Thursday, April 26, 2007

Report Card: Rap Album Artwork

Wanna come kick it with a stand-up guy?

I bought a handful of CDs yesterday--yes, I still buy albums I like for the artwork--and noted that the tide may be shifting for rap album art. Now, not a one of these can touch the deluxe edition of Neon Bible or Cassadaga, two of the most awesome, gorgeously conceived packages this lifelong record nerd's ever seen. But the supreme irony of a collegiate graphic designer like M.I.A. laying out a fucking grotesque neon-videogame mess getting capped by the taste of a simple-personality Atlanta rapper like T.I. gives me hope. Maybe someday, great rappers will decorate their time capsules with a flair worthy of their braggodocio instead of being outclassed by manic-depressive art brats like Conor Oberst.

T.I. - King

Beautiful, just beautiful, man. I loved the cover, with an ominous, classic-cool shot of T.I.P. lookin' all shadowy and awesome, but the! Every cool shot possible, and I mean in the James Dean sense, not the "Losing My Edge" sense: Sepia-toned action shots of press conferences and flashing photographers and huddles of ladies all over him like "Rubberband Man" was "I Want To Hold Your Hand." Jay-Z's too narcisstic about face shots in his albums to pull back and let himself be shown in tastefully glamorous settings like these. CD's all silver like T.I.'s name on a fucking coin with just the word "KING." in big, regal letters. It reflects the man's simple-but-damning approach to rapping perfectly, and also his stake to the claim that he's the least sloppy/rowdy rapper from his region; the first Clean South rapper? He looked ready for that "My Love" video spot probably even before he was asked to appear. A+

Ludacris - Chicken 'N' Beer

The opposite of King, which is why they make good rivals. T.I. raps in smirky but not jokey, low-key quick strokes, bent by rolled tongue and relatively silent bravado. Luda on the other hand, is Dirty, Dirty, Dirrrty to the core. Loud, sloppy flow, long on barreling punchlines and hypemen and barroom brawls on "Blow It Out" and "Get Back" and "Move Bitch." His image of late has been trying to mature uncomfortably, performing some conscious bullshit with a choir at the Grammys and covering his ass with half-hearted Pharrell ass-jams. But musically and visually, Chicken 'N' Beer captured the rowdy spirit of Ludacris at his peak. His rhymes are greasy like the fried chicken and stained like the beer mugs in his booklet, and full of sexist/sex-joke fun, matched by hilarious/offensive shots of him biting sexy barwomens' asses and legs. The only misstep is the flurry of awful cartoon chicken sexpots in the book, which are too Weird Al and not even wild enough to get the furries excited. A-

Lil' Wayne - Tha Carter II/Gangsta Grillz: Dedication 2

Some rappers have the look to pull off a stark, shirtless image iconic to their style, but Lil' Wayne's neither physically attractive nor regal enough in his aesthetic to stick cursive lettering and black and white coolness on his album cover and pull off the transition from his high-bling Cash Money days. He's just not a sex symbol or a leader. He's a loner, a tyrant, an assassin. The album title's just fine, cementing his reputation as Jay-Z's arrogant, hungry successor. But he fronts like the young upstart he is, clawing his unlikely way to the top of his industry, not like the established, recognized sovereign he thinks he's always been. That mentality's great for his attitude, but delusional for his literal self-portrait. Neither Carter nor its sequel have an image in the booklet that sum Wayne up as perfectly as the instant-classic-by-acclaim Dedication 2 mixtape does: black and white drawing of Wayne's ugly mug, in close-up, eyes closed with his "Fear of God" tattoo across the eyelids speaking volumes more than his pecs and shades ever will. The only picture that could possibly make a more striking cover might be one of those shots of Wayne slipping Birdman some tongue. Carter II: C+; Dedication 2: A

