The Cover Story

Staff Writer: Ian Clark

In the world of music, cover art is criminally underrated and important. It creates a first impression, beyond the audible experience. Often, it can make or break someone’s opinions on a piece of music, or an artist’s reputation (regardless of whether it’s positive or negative). Many people reminisce on music that molded their taste in music based on cover art. It’s an easily identifiable representation of the music, whether it’s Michael Jackson posed with wide eyes in glaring light (Thriller, 1982), the borderline explicit cartoon art of Snoop Dogg’s 1993 album Doggystyle, or the dark emotional shower scene of Night Time, My Time by underground pop-rock legend teen Sky Ferreira.

When speaking on her original album artwork, which features her topless, wearing a golden necklace. Sky spoke on the controversy of it in an interview with NME: “Most of the people who had a problem with it were men. At this point, I feel like I’m doing a bad job of being a feminist if I’m not making someone angry.” The album cover is still classified as one of the most controversial album covers of the 2010s.


The censored artwork for “Night Time, My Time.”, Sky Ferreira’s debut album. Photographed by Gaspar Noé

In the eyes of many graphic designers, musicians and music enthusiasts alike, it’s apparent that many modern creative direction schemes are heavily inspired by the works of artists from the 70s-90s. Full-time graphic designer and art director Bryan Rivera says in an interview with It’s Nice That, “Growing up I was really influenced by my brother. … He would show me and teach me about the different writers, such as Korn, sane, JA and legends like Futura T-KID and Shepard Fairy.” Recent art direction commissions with upcoming musicians reflect this influence with crystal clarity.


Artwork for “DEMOS” by Cuz Lightyear. The cover is an example of how Bryan Rivera utilized the influence of his childhood and creatively made it his own with the subtle use of textures, handwriting, and high saturation photographs. Artwork courtesy of Bryan Rivera.

Rivera worked with platinum recording artist Post Malone for the rollout of his sophomore album, titled Beerbongs and Bentleys in the fall of 2018. The album title alone shows a stark contrast in Malone’s music style and personality, representing a side of him that’s still hasn’t grown out of indecorous acts of his past, and a side that’s caught up in the goods that fame, and money have brought him. And although Post’s music style might not be for everybody (it can get cheesy and ingenuine at times), this polarity is something that art directors are made for. Bryan created perfectly fitting album art, promotional works, and even logos. The album art essentially consisted of a bright yellow background, fronted by rendered barbed wire. But the overlaying details are what took it out of its element: labels with bold lettering going into details about the album itself.


Artwork for Post Malone’s sophomore album, “Beerbongs and Bentleys” Courtesy of Bryan Rivera and Republic Records.

The art direction caused a mass reaction among fans, requesting merchandise following similar lines. This ideal feedback can’t always be the case however. Atlanta-based rapper, Gunna, recently released his first album since his major fame, titled Drip or Drown 2. The title suggests an album cover that involves water in some way, but the tastefulness of the execution seems to be something that many people don’t agree on.


The cover for Gunna’s recently released album Drip or Drown 2. Photograph courtesy of Spike Jordan.

Across social media, Gunna was criticized for the art direction featuring lackluster promotion, unoriginality, and a poorly executed cover, even after telling his fans of the authenticity of the cover “Oh yeah [by the way] my cover is not Photoshopped! I’m really underwater, on god.” This clarification didn’t seem to help his case, the cover being real made the photograph seem that much more unprofessional and childish in nature. The photographer for the cover, Spike Jordan, spoke on the negative response to his work with the rapper with Fader. I think the reaction [is] amazing. Any time you’re able to get people speaking about some [stuff], even if it’s negative, you did something right.”, Jordan says. However, that sort of attitude tends to lead to setting low standards, and when using portraiture for cover art, there definitely seems to be a correct way of completing said portrait in a tasteful way.

Björk is thought of as a perfect example for portraiture in cover art in many respects. The Icelandic 90s avant-garde artist is well known for her album covers. They range from the portrayal of her innocence (Debut, Post, Vespertine) to the depiction of feeling inhuman or otherworldly (Biophilia, Vulnicura, Utopia). On her otherworldly personality, Björk said in a 1993 interview with i-D, “When I was growing up, I always had this feeling that I had been dropped in from somewhere else.”, which is entirely what those covers display in such a flawless manner. But one thing all her covers have in common (regardless of the emotion they’re depicting) is that they’re all unforgiving and entirely true to her.


The cover for 1993’s Debut pictures a young Björk in a wool sweater with jewels under her eyes. Her hair is slightly unkempt, and she looks content with the struggles addressed in the album. The photo being shot in black in white retains a sense of purity and innocence. Album cover courtesy of Björk and One Little Indian.

Even as Björk ages and grows out of her 90s reputation for constantly influencing, despite often not getting her credit for doing such, she stays true to her artistry with her covers. She’s documenting her progression purely and unfiltered.

People most likely will never see a world where art direction takes center stage. People won’t line up around the block to watch a graphic designer make a piece of cover art for an album. But that’s where the importance of it lies. Graphic designers and photographers are rockstars of the underground. They’re something that musicians need. They mold their brand, the imagery of their personality, and the feeling of the music they release. People like Bryan Rivera and Spike Jordan aren’t meant to be compared as if they’re parallels, because they are not: the polarity of these types of artists only further highlights the diversity and culture of graphic design in the mainstream.

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