Kendrick Lamar’s New Album Reminds Us That We’re All Subconscious Art Collectors

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By now, we’ve all shed a tear over the epic cover for Kendrick Lamars new album, To Pimp A Butterfly which had a surprise drop last night and is available via iTunes a week before it’s scheduled release date. Shot by French photog, Denis Rouvre, the album cover sticks true to Rouvre’s devotion to making each photo a two-way conversation with the viewer. Similar to Avedon and Parks, Rouvre’s portraits reveal the heart of the subject, injecting you into their world and how they see it. In a time when albums are coming out every two minutes, it’s refreshing to see an artist truly invested in making their album packaging as iconic as the music. The more I looked at the cover, the unbowed beauty of the imagery, I thought back to all of the album covers that really made me feel.

As the story goes, album cover art was created in 1938, but the visual boundaries didn’t begin to be stretched until the 70s. Funk, disco, and jazz music had entered the cosmos and Afrofuturism was the new wave. Black artists were chucking the deuces at the traditional suit and gown format to create album covers that could live in any contemporary gallery. This style reemerged in a major way in recent years via Erykah Badu’s New Amerykah,  Janelle Monae’s ArchAndroid, and THEESatisfaction’s EarthEE.

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This same era saw women embracing their sexuality and womaness in ways we’d never seen before. Minnie Ripperton’s cover, like her music, were sweet at first glance, but oozed a fierce sexiness upon closer inspection. Diana Ross took the glamour down and emerged a freshfaced stunner. The cover for Rufus Featuring Chaka Khan was an illustration of Chaka’s very distinct and uber sexy lips. Millie Jackson and the Ohio Players really pushed the envelope, paving the way for covers like Lil Kim’s Hardcore.

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Not to be left out of the fold, hip-hop saw cover art that defined a generation. In terms of subgroups within the genre, annoyingly labeled ‘backpack rappers’ covers were riddled with social commentary. Common’s Like Water For Chocolate and The Roots’ Things Fall Apart are the biggest standouts.

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Regionally, is where we could really see how aesthetic differed across the country. The East Coast gave us covers with babies a la Nas’ Illmatic and Biggie’s Ready to Die. There was also a trend of posse shots. A Tribe Called Quest brought out everyone in their phone book for Midnight Marauders, while Wu-Tang Clan went the incognito on the cover for 36 Chambers.

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Whether it was pimp style on Ice T’s Power cover or the neutral portrait for Dr. Dre’s The Chronic, the West Coast separated themselves through fashion. Cali had a very distinct style and it always showed through on cover work.

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The South, however, revolutionized album covers with their use of digital imagery via the team at Pen & Pixel. They created legendary album covers like Juvenile’s 400 Degreez, Silkk da Shocker’s Charge It 2 Da Game, and Big Bear’s Doin Thangs. This ornate style had an incredible run that could only be topped by Trick Daddy’s cyber triumph www.thug.com.

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From Gordon Parks to a bunch of bears in suits drinking Hennessey, album cover artwork is an artform in itself that is often overlooked. I don’t know about you, but there isn’t much in the MoMA that moves me like Lauryn Hill’s Miseducation of Lauryn Hill or drags me to my dark place like Rihanna’s Rated R. The Lourve doesn’t house anything that drives me to create as intensely as Kanye West’s stream of covers. There’s constant discussion about the inaccessibility of art to the average American, but little did we realize that the next Picasso is sitting in Target for only $9.99

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