Why so many rap album covers look the same

November 13, 2019 — Josh

Why do so many rap album covers look the same? Apparently this guy ^ (me) has an answer. As I'm writing this, I don't, but I'm looking.

Hold on, though. Maybe you've never noticed this before -- I myself didn't notice anything despite being a self-described Hip Hop connoisseur TM. Just a few minutes ago I took a cursory glance at my "top 42 albums chart", and the similar structure -- simply the artist's face as a close-up -- jumped out at me. Here's my chart:

My top albums chart

Make your own on on this site and email it to me :)

Do you see what I'm saying? Notice Wolf, Madvillainy, Illmatic, Rap Album 1, Let the Sun Talk, IGOR, Operation: Doomsday, Acid Rap, Under Pressure, Live. Love. A$AP, The Infamous, and Saturation III. This is pretty weird. Not weird as in unusual, but weird as in strange. Let's go to the past for a bit to understand the context for the current music scene in the west.

Origin of Albums and Album Art

Music was not originally recorded -- technology capable of preserving sound only appeared in industrialized countries after 1877, though capturing a proper range of sound frequencies only became possible after 1925. It is safe to say then, that the concept of an "album" is not something intrinsic to music, as such a thing couldn't have even existed until the late 19th century. A quick search confirms that "The very first collection to ever be referred to as an “album” was Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite, released in April 1909 as a four-disc set by Odeon Records." Once albums became commonplace (1930s), they were sold as a set of discs, usually "in plain packaging" (there were exceptions for special albums, sold as 'decorated albums'). So, not only does music not necessitate the existence of albums, albums themselves do not necessitate the existense of cover art. These are Western concepts that originated as innovations. When did album art come into existence?

Alex Steinweiss (from Brooklyn, represent) is credited with inventing the concept of album covers and cover art in the 1940s for Columbia Records (for their new innovative 78-rpm records). If we look through his cover art, available on his website, we do not see anything resembling this pattern that we're attempting to trace. So, I conclude that it must have started later, somewhere else.

The relationship between artists, music, and albums

Let's take a moment to consider whether it makes sense for album covers to have representations of the album artist(s) on them. What is the purpose of an album, and what is the purpose of cover art? Does an album exist for the sake of the music (a listening experience), or to serve as a collection of an artist's work? Is the purpose of an album to be a sort of "Best of Foo Bar", and therefore a way to appreciate an artist? If this is the case, it would make sense for album art to showcase the artist. In the modern day, though, albums seem to be more like an artist's coherent musical offering, not a celebration of the artist themselves. Perhaps in the past this was the case, when albums were not the primary method of releasing music nor the defining behavior of being a musician -- today releasing albums is essentially just what you do for work as a musician.

Album art also exists to be flashy and to attract sales. As albums are commodities, they traditionally have been and still are created to be sold and generate revenue. Celebrity culture precedes recorded music, and it would make sense that many musicians tended to double-time as celebrities as well (think Michael Jackson or something). As a celebrity, you and your identity are the product that's being sold, so celebrity musicians would be recognizable icons and therefore be placed strategically on album covers to attract more buyers. Most modern musicians belong to this category. Rap especially shares in this for a multitude of reasons.

Why is Hip Hop an especially personage-driven genre?

The following contains quotes from "World Music: A Global Journey" by Andrew Shahriari and Terry E. Miller.

This can be traced to both its ancestral and musical aspects. Hip Hop is essentially an intersection of Jamaican toasting (and related traditions), with jazz, funk, soul, disco, and the African American strife. In Jamaica, Reggae was prohibited from being performed live due to its anti-establishment messages ("Rastas are often scorned by the establishment. Their close association with reggae, due in large part to Marley’s adherence to the spiritual tradition, has prompted much of the music to express challenges to the social order."). This gave way to a tradition of playing prerecorded records at parties (the person playing the records was known as the DJ, or disc jockey). By the 1960s, "DJs had discovered that by turning down the melody track and boosting the bass and rhythm track, they could “talk” over the music through a microphone. Eventually recordings without the vocals—or so-called “dub” versions—were made specifically for such improvised speech. This led to the creation of “dub” poetry, later evolving into a style called “dancehall.” Some DJs became virtual reggae poets, creating long, complex poems that commented on life." This practice resulted in a transition of focus from the music being played at parties to the DJ playing the music, making the DJs the main event, reminiscent of a celebrity artist. DJ Kool Herc, widely acknowledged as the father of Hip Hop, was such a DJ that migrated to New York. His innovation consisted of looping the drum break section of the music he played, resulting in a breakbeat that was more conducive to dancing and exhilarated the audience.

Fast forwarding a bit, early Hip Hop consisted of DJs performing in this manner. These DJs were often introduced by an MC (short for Master of Ceremonies), who acted as a hypeman for the DJ and got the crowd ready (or the DJ was their own MC). Over time MCs grew stronger in personality, their speeches grew in length and complexity, and thus they overtook DJs in presence. This is the geneology of rap -- the tradition has always been artist-centric, with bombastic lyrics and speech as a centerpiece.

