles is by no means exhaustive; part of the fun of riding the music industry wave from one era to the next is being able to see how trends in the ancillary aspects of the creation of music continue to evolve, shift focus, and inspire. We’ll never look at an album cover the same.