Kanye West’s album covers are more than just packaging. They are masterfully crafted artworks that intertwine beautifully with his music.
Album covers have long been awe-inspiring works of art; their artistry being essential components to a musician’s sounds. Often, they are a listeners’ first point of entry to an artist’s album. Their wit, message, and visual allure have been become emblems of amazing bodies of music.
In walks Kanye West. The notoriously unapologetic, multi-Grammy winning cultural icon has greatly influenced music as well as the artistry of album covers. The designs of his covers are just as fundamental as the content of his highly acclaimed music.
Throughout his storied and successful career, three of his later album covers showcase his versatility, meticulous thought, and captivating imagination.
808’s & Heartbreak
Nov. 10, 2007, Kanye West’s mother, Donda West, died as a result of cosmetic-surgery complications. At around the same time, Kanye and his fiancée, Alexis Phifer, ended their engagement. This crushing series of events became the seeds of themes that would later surface in West's album, 808s & Heartbreak.
Kanye West hinted that this album would be a sonic equivalent to the Pop Art movement. When released, on Nov. 24, 2008, 808s & Heartbreak was melodic and minimalist, with Kanye singing in auto tune and barely rapping. Photographed by Kristen Yiengst and designed by both Virgil Abloh and Willo Perron, the cover showcases a deflated, red, heart-shaped balloon against a grey background with an obscure colour code bordering the left-side (a potential homage to the iconic graphic designer Peter Saville).
The mentally deflated Kanye West communicates his feelings with the shriveled heart on the center of the cover. This deflation communicates a sense of loneliness and emptiness while contrasting the solidity of the grey background. Reminiscent of Pop-Art’s simplicity, the cover proves brilliant as it foreshadows the themes that haunted Kanye West and that appear throughout his songs. The lifeline of the album is the empty percussive element of Kanye West utilizing the Rolan TR- 808 drum machine (hence the reference to 808s in the name). The greyish- blue hue in the background perfectly compliments the depressive and emotionally vulnerable soundscape and lyrics of the albums- songs such as Coldest Winter lead Kanye West to reminisce on his mothers passing.
The cover is straightforward, clear and memorable- an instant classic, just like the music.
My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy
"Yo, Taylor, I'm really happy for you and I'mma let you finish, but Beyoncé had one of the best videos of all time!" The year was 2009 when Kanye West notoriously interrupted Taylor Swift's acceptance speech for “Best Female Video” at the VMAs. After hiding out in Hawaii from the media’s rip-roarious response to the scandal, Kanye West released his fifth studio album, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, to the world. The album spoke of fame, power, drugs, race relations and his relationship with then-girlfriend Amber Rose.
The album cover sparked controversy, depicting Kanye West having sex with a nude winged creature straddling him. In the forefront is her bare breast and butt, while Kanye holds a bottle of alcohol, menacingly glaring at the viewer. The cover is predominantly red with the figures framed centrally by a gold border. Later, George Condo, the artist behind the image, revealed that Kanye’s intention was to have his cover banned.
West further expanded on the concept of the album at the premiere of his subsequent film “Runaway.” He expounds on how the phoenix was an emblem of his life up to present, stating “It definitely relates to everything that I’ve been through, like… burning to ashes and rebuilding.” The cover itself West stated was reminiscent of something he would’ve drawn as a five-year-old. The child-like and maladroit nature of the album cover has a very raw and primitive nature to it; the colours collide, barely blending, while the face of Kanye West and the Phoenix is morphed to unrealistic proportions. This creates a sense of disarray and confusion. Everything lies in its right place, but doesn’t perfectly fit, almost acknowledging the twisted fantasies of Kanye. This cramped and uncomfortable composition further edifies the notion of Kanye’s relationship with his turbulent, rock star lifestyle and the discomfort of trying to juggle his hedonistic lifestyle with an offshoot of transgressive art (art depicting the void of morality, appeasing to shock and offence).
The message is loud and abrasive. It reveals all the themes of drugs and passion; Kanye with his bottle, having sex with this phoenix. It explores the invasion of public figures privacy as we stare directly into an intimate moment. It suggests the unapologetic nature of West’s narcissism, something he’s had trouble taming in the public eye. It tells the stories within the album before his music even starts.
Kanye West’s protest album, Yeezus, came after a long-winded media run and speaks to the perils of a misunderstood visionary as he struggled to break into the fashion industry. He derived inspiration from art exhibits in France which informed his views on classicism, race and industry.
The cover was packaged as nothing more than a small piece of red tape on top of the plastic CD case, with the album’s UPC sticker at the back. It served as both a tongue-in- cheek message to corporate demands, as well as a response to the censorship of his previous album, MBDTF. The hostility of the album cover was a blatant dig, further informed by the soundscape of the album, as the album showcased the juxtaposition of unapologetic and brash industrial hip-hop against clean and polished samples.
The sounds of the album coincide with the empty and void nature of the (non- existent) cover. The cover is mechanical, only showing a CD, voiding it of any soul or spirit. It’s a direct disconnect with the extravagant nature of countless samples layered in the album and soulful sampled, in which Kanye is highly praised for. The message of going against the normalities of the industry’s infrastructure screams in this album’s cover, and as Kanye perfectly summarized in the song New Slaves “F**k you and your corporations”. The name alone Yeezus created a wide array of angry reactions, as Kanye tiptoes on blasphemous lyricism, toying with the notion of him being in some regard affiliated with Jesus. He raps “I know He the most high, but I am a close high” in his song, I Am a God. It’s straightforward, direct and uncomfortable, just like the album cover. The nullification of album art is an almost punk response to playing by the rules of the music industry and society’s regulations.
Though, technically not there, Yeezus’ album cover still provided a strong, resilient message. In saying nothing, Kanye said everything.
Kanye West showcases album covers that engage an audience, while also edifying the themes layered through his projects. The concepts are simple, yet entangled in an elaborate history of trial, triumph and versatility.