To be an infant is to be pure. Babies are a representation of humankind at its most curious and vulnerable. This is a fact most clear when we dig up old photographs to reveal faces of wide-eyed discovery and expressive joy. A baby photo acts as a permanent time mark, a base template of who we are and what we can become. The baby photo is a universal link to the past that all of humanity can confide in.
As for rappers, they seem to love adorning their album covers with baby photos. On top of looking hard, the innocence of baby photo album covers provides a stark contrast to the often dark and explicit content that these images stand between. Nas broke that mold in 1994 by superimposing a childhood photo—I know, it's not a baby photo, but hear me out—over a photo of the Queensbridge projects he grew up in for the cover of his debut album, borrowing an idea originally executed by the Howard Hanger Trio on their 1974 album A Child Is Born.
From Vince Staples and Drake to J. Cole and Benny The Butcher, rappers immortalizing their most exposed selves on album artwork has become an unspoken rap tradition. Amid the plethora of options, however, three covers stand out: The Notorious B.I.G.’s Ready To Die, Lil Wayne’s Tha Carter III, and Kendrick Lamar’s good kid, m.A.A.d. City. All three projects teeter on the edge of life, death, and rebirth, grounded by the babies who grace their respective covers.
As Ready To Die begins, Biggie's brief life flashes before his eyes as he stands on those respective edges. Listeners hear his birth, a heated argument between parents over a shoplifting incident, the dialogue between a now teenage Biggie and an accomplice before they rob a subway train, and a kiss-off to a prison guard after leaving a jail cell following the aforementioned robbery. “Yea yea, you’ll be back. You niggers always are,” the guard hisses, to which Biggie replies, “You won’t see me in this motherfucker no more.”
Much of Ready To Die is a pot of grisly crimes and existential regret ready to boil over. The man who won’t hesitate to “step into your wake with your blood on my shirt” gradually lowers his guard enough to let the bad thoughts creep into his mind and contort his depression even further.
“My shit is deep, deeper than my grave, G / I'm ready to die and nobody can save me / Fuck the world, fuck my moms and my girl / My life is played out like a Jheri curl, I'm ready to die”—The Notorious B.I.G., “Ready To Die”
The track “Suicidal Thoughts” closes both the album and Biggie’s story with a thud on the floor and a phone ringing off the hook; a brief life coming to a sudden end closes the loop that began with a baby on the album's cover. The afro'd infant is doe-eyed and staring off into the distance, sitting squarely in the middle of a white canvas between Biggie’s name (life) and the album’s title (death). This story is especially chilling considering that Biggie wouldn’t live to see the release of his second and final album, Life After Death, in 1997.
Even though he wasn't the one wearing a diaper in this photo, Biggie openly grappled with the sins of his short life, which left him just as raw and exposed. At the core of his cold heart is a boy who wishes he was better to his mother and a new father, tired of the systemic bondage to syringes and crack smoke.
Biggie was a troubled young man looking back on all he wrought through song, a connection he shares with a martian from New Orleans named Dwayne Carter.
As the triumphant “Mr. Carter” comes to a close on Lil Wayne's sixth studio album, Tha Carter III, the rapper issues his battle cry: “Next time you mention Pac, Biggie, or JAY-Z / Don’t forget Weezy, baby!”
In 2008, Carter was on the cusp of breaking through to the mainstream and had the ambition to spare; recreating one of his rap idol’s most famous covers with a twist was just the start. Featured on the cover of Tha Carter III is a baby photo of Wayne embellished with the tattoos he’d gained across his career. It’s surrealist pop art that’s simultaneously grounding in its portrayal of the man Wayne would ultimately become through the lens of the child he once was.
This blending extends to the album itself, wherein Wayne constantly mixes the personal and the humorous. One such example is his recounting of a suicide attempt at 12 years old while standing in front of a mirror:
“I see your boys hatin' and I see your girls naked / Drum, sound like a naked gun, switch clips with my thumb / Then I pop another clip in, and aim at his vision / 'Cause Wayne is his vision, 'cause Wayne is the mission / I'm aiming at a mirror”—Lil Wayne, “Shoot Me Down”
At 25, Carter had already outlived Biggie at his peak. He had a 10-plus year career under his belt and was on the verge of releasing one of the most expected albums of the twenty-first century. In that context, the baby on the cover of Tha Carter III is the compressed past, present, and future of Lil Wayne, a fresh-faced but grizzled rapper eyeing his own zenith with the same joy and pain he experienced getting there. It was Mr. Carter’s world, and we were just living in it.
Living in the shadow of Wayne's greatness was Kendrick Lamar Duckworth, his own story brewing across the country in the hot sun of Compton, California. He spent afternoons chasing quick neck and free-styling in minivans and nights running the streets with friends and robbing houses for Nintendo consoles and stereos. Kendrick used these vignettes to create good kid, m.A.A.d city, his acclaimed 2012 major label debut, which, like Wayne's Carter III, released as the rapper was on the cusp of superstar status. And like Wayne and Biggie before him, Kendrick would look to his adolescence to create a cover the rap world wouldn’t soon forget.
At the center of the cover for m.A.A.d. city is an infant Kendrick Lamar, but he isn’t alone. He’s sitting on a man’s lap at a decorated table, as are two other men. One to his left, one to his right. Black bars veil the eyes of the three grown men, but Kendrick's peepers are in plain sight, staring directly at us. The good kid that eventually escapes the m.A.A.d. city had to get his start somewhere, and this forced perspective is the first step toward centering Kendrick’s autobiographical voice across connected tales.
Across the album, Kendrick faces death at the hands of his lover Sherane’s friends (“Poetic Justice”), at the hands of the police (“The Art of Peer Pressure”) and at the hands of an unforgiving city (“good kid”). Kendrick eventually reunites with his friends, who all get drunk (“Swimming Pool [Drank]”) and attempt to run up on the men who beat him up, which results in his friend Dave being shot to death. Angry over Dave’s death, Kendrick and his friends turn away from violence by a neighbor who introduces them to the power of faith (“Sing About Me, I’m Dying Of Thirst”).
In real time, good kid, m.A.A.d. city tracks Kendrick's growth from K.Dot to Kendrick Lamar, a boy narrowly escaping the fate of becoming a hardened adult man. Instead of mongering death in the wake of lost loved ones, he places his frustration and passion into an album that gives his friend Dave eternal life. Now rap fans of a certain age will always sing about him, just as fans will sing of the baby on the GKMC cover, a vision of the past glaring down millions of futures both fulfilled and deferred.
The way we interact with baby photos says as much about our futures as it does about our pasts. The way rap artists continue to use baby photos on their album covers confirms the genre’s ever-present grappling with mortality. In this way, the baby photo is an everlasting reminder that innocence can never truly die.