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What’s the value of an album cover in the streaming era? It’s not like back in the day when vinyl records featured the space large enough to accommodate thoughtful artwork – nowadays, you’re most likely staring at the cover on a mobile device.

Still, that doesn’t mean the rap album cover is from a bygone era. You know that saying – “don’t judge a book by its cover” – well I totally judge a hip hop album by its cover.

There have been times when I’ve stumbled across an artist I’ve never heard of before and I’ve listened to their album off the strength of their artwork – a recent example would be Daniel Son’s album, Son Tzu & The Wav.God.

From GZA’s comic book renders on Liquid Swords to the fantasyland of Bizarre Ride II The Pharcyde to the hugely influential Illmatic artwork, here are the 50 best rap album covers of all time.

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50. Kid Cudi – Man on the Moon: The End of Day

Released: September 15, 2009

Label: Dream On, GOOD, Universal Motown

There were high hopes for the debut album from Kanye West protege Kid Cudi before it dropped in September, 2009. He met and surpassed them. Now over a decade later the record is regarded as a new-school classic. The album’s cover is an artistic rendition of the rapper’s face interwoven with the moon. Memorable, unique and absolutely one of the best rap album covers of all time.

49. DMX – Flesh of My Flesh, Blood of My Blood

Released: December 22, 1998

Label: Def Jam, Ruff Ryders

DMX’s second album dropped less than a year after his debut. The record’s title and cover continued the Biblical theme of It’s Dark and Hell Is Hot. The graphical portrayal of the shirtless rapper covered in blood was a striking image that suggested a rock and metal influence that DMX would later cater to in his recoding career.

48. Run the Jewels – Run the Jewels

Released: June 26, 2013

Label: Fool’s Gold, Big Dada

Run the Jewels is the product of rapper-producer El-P and OutKast homie, emcee Killer Mike. The duo launched in 2013 with their self-titled debut album. The cover introduced the group’s signature ‘pistol and fist’ artwork and the ‘Tag the Jewels’ campaign in which the group encouraged graffiti artists to recreate the cover.

47. Eminem – The Slim Shady LP

Released: February 23, 1999

Label: Aftermath, Interscope

The cover of Eminem’s debut full length release mirrors the violent fantasies of the rapper’s alter ego for whom the record is named. The artwork depicts Slim looking contemplatively across the water as he prepares to dispose of a body whose feet are protruding from the trunk of his car.

46. Kanye West – Yeezus

Released: June 18, 2013

Label: Def Jam, Roc-A-Fella

Always willing to push the boundaries of art, Kanye West dropped his sixth studio album Yeezus with little promotion beyond a provocative title. The album’s cover was simply the plain image of a CD in a jewel case. Later West explained that the picture was intended as, “an open casket for the CD.” The format had all but died by the time the album dropped in 2013. What the cover lacked in actual design merit, it more than made up for its artistic vision, making it one of the best rap album covers of all time.

45. Redman – Dare Iz a Darkside

Released: November 22, 1994

Label: Def Jam

When Hit Squad alum Redman released his second solo studio album he included some stylistic shout-outs to the godfather of Funk, George Clinton and his influential P-Funk. The cover features the rapper buried up to his neck, a reference Funkadelic’s 1971 release Maggot Brain.

44. Nas – Life is Good

Released: July 13, 2012

Label: Def Jam

Upon its release in 2012, Life is Good was the eleventh studio album from the legendary Queensbridge rapper. The contemplative record found the artist older and wiser. The album cover illustrates both the reality and irony of its title, featuring Nas seated in opulence with his ex-wife Kelis’ dress draped over his knee.

43. EPMD – Strictly Business

Released: June 7, 1988

Label: Fresh, Sleeping Bag

In 1988 Erick and Parrish were making dollars and creating some of the most definitive East Coast Hip-hop ever. The duo’s debut is a classic of the highest order. Consistent with the record’s title, the cover features the two dressed in matching black and white stripes and gold chains, stern faced and ready to get to work in the studio.