Musically, too, the rapper themselves is what stands out. A voice belongs to a person, and only one voice can rap at once -- when we listen to a rap song we are listening to a rapper. The beat, on the other hand, consists of drums, bass, a melody and etcetera -- yet there is no band playing these instruments/sounds, they are all orchestrated by a producer. We can't hear a beat and think, "Damn! Ringo Starr is nice on the drums here", because there is nobody to associate with playing each instrument. We also cannot imagine somebody "playing" a beat (as if it itself was an instrument). This leads to a weird sense of detachment from the instrumental of a rap song, as it in itself is somewhat of a complete song. Think about EDM for example -- if you like a song, you say "Wow, Deadmau5 did a great job with this one", and attribute the song to him. If you like a beat to a rap song, you may or may not be aware of the producer, but either way the song itself is attributed to the rapper, so saying "I like this beat" results in the thought settling in your brain as liking song x by artist y, despite the fact that the beat has nothing to do with artist y. It's a bit abstract, but there's an intrinsic quality in the way rap songs are structured and marketed that prioritizes the rapper over the producer. This, again, makes the rapper the star of the show.

Is this a thing in other genres?

Is this a rap thing, a Western thing, a human thing? Where does it begin? Here's my hypothesis:


The obsession with identity and the self in Western (and especially American) culture manifested (among many things) as celebrity culture, of which musicians are a subset. This applies to all Western musicians, but to Hip Hop especially due to the ancestral and musical aspects which intensify this effect. An artist is a character that sells. The conception artists create for themselves is permeated throughout their music, and this conception is what is sold, along with the sound it makes. Putting your face on an album cover, then, is a natural extension of this.

When searching other genres, you can find some examples of this as well (though less potently):

Rock (has rockstars)

Ted Nugent - Cat Scratch Fever


showed black musicians as virtuosos with complex ideas and powerful (and recognizable) emotions
Blue Train – John Coltrane


Does not really have this, unless you consider Aphex Twin as EDM, and the ‘The Richard D. James Album’ cover as containing a photo of him (is that him??). Apparently the Rolling Stone thinks Aphex Twin is EDM -- epic.

Reggae and Dancehall

Many album covers have the artist on them.


Holy cow, this may be it! Check out every album here and here. Almost every album cover has a photo of the artist on it -- it is instantly noticeable and far more potent than in any of the other genres I've looked at. Hip Hop strongly borrows from funk -- DJ Kool Herc says he was inspired by James Brown, and so many artists say they were inspired by the likes of Gil Scott-Heron.

Note from the future: I've found that Funk inherits this from Jazz, which predates it. Hip Hop more directly takes from Funk than Jazz, so we can kind of view the (ultra-simplified) timeline in this way: Jazz --> Funk --> Hip Hop, where the tradition of album covers containing a photo of the artist's face is passed down each genre. I speak more on this (and provide a diagram) later.

A different approach: directly tracing inspiration for album covers

Nas - Illmatic (1994)


“I’m a big Michael Jackson fan,” Nas says. “I’ll tell you something I never said. On my album cover, you see me with the afro, that was kind of inspired by Michael Jackson – the little kid picture.”

Michael Jackson - Got To Be There (1972)

Michael Jackson - Got to Be There

Photo taken by Jim Britt. Jim Britt was a Jazz photographer in the 60s and 70s, then eventually became a photographer for the Motown label (which is how this Michael Jackson album cover was produced)

Some conclusions

So, we've directly traced Illmatic to Michael Jackson (Motown, the home Funk and R&B), and Michael Jackson to Jazz and Jazz photographers. There is still a ways to go to fully understand where Jazz photography and album covers came from (though I tried to do some digging above), but we have certainly identified the common ancestor of all the album covers in my Top 42 albums.

Many modern rap albums trace their album covers to Illmatic: The Notorious B.I.G.: Ready to Die (1994), Lil Wayne: Tha Carter III (2008) and Tha Carter IV (2011), Killer Mike: R.A.P. Music (2012), Drake: Nothing Was the Same (2013), just to name an obvious few. More generally, we can see that this trend was already alive in the 80s, before Illmatic: link. Let's treat Illmatic as a case study of how this tradition has been passed on, then.

Here's my attempt at drawing out the lineage of Hip Hop:

Ancestry of Hip Hop

Note: I didn't include Rock and Roll, which inherits from Gospel and Jazz -- Hip Hop takes some influence from Rock and Roll. I also didn't directly connect Jazz to Hip Hop -- I should have. Ultimately culture is far more volatile than can be expressed in a diagram, all of these genres mingled with each other for sure.

So, to restate our original question: Why do so many rap album covers look the same?

Given what I've learned writing this, I'll say that there are 3 main reasons:

I believe that is sufficient enough of an answer for me. I know where I can look for a more specific answer, which is very satisfying. If you have any comments, critiques, questions, or additions, please send them through.

Note: This isn't an assignment for school, and I wrote this in one sitting without really researching first. It is very disorganized.