Last night, as I was listening to Wiz Khalifa’s major label debut Rolling Papers, I was reminded of an issue that I had with the album. Mainly that the cover art used is awful. I mean, just look at it:
That’s the cover to your major label debut, Wiz? That honestly looks like a bad mixtape cover made by a fan. It just looks cheap and poorly done. Worse, besides being a shill for his $200 line of aviators, the cover has no artistic element; it just serves to remind you that Wiz Khalifa enjoys weed and the smoke that comes with it (as if the notion that Wiz Khalifa likes weed wouldn’t be obvious enough after listening to his album).
Over the last ten or so years, there’s been a steady decline in the attention and creative detail put into making a unique and cool cover art for an album.This can almost directly be linked to the rise of the internet age and the digitizing of music; since the definition of an album changed to being just a collection of MP3’s, it just kind of became the idea that the cover art as a whole could be forgotten about to the last minute. This laziness couldn’t be more wrong; cover art should still be an incredibly important part of the album making/release process.
People forget why cover art is truly necessary: because it is a way for a musician to express himself to the public using visual art, instead of just musically. It’s the same reason why music videos are important, just that cover art came before hand.It allows the artist to be expressive and interpreted through other senses, to convey a story or an idea or really just anything that means something to you that you would want your audience to see.
Most importantly, the artist should have total say in what goes into making their cover art, not the label [Sidebar: I’m convinced that it was some label executive who created that Wiz Khalifa album, and it was then shown to Wiz, who really didn’t care or was too high to really fight against it]. To the label, all that cover art should do is make your record sell, artistic merits be damned. They want the cover to be as simple as possible, so that it can be quickly grabbed up and purchased, as seen by Wiz’s album cover blatantly showing he enjoys weed. The label should not be making these decisions, the artist should. A famous story of artists fighting their label over cover art was Led Zeppelin and their album, colloquy referred to as Led Zeppelin IV. When the label saw the idea for the album, they almost had a heart attack:
The problem to the label is: how would fans know it’s a Led Zeppelin album if there’s literally no way to tell it’s a Led Zeppelin album? The album didn’t even have the group’s name on it when it was first pressed and released. But this marketing decision wasn’t important to the band. To them, they wanted the cover art to reflect a narrative relating to the music and the story that comes with it; they didn’t want people buying it just because they saw the words “Led Zeppelin” plastered all over the front. It was important to them artistically to take the path they did, and not to compromise the importance of the art for simple finance. In the end, the cover art was shipped as the band intended, but it ended up satisfying the intent of the label, as fans would recognize and appreciate the cover, starring at it intently trying to find out what secrets were hidden in the art. In the end, neither side was hurt, and the band was able to be expressive still.
One of the reasons why OFWGKTA (aka. Odd Future) has stood out in the current music world and why they are being lauded for being incredibly artistic is that they shoot and create all of their own cover artwork:
With all the hype and blog posts that have surrounded the crew in the last month, I’m shocked that no one has taken the time to examine all the art work they produce. Besides keeping their own personal photo blog, the group takes careful time and puts effort into the creation of all the art they use for their music. One look at Tyler, The Creator’s album cover for Bastard, and you can see the level and attention to detail that Tyler put into it (note: Tyler comes up with the bulk of the artwork used by the group). When you look at the cover, you see an shadowy dude, one who loves the street brand Supreme, who looks scary as all fuck, but underneath that terrifying ski mask, a 19 year old kid still exists, one who wishes he knew his dad and fit in. An entire story, one that compliments the music of the album and augments the project, can be understood just through looking at and understanding the cover art. I’d bet you that not even half the attention that this collection of teens put into the art and detail of their album covers went into the creation of Wiz Khalifa’s Rolling Papers.
Look, I’m not trying to be the old man shaking his fist to the sky complaining about how things use to be so much better “back in the day”. I get that the physical album is now dead, and that how we get our music has now dramatically changed. But that shouldn’t mean in any way that the artistic nature and desire by the musician to put out an album with cover art that augments their message should decline with the times. We should be seeing more albums like Freeway and Jake One’s The Stimulus Package and P.O.S.’ Never Better, not less. We should be seeing more albums like My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, that had five different unique and important pieces of cover art, not rushed mediocre covers thrown together by the label at the last moment. The artwork that goes along with your album should take time and be done with care, the same attention that was given to the creation of the artist’s music.
Until we as the consumer and fans start paying respect and encouraging artists to step out of the box with their cover artwork, we’ll be stuck with covers like Rolling Papers for a long time forward.