Within the music world, the fast pace of the Internet has fueled a feeling of urgency, as artists are scrambling to feed a consistent flow of content to their generation’s microscopic attention spans. Driven by this haste, an album’s cover is seemingly becoming a nearly forgotten last thought. Future’s latest album DS2 and his collaboration with Drake, What A Time to Be Alive, both used stock images—pulled straight from media file repositories—as their visual representations.
It’s a sign of the times: With the online world as a breeding ground for easily accessible resources, there’s no longer a strong need for collaboration of creatives from different worlds; rather than commissioning a professional graphic designer, an artist’s album cover can be just an image search away.
But there’s an important debacle that comes from this that extends beyond just the image on the front of a CD: How impactful can a project be when its visual packaging feels neglected? Is this whatever-works attitude taking a toll on the artistic enrichment of culture? The impact of Kanye West’s academic trilogy would hold different weight without Takashi Murakami’s now-iconic illustrations, and Nas’ Illmatic would read a shifted narrative had he not superimposed his childhood portrait over an image of a Queensbridge block. The careful considerations for these projects’ visual components both endowed the rappers’ artistic profiles and strengthened the albums’ cultural magnitudes. Thus, a potential threat against cultural amelioration emerges as laziness becomes the new standard of album cover design.
These methods are taking a toll on the photographers and graphic designers behind the hip-hop community’s most compelling album artwork. The Internet is cutting them out of the equation, and their creative voices are being muffled by the temptation of copying and pasting.
Jonathan Mannion, music photographer and perhaps the most esteemed OG in the timeline of hip-hop album covers, argues that while we can’t blame the changing tastes of consumers, there’s a certain delicacy that comes with time investment.
“I think the audio portion versus the visual manifestation of it are mutually exclusive. There can be a synergy—for my process, I sit and listen to the entire album before spitting out ideas—which can be a really rich collaboration and can result in visuals that are both meaningful and lasting. I think that some of these moves are made because there’s a time crunch. I don’t think there’s as much care as there has been in the past toward the complete process, but people are responding, and responding very strongly, to different things. There are no rules anymore. But I find it a richer way to bolster the culture to really think through every single element to make the greatest thing possible.”
Graphic designer HK agrees, though his perspective comes from a more contemporary context. He’s designed covers for rappers like Post Malone, the A$AP Mob, Allan Kingdom and Kevin Abstract, and as a 21-year-old, he only knows this chapter wherein most album designs are built using the raw materials of the Internet.
“I definitely take note of what’s going on and how vast this space around me is. I can use that to create my own entity. I feel like that’s too much of a blessing. The Internet is crazy, and the fact we can literally create whatever we want, however we want, is overwhelming. I think [stock imagery in album art] diminishes the process. Usually, once you get a project, you want to get everybody involved to portray the vision of the artist, visually. It kind of ruins that relationship between the artist and the designer, and instead uses a middleman. It loses that magic that happens when you create something from scratch.”
It’s how you adapt as a creative to make the richest statement you possibly can within the parameters that you need to work with that makes you great. — Jonathan mannion
For Mannion, it’s important, now more than ever, to adapt to these changing circumstances. For as long as the Internet continues to make things easier for us, cutting out needs for certain roles, photographers and designers need to get creative to stay afloat within the developing landscape.
“Many of us artists in general—photographers, painters, graphic designers—really support the culture and elevate it as high as possible. We always have. We always want the artist to look as great as possible and we always the packaging to be as strong as possible, so we put our hearts and souls into it, just like the artists put their hearts and souls into the music. Taking those chances away from these voices doesn’t really bolster the community. It’s just kind of like, ‘Okay, good enough, spit it out.’ But again, budgets and priorities have changed, and it is what it is now. So now how do we, as creators, let our voices be heard? We’re having to adapt and create other lanes. It’s how you adapt as a creative to make the richest statement you possibly can within the parameters that you need to work with that makes you great.”
When we look at someone like Future, though, who’s kind of like the pioneer of the stock-imagery-as-album-art renaissance, it’s important to consider that the goal may have never been to deliver an aesthetically compelling package in the first place.
“I think there are people that get a pass, like Future,” says HK. “That’s not part of their aesthetic—they care less about the visuals and more about the music. Whereas someone like Kanye, who cares about every element, and has all that covered, it’s essential. With Future, it sucks that someone wasn’t able to come in and translate his message well, but I don’t think it hurts him at the end of the day.”
So while there are artists who choose to present their music as thought-out recipes, others are focused on only particular ingredients—and there's nothing wrong with that, if that's the artist's conscious intent. But this becomes an issue when it's a decision made out of haste or sloth: when thoughtful reflections become victim to our ceaseless need to keep up with an influx of information, images and sound.
We’re consuming information in a time where people don’t care about the art as a whole anymore. —Kalen hollomon
Kalen Hollomon, the designer behind The Weeknd’s Beauty Behind the Madness artwork, agrees that when scrolling through timelines and toggling among webpage tabs is part of our everyday routines, even the most captivating content can get lost among the saturation.
“Music is being put out at a rate faster then ever before, and with it comes a tidal wave of album art. The rapid pace, the need for numerous images for every project in various sizes and for myriad uses, it’s created a place where it’s harder for the really thoughtful things to stand out, but I believe strong images do their job in whatever context.”
“We’re consuming information in a time where people don’t care about the art as a whole anymore; they just want what’s at the core,” says HK. “Sliding off stock photos as the artwork reflects the common attitude: we’re getting so much information at one time, and no one has time to sit down and think about something specific.”
The blink-and-you’ll-miss-it tempo of the Internet’s clock isn’t entirely a downfall. Hollomon points out that it also allows for creative opportunity and increased probability for inspiration.
“The Internet and social media broaden the possibilities of connecting artists and musicians. That was definitely the case with me and The Weeknd. So, it’s an amazing forum. With so much or almost all listening of music being digital and taking place online added to the overabundance if imagery out there on the Internet, it makes for a new and exciting landscape.”
“I’ve been thinking quite a bit about this as someone who’s seen the run of show for the past 20 years of hip-hop,” Mannion adds. “I find that now, more than anything, it’s about curation. There are so many images coming at everyone at every single second. On Instagram, Twitter, whatever, there’s so much. How do you decipher greatness? How do you find the loudest voices? When deciding on an album cover, I would challenge all artists to find the loudest voice they can within that visual construct. That’s what going to allow the culture to elevate.”