42. Mos Def – Black on Both Sides

Released: October 12, 1999

Label: Rawkus, Priority

Mos Def dropped his debut Black on Both Sides in 1999 and immediately established himself as the poet laureate of hip-hop. Loaded with jazz grooves and a socially conscious beat poet vibe, the album was a bold artistic statement. The album’s cover features a simple yet impossible to ignore headshot of the rapper.

41. Slick Rick – The Great Adventures of Slick Rick

Released: November 1, 1988

Label: Def Jam, Columbia

The legendary Slick Rick was one of the most controversial and influential rappers to emerge from New York’s golden age of hip-hop. The cover of his debut album The Great Adventures of Slick Rick had some fun with his international background with a mash-up of the London and NYC skylines.

40. Compton’s Most Wanted – Music to Driveby

Released: September 29, 1992

Label: Orpheus Records, Epic, Sony

Compton’s Most Wanted have been dropping West Coast gangsta rap for more than 30 years. The group’s third studio album Music to Driveby is widely considered a definitive work of the genre. The cover depicts the reality of the group’s lyrics, featuring a pair of gang bangers taking their lowrider out for a drive-by shooting.

39. Danny Brown – Atrocity Exhibition

Released: September 27, 2016

Label: Fool’s Gold, Warp

Danny Brown’s cover for his fourth album features a psychedelic postmodern artistic rendering of the artist’s face. The image reflects the experimental genre-bending nature of the record. The title was inspired by a song by 80’s UK DarkWave Alternative Rock pioneers, Joy Division.

38. Ghostface Killa – Supreme Clientele

Released: February 8, 2000

Label: Epic, Sony, Razor Sharp

Ghostface Killah’s second solo album Supreme Clientele is widely regarded as his best, and probably the most important of all the Wu-Tang solo outings because it helped to bring the Clan back when things were at an all-time low. Overseen by RZA with production coming from various Wu affiliate, the record is notable for its cohesive soulfulness. The artwork represents the project’s professional sheen with a stylized photo of the rapper.

37. The Roots – Do You Want More?!!!??!

Released: January 17, 1995

Label: DGC, Geffen

When Philly crew The Roots dropped Do You Want More?!!??! they created a seminal hip-hop-jazz masterpiece. The 16-track record combined organic musical experimentation with socially enlightened lyricism. The cool blue cover is a throwback to the classic bebop jazz albums that so many of the members grew up on.

36. Scarface – The Fix

Released: August 6, 2002

Label: Def Jam South, Def Jam

When Houston’s Scarface dropped his seventh album The Fix in 2002 it was his first release for the iconic Def Jam records. The album’s cover alludes to the rapper’s Cuban namesake as well as the artist’s own street cred with his face reflected in a cocaine mirror resting next to a shot glass.

35. A$AP Rocky – LONG.LIVE.A$AP

Released: January 15, 2013

Label: ASAP Worldwide, Polo Grounds, RCA

LONG.LIVE.A$AP is the debut album from New York City rapper A$AP Rocky, released worldwide on January 15, 2013. The record came off the heels of the viral success of his independently released “Purple Swag” and “Peso.” The cover depicts Rocky draped in an American flag, mimicking a famous photo of his movie character namesake.

34. Ice Dube – Death Certificate

Released: October 31, 1991

Label: Lench Mob, Priority

Ice Cube’s sophomore solo release came on the heels of three years of high-profile legal and political troubles for his group N.W.A. Rather than shy away from the controversy, he went in hard. The cover of Death Certificate features the incendiary rapper standing beside the corpse of Uncle Sam. The songs within painted a graphic and accurate picture of gang life in America.

