Magnificent is the first word that comes to mind when thinking about the album art for To Pimp A Butterfly. Kendrick and his Compton company overtaking the White House took my eyes from their sockets, removed the air from my chest, and left my jaw lower than a Magic City stripper whose rent is due. There’s an infectious joy that radiates from the photo just looking at their smiling, exuberant faces. It’s unlike any other album cover that I have ever seen. The astounding black and white photo is one of many that French photographer Denis Rouvre took for the album’s creative direction.
Within the folds of To Pimp A Butterfly’s album booklet are other beautiful images; each one a similar black-and-white style like the cover. They further highlight the cover from different angles, along with a few incredible shots of Kendrick and the kids. I scrolled through each photo after purchasing the album on iTunes. The impressive booklet added to the overall experience, but having to view the images digitally felt strangely cheap. I’m young―a child of the Internet―but not so young that I don’t remember the feeling of physically flipping through booklets after purchasing an album. Having to view them in digital form left me yearning for that old feeling back.
The album booklet gave you something to immerse yourself in while the album played―mesmerizing photos, funky fonts and liner notes with all the credits. Going through the miniature book was an extension of hearing the music, a crucial part of how you experienced the album. It’s another aspect of the art that has slowly been lost in our transition from tangible albums to hearing music digitally. Viewing the booklet as a PDF just doesn’t fill the void of having something to hold, touch, and feel captivated by. It’s like taking away a small ingredient from your favorite dish―it might still taste good, but it won’t be the same.
Jay Z once said, “Niggas want my old shit, buy my old albums,” a statement some could apply to album booklets. If you want that experience, simply purchase physical albums. But what about albums that don’t have a physical release? There’s no album booklet for Chance’s Coloring Book or Kanye’s The Life of Pablo. Recently published statistics have shown that streaming has offset the decline in physical album sales, more people are streaming music than buying albums, but you don’t get a booklet with an album stream, not even a digital one. Streaming is having positive effects on industry growth, but as it replaces the old form of album consumption, we are losing part of the experience. I think about all the albums that I’ve enjoyed this year that didn’t come with a booklet. I would love to see booklets for Prima Donna, JEFFERY, The Sun’s Tirade and Empty Bank.
Kanye is an excellent example of an artist who used to make his album booklets a part of the all-inclusive experience. He cared about getting his vision across in the music, in the videos, and in each booklet. For The College Dropout, he included the high school yearbook pictures for all his collaborators. That’s such a small but memorable touch. There are humorous photos of basketball games, homecoming, and graduation. I love the color scheme that he used for 808s & Heartbreak; for his most personal album, it’s his most vibrant. My favorite Kanye booklet would be the one put together for My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. George Condo’s grotesque portraits of Kanye capture the artist, unlike anyone he’s worked with previously. The font that is used is also incredible; the look is very medieval, something you would see written on the cover of a J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit novel.
Kanye and Kendrick put together booklets that served as an extension of their albums. They were put together in a creatively distinct way that shows it takes more than just music to turn an album into a world for listeners to live within. This year's most notable booklet, for Drake's VIEWS, is a great example of this; creating atmospheres of chilly opulence and vibrant tropicality to match the dual seasons that the music attempted to encapsulate. Even if the digital booklet isn’t my favorite alternative, it’s slowly becoming obsolete. New albums are being released without them, and there are only a scarce amount of old album booklets online.
It’s sad to see a form of artistic expression and creative vision slowly die due to the digital shift. As a fan of albums, it’s unfortunate to witness the last days of album booklets. There have been a few uploaded to Genius that are worth viewing―Anderson .Paak’s Malibu, Flying Lotus’ You’re Dead, Frank Ocean’s Channel Orange, Jay Z’s Blueprint 3, and everything Beyoncé.
We never appreciate what we have until it’s gone. Collecting albums, reading booklets, and other forms of physical interaction went from being the standard to a distant memory. It’s imperative to cherish the things that we expect to always be the same because we will surely miss them when change inevitably strikes.
By Yoh, aka Yoh $ Sign, aka @Yoh31.
Photo Credit: Def Jam