The Art of Album Covers Being Lost in the Age of the Meme
The weeks of rumors leading up to the collaboration between Future and Drake was like returning to the halls of high school where the whispers of lies and truth spread without a source to cite. Social media was a game of telephone, filled with “he said” and “she said,” every lead only generating more speculation and conspiracies. What kept the rumors alive, what truly excited the internet, was a lean-dripping purple owl. Once the artwork began to trail blaze across timelines, without a single source of confirmation, as far as the world was concerned the tape was confirmed and this was the artwork. It was perfect, combining Drake’s odd infatuation with owls and Future’s obsession with the purple drank, the cover was a representation of the two becoming one. A visual rumor is more effective than a verbal one, which is why the faux-website with the countdown timer was equally as convincing. What should be considered an obvious hoax is viewed with eyes of promise. Drake might’ve been the one to announce the album days before its release but it wasn’t necessary, the purple owl did all the marketing and promoting. We just needed the link.
Sadly, the album’s official artwork was a far cry from the false one that was championed by the people. The pictures of diamonds used didn’t measure up in creativity or flair of the fan artwork, it was later discovered that the artwork is a simple stock image that can be found on Shuttershock. There seemed to be a general disappointment with their selection but the internet reacted in a way I didn’t expect. The diamond emoji became a part of the branding, Meek Mill’s Instagram comments were full of them. For those that were unsatisfied with the cover, more custom artwork flooded the internet. You can’t change the music but if you still use iTunes, there was plenty of art options available. The album became a group project, graphic artists making artwork, Future Hive’s best gif makers worked their magic, the diamonds became like a hash tag, Drake just gave the location and the internet brought the party. This was also the second time Future used a stock image as artwork, which lead to a couple using the DS2 colorway as the theme for their wedding. Effortless artwork with a huge impact.
This is also the second time this year that Drake has been a part of artwork becoming an event that transcends the album. While he was originally scrutinized for the sloppy handwriting that was used as the font for IYRTITL, it eventually became a meme sensation. A meme generator was created by Rik Lomas and Simon Whybray (If You’re Typing This It’s Too Late), people were allowed to create their own, along with more Photoshop savvy creators going the extra mile. Twitter, Tumblr, Facebook, and various forums were flooded with the chicken scratch. Straight Outta Of Compton created a similar viral success with the StraightOuttaSomewhere meme generator. It allowed a worldwide interaction, you couldn’t log in without seeing a feed full. All these instances are a testament of the visual age and how album artwork is changing with the times.
The importance of artwork during the days of record shops and F.Y.E was more about personal relationship and timeless art. Classic music equated to classic artwork, favorite albums equated into posterized covers. Only an album that had cultural significance or personal connection would be hanging from the walls. There was no avatar to change, no Instagram to repost, no meme for trolling, the cover was simply an extension of the music, a visual that went with the sounds. The only interaction that was had with the cover was removing it from the casing. Looking at all the pictures, reading the liner notes and credits, the experience was much deeper than a double tap. Even the most visually appealing covers would be forgotten if the music is forgettable. Baby face Nas wouldn’t be an iconic cover without the iconic music that appeared on illmatic. Back then, you couldn’t have one without the other.
Once we moved into the digital era, the visual age when blogs took dominance, the offspring of the record store shoppers got overwhelmed with images. The relationship changed. Instead of posterizing covers you were organizing your iTunes. Not only did rappers have covers for their albums and singles, they needed something for their freestyles, cover songs and unofficial remixes. Every release had an image attached. You couldn’t afford the top photographer or artist to create for the influx of releases, this brought the rise of Photoshop. It put emphasis on being visually alluring but also wasn’t financially viable, so shortcuts were taken. I can’t think of a single mixtape series that pre-dates 2009 (other than So Far Gone) that had better artwork than the albums, even if the music was better. This was before it was normal for rappers to have graphic artists on their team. Also why a lot of upcoming artists taught themselves how to use Photoshop and Illustrator. Artwork is still the first impression, the window to the music’s soul, blogs are just galleries with your art hanging from the walls. That cover can be the reason someone stops and presses play.
One of my earliest memories of when a cover became an event, a group project, was during Kanye’s G.O.O.D Friday series. Out of all his iconic covers, the big, bold red letters over a random photo in the background is probably the most influential. It was simple to make, there was even a generator created on KanyeToThe forum. Before the series ended, Facebook was full of fans creating their own, even rappers began using the style for their artwork. Drake executed the same concept with IYRTITL, simple to imitate and fun to mock. You might remember the music but the original artwork is likely replaced by another that you uncovered while scrolling through Tumblr. Simple is effective. Mac Miller’s yawn worked in the context of his album’s theme but the black and white photo is also a very effective meme that’s being used throughout Reddit. Run the Jewels hit with an album cover that's also become their brand and symbol. Nicki’s "Anaconda" is another example, not only did her infamous squat make for some hilarious renditions but even the music video, specifically the Drake lap dance, ushered in a new wave of memorable memes.
Compelling artwork outside of meme generation still exists, Kendrick Lamar approaches his album covers much like the artists before him. When you look at GKMC or TPAB, it says to the eyes what the music will say to the ears. They don’t inspire mocking or imitation, they're as serious as the content they represent. Even the artwork for singles like “i” and “Blacker The Berry” weren’t able to be turned into a gag. Similiarly, Mick Jenkins collaborated with painter/graphic artist Hayveyah McGowan to make an abstract painting for each song on his latest EP, Wave[s]. Each unique cover is meant to represent how the music made Hayveyah felt. From the colors to the overall styling, it’s all based off feeling. In the perfect world, every listener would paint a picture depicting their emotional connection with the music but of course, that didn’t occur. Serious and complex doesn’t work within the internet’s law of memeing. Kendrick and Mick represent the other spectrum, where artistry can’t be easily made into a joke. There’s no emoji that can be used to embody TPAB or a way to make Wave[s] into an internet project.
In the seemingly endless flood of new artwork, how many covers do we consider to be memorable? How many images this year have touched the listener's heart of head before they even pressed play? There's been a few standouts, but the simultaneous artwork explosion and lessing of artwork's importance is a sign of the times. Like the music itself, artwork is also teetering on the same thin line that separates the iconic from the fads, the true classics from the footnotes. As we continue to move through this visual age, watching how the internet is altering the artistry, what will last? What will be remembered? Last week, I watched as a fake cover of J. Cole and Kendrick float around my timeline. People were excited, once again entranced by the idea, the purple owl effect. We are truly living in a cycle of moments that won't last longer than our two year cellphone plans. In a few weeks there will be something else to anticipate, another collage of images to shuffle through, and another group project to participate in.
So what's more valuable, a picture worth a thousand words, or a meme worth a thousand retweets?
By Yoh, aka Yohtoshop, aka @Yoh31.