Last Wednesday, Drake revealed his two album covers for Nothing Was The Same, out September 24, painted by artist Kadir Nelson. Nelson has had countless exhibitions and commissions from Michael Jackson's posthumous Michael album cover to award-winning books about Martin Luther King, Jr. and Nelson Mandela.
Tonight at the VMAs, Drake performed his single "Hold On, We're Going Home" in the style of the album covers Nelson made for him. The album cover (and now set design) is layered with meaning, which we spell out in our 10 Things To Know About Kadir Nelson, the Artist Who Painted Drake's "Nothing Was The Same" Album Cover, but we asked Nelson himself to talk about the creative process and working with Drake. Here's what he had to say.
I like to depict the iconic figures who have great stories of overcoming obstacles and fulfilling their dreams, and I think Drake is a really great example of that.
How did Drake become aware of your work?
Drake was recording at Marvin's Room, the recording studio in Los Angeles, where I have a number of paintings displayed. He liked them, so he called me out of the blue and asked me if I'd like to do the cover art for his album, which I was thrilled to do.
Was he interested in collecting your work or was it for the album art from the start?
It was both. The purpose of his call was specifically for his album cover art. He said he had been a fan for a while; he shared a number of his favorite paintings and said that he liked the feel of some of them. He wanted to have that type of a feel for the album cover. Basically he wanted a signature painting of mine, which didn't necessarily have to look like a hip-hop album cover, he just wanted a piece of art that would be representative of the art he was creating in the studio.
Did you get to hear any of Nothing Was The Same to influence the visual you created?
I went to visit him in Toronto, and we flew to a few different places over a few days, and he played the music for me as we were going along. He didn't have anything specific in mind as to what he wanted. He knew what he wanted it to feel like, but he didn't have an idea of what it would look like. That was my job.
What I heard from his ideas and the music I heard made me want to create something that represents my impression of him and my impression of the music and try to merge them together. When I met and talked with him, I learned that he is very intelligent but also very reflective. I learned that he has a really big heart. I wanted to somehow distill all of that into a two-dimensional image that would be his album cover.
Whose decision was it to create two covers, one with a younger version of him and one of him today?
He always wanted two covers. He knew that he wanted to have a standard album and a deluxe album. He wanted the two images to somehow be related to each other, so that when you put them together, they make a complete image. We didn't really know what that was going to be. He even said that it didn't have to be an image of him; he just wanted it to have that feeling. He said extemporaneously that it could possibly be an image of him as a kid, so I went with that idea and got photographs of him as a little kid and did sketches for that cover.
Drake is a lot of fun, he likes to have fun, he's very personable, and he leaves you with his heart.
I showed it to him, and then he said, "Now for the other cover, I want something more representative of what's going on with me now in my life." So then I did a more contemporary image of him, and he said that it might be cool if the two images were facing the same way. I came back with the idea that it'd be cooler if they were facing and looking at each other, which is something else entirely and representative of him being a very reflective person. He's reflecting on his dreams as a little kid and his ideas of where he is now.
The focus seems to be on his face and profile, as opposed to what he's wearing. Did you know from the beginning that it would be the neck up and more immediate?
I didn't know exactly what I wanted at the beginning. I move with my feelings and what I see when I'm listening or reading. That's just what I saw—a side profile of him looking heavenward with these clouds behind him as if he were a kid dreaming. Then it made sense to do the same thing for the other cover, except to show him as an adult.
How do you feel that this fits into the greater scope of all of your work, including your commercial work? How does painting Drake fit into your trajectory of painting a popstar like Michael Jackson (for his posthumous Michael album cover) or other iconic figures like Martin Luther King, Jr. and Babe Ruth?
I like to depict the iconic figures who have great stories of overcoming obstacles and fulfilling their dreams, and I think Drake is a really great example of that. He certainly fits into the kind of story I like to tell with my work, of following your heart to achieve your dreams.
You were talking about the "feeling" he imagined for the album cover. What was that feeling exactly?
The music that I heard was very emotional. I think I aimed to capture that, but also, Drake is a lot of fun, he likes to have fun, he's very personable, and he leaves you with his heart. I think there's no better way to show that than a child, looking heavenward, up into the sky and to the clouds. I think certainly that kid is still there, and as an adult, that's one of the things he really likes to think about or feel. That joy and fun of being a child.
Like Jay Z said in the "Picasso Baby" video, art and hip-hop really grew up together.
What is your opinion on the growing intersection between music and art today, whether it's Jay Z collaborating with Marina Abramovic, Lady Gaga collaborating with Jeff Koons, or KAWS designing the VMAs? How do you feel about music and musicians becoming greater conduits than ever before for visual art, including with this album cover you've done for Drake?
I think it's essential. Like Jay Z said in the "Picasso Baby" video, art and hip-hop really grew up together. One of the things that I've always been conscious of with my children's books is that they are an introduction to art for children. As artists of all disciplines, we are really documenting our experience during our time here, and art is really a window to the soul. As art has been continually taken out of our schools and not funded in our schools, this is a really great and smart way to inspire children and people of all ages to embrace the arts. Because without art, there is really no life.
What is your advice for young artists, including those who aspire to a body of work like yours?
I think it's just important to really follow what drives you creatively. More than being creative, no matter what discipline—painting, fashion, industrial design, cooking, writing, or mathematics—it's important to really do what you love doing and find whatever it is that drives you and gives you that feeling of joy. It's fuel; it makes for happier, more productive, and fuller people. Whatever you're doing, become a master in it, and then share it with someone else. Pass it on to someone else, to young people, so that the tradition can be continued.
Look forward to Kadir Nelson's upcoming book, Baby Bear, published by Harper Collins in spring 2014.