33. 50 Cent – Get Rich or Die Tryin’

Released: February 6, 2003

Label: Interscope, Aftermath, Shady, G-Unit

50 Cent exploded onto the scene and shot to the top spot of the rap game with his Dr Dre and Eminem backed debut album. However, he almost never got the chance to make the record. Three years earlier he was shot 9 times and nearly died. The album cover tells that tale with the defiant rapper viewed through a windshield bullet hole.

32. Clipse – Lord Willin’

Released: August 20, 2002

Label: Star Trak, Arista

The sibling hip-hop duo of Pusha T and Malice (better known as Clipse) grew up with legendary hit-making producer Pharrell Williams. That association proved fruitful when their famous friend helped get them signed to Elektra records and produced their debut. The cover of Lord Willin’ features a cartoon image of the brothers escorting Jesus across the stateline of their Virginia home.

31. Sean Price – Mic Tyson

Released: October 30, 2012

Label: Duck Down

Mic Tyson was the third solo studio album from late Brooklyn rapper Sean Price. Before going solo, he made a name for himself as one half of the underground duo Heltah Skeltah. The album cover was created by illustrator Raphael Tanghal and features Price standing alone, triumphant after battling a gang of gorillas armed only with a microphone.

30. Jay Z – Reasonable Doubt

Released: June 25, 1996

Label: Roc-A-Fella, Priority

Reasonable Doubt is the album that launched an empire. After ditching his record contract, in 1996 Jay-Z launched Roc-A-Fella records independently and released his debut album. It is Shawn Carter at his most raw. On the album cover we see him donned in mob boss attire, foreshadowing his future reign as the modern day king of Hip-hop.

29. Ol’ Dirty Bastard – Return to the 36 Chambers: The Dirty Version

Released: March 28, 1995

Label: Elektra, WMG

Wu-Tang Clan created an immediate classic with their debut album Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers). The record also made an instant hip-hop icon of the group’s legendary anti-hero, Ol’ Dirty Bastard. On his solo debut the rapper embraces the group’s grimy street origins with a mock-up of a NYC food stamp card, with the city’s name changed to the ‘Brooklyn Zoo.’

28. Kanye West – 808’s & Heartbreak

Released: November 24, 2008

Label: Def Jam, Roc-A-Fella

Kanye West’s fourth solo album represented a seismic shift in the rapper-producer’s sound and style. As suggested by the title, the album featured emotional tracks of heartbreak served up with auto-tune vocals. The album’s cover matches the lovelorn theme with a photo of a deflated heart-shaped red balloon.

27. A Tribe Called Quest – Midnight Marauders

Released: November 9, 1993

Label: Jive

For the cover of their pivotal third album, A Tribe Called Quest took the opportunity to make a statement of hip-hop unity. The album was released with three different versions of the cover, each featuring the group’s ubiquitous painted lady artwork over headshots of fellow artists from across the community.

It’s been a test for hip hop heads over the decades to be able to name all the people on the covers. For the record: 3rd Bass, Afrika Bambaataa, AMG, Ant Banks, Beastie Boys, Awesome Two, Black Moon, Busta Rhymes, Casual, Chi-Ali, Chubb Rock, Chuck D, The Cold Crush Brothers, Daddy-O of Stetsasonic, Dallas Austin, Del the Funky Homosapien, Diamond D, De La Soul, Doctor Dré, Doug E. Fresh, Fab Five Freddy, Grandmaster Dee of Whodini, Grandmaster Flash, Heavy D, Ice-T, Jazzy Jay, DJ Jazzy Joyce, Jungle Brothers, Kid Capri, Kool DJ Red Alert, Kool Moe Dee, Large Professor, Litro, Lords of the Underground, MC Lyte, Neek the Exotic, Organized Konfusion, The Pharcyde, Rashad Smith, Rock Steady Crew (Crazy Legs, Mr. Wiggles, Pee Wee Dance and Ruel), DJ Ron G, DJ Silver D, Sean Combs, Skeff Anselm, Souls of Mischief, Special Ed, Sweet Tee, Too Short and Zulu Nation Supreme Council.