Clipse - Hell Hath No Fury

Cute to his nerdy netcrit fans, a forehead-slapper for their estranged label, a cover with the Clipse brothers sitting by their oven (waiting for some crack to boil?), walls decked with dollars, is not gonna fly for Jive's teenybopper marketing. Definitely hilarious, definitely not-give-a-fuck, just like the single. But Clipse are a little too pure as rhymers to know how to layer their image with visuals; the inlays of these dudes in fancy suits and cars does not at all bring to mind their dirty stock in trade, and they're not at all rich enough to convince me the the garb's not rented either. Not a tragedy even if we can't blame the mismatching on Jive's cluelessness. B

Hyphy Hitz

Now here's a match. Wacky fonts and an electric green backdrop with crazy purple cars doing tricks and Bay Area road signs? TVT can't be blamed for not knowing their product. Gotta love the hyped-out essay blowing hyphy grossly out of proportion with it's candy-shell admiration, but if these dudes are so wacky, where's the shots of them flashing their grillz and ghost riding their whips? With a compilation so poised to raise the Bay to a national phenom, this shyness is a little jarring. B+

Lupe Fiasco's Food & Liquor

Lupe's a smart guy and he knew what he was doing when he consented to this not-actually-as-revoltingly-ugly-as-it-first-seems cover of him floating in space and rainbows and a faux-Arabic font jacked from Tool photoshopped in with all kinds of other ill-advised shit. In his interview with Tom Breihan, he said he wanted something shocking that would get people talking. I don't necessarily think it'll be flying off the racks, but the makings of a true cult artist slowly earning that word of mouth begin with a crazy-stupid image just like the one he wants to project. It also covers up the image he actually projects, black-and-white candid Chi-town shots like Common. And it's not much stupider than Kanye's teddy bear guy. B-

Rhymefest - Blue Collar

We know Rhymefest is working-class but that didn't have to mean dull-ass, like his blue-collar cover concept entails. Tired of your day (night?) shift, buddy? Aren't we all. Rappers don't all have to be glamorous, but this is too regular-guy even for him. A guy named Rhymefest should be photographed gleefully repping' his rhymes galore, not falling asleep at the desk. Maybe better suited to a medium-talent who actually rides the bus like Akrobatik. Hopefully El Che gives us something worthier of its more grandiose namesake. C-

Common - Be

At least this working-class guy is artsy. Common's just fashion-conscious enough to score some glintzy tones of fashionable tan and gold for his summery, chill album, and it fits the scaled-backness he's going for. Smiling wickedly on the cover, so you know he's happy but ain't too saintly, and the booklet's fly-on-the-building urbanness is some more Like Water For Chocolate plaintiveness if less politically inspired. B+

The Roots - Game Theory

The Roots do beautiful record packaging, with great, thought-provoking album titles, actual statements on the cover paired with striking scenes (a lynched stick figure here, indictments of racist paleopsychology and corrupt cops in the past), and beautifully wordy, nerdy liner notes. ?uestlove has tons of fun juicing his band's records with factoids and sprawling, critic-like commentary usually, but unfortunately this time, he declined and just provided the lyrics, never a strong suit of the band. A slight step down for these guys, even if the faux-badass photo of a Roots card game on the back is worth the purchase alone. A-

Ghostface Killah - Fishscale/More Fish

Priceless, inscrutable concept. Ghost sporting weird furry hats, stuffing keys in actual dead fish (lol double meaning, Ghostface is sooo internetz) can't be fucked with. The only thing missing is Fishscale's original cover, a fucking bizarre shot of the dude threatening to cut a fish. Maybe failure-phobic Def Jam bitched, but that would've turned way more heads than a boring-ass shot of our hero standing in some shadowy light with his boys. Have to dock more notches than necessary cuz it's the actual cover. Both: B+

Jay-Z - Kingdom Come

I didn't buy this, but the deluxe edition with that scanner-red package and bad-motherfucker photo of his ugly face in a Yankee cap is like the Classic Coke of hiphop. A way worthier image for the actual music of Blueprint or Black Album than their half-assed covers, even if the comeback concept is a better fit here. It's just a waste when only half the record's legit, and it's harder to look badass with Chris Martin tailing you. B+


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