The most iconic album covers represent cultural and societal shifts.
Take, for example, the photo of an eight-year-old Nas superimposed over the Queensbridge Projects. Over the years, this image has come to symbolize the golden era of hip-hop.
Interestingly enough, the relationship between cover art and music is not a one-way street. These images influence how we listen to music. Since artists and imagery are presented together from the start, this dynamic relationship is impossible to reverse engineer.
Or at least, it seems that way, which made me wonder: What would happen if I put a mood-setting twist on some classic artwork? Can an album cover actually alter the way we hear the music?
As you will see below, I have chosen three iconic album covers that elicit clear associations, feelings, and experiences, to explore whether altering the cover art can change these associations. Try to focus your attention and emotions on the new artwork until it feels like they have always looked like this. Then ask yourself: Does the music sound the same? Or have my interventions influenced your senses and emotions?
Young Thug — Jeffery
At the time Young Thug released Jeffery, the Atlanta native had been raising eyebrows in hip-hop by experimenting with traditional gender roles and a fashion sense best described as feminine and forward-thinking. For Jeffery, he traded the equally iconic nudity of his Barter 6 mixtape for a dress by Italian designer Alessandro Trincone. The extravagant garment hides Thug almost completely—we can only see his forearms and a hint of a dreadlock. The cover seems to be a good fit for an album that is surprising, avant-garde, and mysterious.
For Jeffery, I tried to make the surroundings an extension of the dress Young Thug is wearing. I wanted to shift the bright atmosphere to dark and mysterious. A dark alley in Shibuya, Tokyo, emanates a mystic vibe. Also, Thug’s pose changes in the context of this alley. It seems like he's trying to keep a low profile. Maybe he's running from the police or making hand-to-hand sales. The combination of nighttime and rain changes the mood from bright to bleak. The color green refers to the slimy look Thugger added to previous covers. Slatt.
SZA — CTRL
Straightforward and personal lyric-wise, but alienating and futuristic musically, SZA's CTRL resonated with modern R&B enthusiasts and scorned lovers everywhere. On the original cover, we see SZA sitting on a grass field with various defective computer monitors.
In an interview with The Breakfast Club in support of the release, the TDE signee referred to the project as “the illusion of control.” With this in mind, I removed control by placing SZA in the middle of a busy intersection in a big city. The flashing screens symbolize the loss of connection. The water puddles represent the struggles SZA deals with on this album.
The darkness and the purple-blue lighting complement the airy and psychedelic beats, while the ominous clouds reflect the anxiousness and restlessness that this cover is trying to capture.
The Game — The Documentary
The original cover of the Documentary is an iconic piece of art. The Game is placed in front of a plain white background, sitting on two presumably expensive tires. The visual is in a bright composition, which seems to contrast the album's dark lyrics and production. Of note, the West Coast rapper sits front and center, demanding all our attention. This positioning is arguably in contrast to the album itself, which boasts superstar features (eventual arch enemy 50 Cent and Eminem) and an all-star cast of producers (Dr. Dre, Just Blaze, Timbaland, and Kanye).
For my altered cover, I placed the Compton native front and center in his own story—a story about who The Game is and the environment that made him. The two tires are from an abandoned parking lot alongside a motorcycle, a reference to The Game's affinity for cars and cycles.
The new elements add depth, meaning, and a completely new atmosphere. With lyrics about hardships and trauma rooted in this environment, this art can transport the listener back to the start of his career.
Although hardly anyone would argue against the importance of artwork to an album release, we rarely reflect on the way art influences the listening experience. Because the visual presentation usually precedes our encounter with a body of work, it becomes a focal point for the experience, guiding the way we engage with an album.
A single image can enhance the theme and message, alter the mood, or emphasize different aspects of an album. In this experiment, I aimed to prove cover art plays a fundamental role in the dynamic relationship between the album and the listener.
We should not treat album art as just another element of the album release cycle, but rather as an integral part of the artistic expression.