To celebrate the 10th anniversary of The Black Album, what some thought would be Jay Z's last album before retiring (obviously, it turned out to be more of a sabbatical), we interviewed a key part of its visual representation, art director Robert Sims. Photographed by Jonathan Mannion, The Black Album shows Jay literally fading to black with his baseball cap over his eyes. Since the album's release, its musical and visual significance have resonated and affected the creation of multiple hip-hop and otherwise albums and their covers, making it a classic on all fronts 10 years later.
Read our interview with Sims about how Jay referenced The Beatles for the album cover and why executing it this way felt like a risk at the time.
In the end, we all agreed that the cover he chose was the right one for this album. It felt the most classic out of all the options I presented.
What was your role in the art direction of The Black Album? Can you go through the process of brainstorming the cover and how you decided to make it black?
As art director, my role was to interpret Jay Z's vision for his (then) last recording, The Black Album. His music was literally going dark. The album cover had to visually demonstrate this. I submitted dozens of cover options, all of which showed various levels of obscurity—plays on darkness and light. Either his face was covered by his hand and hat or his back was turned. All of these options were presented to Jay Z. In the end, we all agreed that the cover he chose was the right one for this album. It felt the most classic out of all the options I presented.
Were there any conceptual challenges with such a literal album title like The Black Album?
I think the only conceptual challenge was finding just the right amount of Jay Z on the cover for it to still be a "black" album. The initial plan for the album release was a limited-edition first run with an opaque, all-black jewel case and only a black/silver foil promo sticker on the front to identify the album. The album ID on the spines and the tracklisting on the back covers weren't visible. The inner booklet (after you opened the packaging) contained the final cover with Jay Z fading away and the classic slab serif font for his name and title. For all subsequent runs, this same inner booklet cover showed through just a clear jewel case.
For the first run, this was as black as a black album could get without losing its identity or Jay Z's identity in the process. I still see versions of the cover online which are manually brightened, and it's not meant to look that way. Jay Z was meant to appear barely there on purpose—almost a ghostly apparition.
I wanted a certain amount of freedom for Jay Z to just 'be' in front of the camera.
What was it like working with Jonathan Mannion and his photograph of Jay for the cover? What kind of images were you working with?
After collaborating for so many years, there was no one else Jay Z wanted to photograph him, and there was no one else I wanted to photograph Jay either. Jonathan had the most keen sense of Jay Z, more than any other photographer at the time. I didn't want any rigidly stylized sets and looks for the shoot. I wanted a certain amount of freedom for Jay Z to just "be" in front of the camera.
Prior to the shoot, I needed some unused images of Jay from Mannion's photo shoot for the previous album, The Blueprint, for staging purposes and working out the preliminary logistics of the limited-edition packaging. In the end, it was that one image from a previous shoot that was the hands-down favorite. Our creative team felt pride in being part of what would (then) be Jay Z's last album.
Did Jay Z have any specific requests or conceptual ideas for The Black Album?
Jay Z requested that he not be on the cover, but he was open to other ideas that included his imagery. For all pre-album release advertising, he only wanted the album title and a track-listing of The Black Album shown, no images of himself either. So I envisioned the album packaging to be graphically minimal, austere and stark on all outer or initial contact with the album.
The inside would tell a different story. For the inner packaging, Jay Z wanted collages with photos of friends and family filling every spread and serving as permanent reminders of his gratitude to those people who were with him on his journey to the end (i.e. his final album).
Had you heard the album before designing the cover? What were your thoughts upon hearing it for the first time?
I had not heard the music, because it was top secret until the release date of November 14, 2003. But I did re-immerse myself into every album Jay Z he had recorded up until then. I wanted to get a more holistic sense of his artistry in hopes that it would further inspire the cover for this yet-unheard album.
After The Black Album was released, I listened to it, and it became clear that this album is not a synopsis of his body of work nor a send-off album either. In my opinion, this album was destined to be an instant classic, and yet, I think it all left us in disbelief that Jay Z's artistry would suddenly end here. So although I had not heard the music before the album came out, the gravity of the fact that this was his last album also translated onto the cover with what appears to be a snapshot of Jay Z as he literally fades to black.
Jay Z had initially referenced The Beatles' The White Album.
What were the references for the cover, if any? Other album covers, photographs, etc.?
Jay Z had initially referenced The Beatles' The White Album. I didn't reference any other "black" or "white" albums or photography for inspiration at the time. From a marketing standpoint, I do understand that it may seem risky for an artist with commercial success to not appear on their album cover. The Beatles' The White Album could be used as an example of this risk paying off with around 20 million albums sold to date. So with no other references to the past, I wanted to go into the concept of a "black" album with an open mind and a clean slate.
In your opinion, what makes an album cover iconic?
I think what makes an album cover iconic is a blend of message clarity and graphic surprise. Iconic album covers are ones that are the most true to not just the artist but to the meaning of their titles, as well. Sometimes the simplest album covers say the most.
How do you think The Black Album has visually influenced rap covers or all album covers that have come since, over the past decade?
Over the years, The Black Album has appeared on a few "best of" album cover lists and within a few publications, so I'm pleased to see the cover get recognition not just for its design but for its meaning. On the album's 10th anniversary, I'm honored to have art directed The Black Album and been a part of the making of Jay Z's masterpiece.