26. Kendrick Lamar – good kid, m.A.A.d city

Released: October 22, 2012

Label: TDE, Aftermath, Interscope

Kendrick Lamar’s second album earned the rapper his first Grammy and established him as a leader in hip-hop. Replete with hard tales of real life in Compton, the album cover features a polaroid snapshot of a young Kendrick sitting on a family member’s lap. We see a 40oz and a baby bottle on the table with a caption that reads “a short film by Kendrick Lamar.”

25. The Notorious B.I.G. – Ready to Die

Released: September 13, 1994

Label: Bad Boy, Arista

The prophetically titled 1994 debut album by The Notorious B.I.G introduced one of the great tragic heroes of Hip-hop. The record was a huge success and is now regarded as a classic. The album’s cover is both simple and striking. A diaper-clad infant sits in front of a plain white background, captioned by the title, Ready to Die.

24. Kanye West – My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy

Released: November 22, 2010

Label: Def Jam, Roc-A-Fella

My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy was the follow-up to Kanye’s much maligned stylistic departure on 808’s & Heartbreak. It was also his first new music after charging on stage during Taylor Swift’s acceptance of the “Best Female Video” award at the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards. Here, Yeezy threw fuel on the fires of controversy with an album cover featuring a painting of the artist having sex with a winged creature.

23. Mobb Deep – The Infamous

Released: April 25, 1995

Label: Loud, RCA

The Infamous is the second studio album from the dead-eyed duo from Queensbridge, Mobb Deep. The record featured guest performances by some giants of NYC hip-hop, including members of both Wu-Tang Clan and A Tribe Called Quest, as well as a mafioso-making performance by Nas. The record’s cover pictures the duo of Prodigy and Havoc superimposed over scenes from their Queensbridge neighborhood.

22. Geto Boys – We Can’t Be Stopped

Released: July 9, 1991

Label: Rap-A-Lot Records

Houston’s Geto Boys were integral in establishing the South as a force in Hip-hop. Their third album We Can’t Be Stopped was a multi-platinum success and spawned the massive hit “Mind Playing Tricks on Me.” The record’s album cover solidified the group’s authenticity with a photo of band member Bushwick Bill in a hospital bed recovering from a self-inflicted gunshot wound.

21. Outkast – ATLiens

Released: August 27, 1996

Label: Arista, LaFace

Outkast had a lot to live up to after the breakout success of their debut album Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik. The pioneering Atlanta duo exceeded all expectations with their widely acclaimed sophomore release, ATLiens. The album’s now famous cover features Andre 3000 and Big Boi as comic book heroes prepared to battle their foes.

20. De La Soul – 3 Feet High and Rising

Released: March 3, 1989

Label: Tommy Boy

On their debut 1989 album 3 Feet High and Rising, groundbreaking New York City trio De La Soul introduced an entirely new vibe of peace and enlightenment into hip-hop. The record is still regarded as one of the greatest albums of the genre. Designed by British art collective the ‘Grey Organisation,’ its artwork reflects the band’s Flower Power motif.

19. Public Enemy – It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back

Released: June 28, 1988

Label: Def Jam, Columbia

In terms of both quality and impact, there are few works in modern music that can compare to Public Enemy’s 1988 masterpiece It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back. The record is a classic for its biting lyrical social commentary and groundbreaking production. With a simple photo of group leaders Chuck D and Flava Flav behind bars, the cover perfectly epitomizes the band’s intellectual outlaw aesthetic.

18. Kanye West – Graduation

Released: September 11, 2007

Label: Def Jam, Roc-A-Fella

Kanye West’s third album continued and completed the scholastic theme established by his debut The College Dropout. For the album’s artwork, he teamed up with Japanese pop-art icon, Takashi Murakami. He created a series of cartoon images depicting the rapper’s ‘Dropout Bear’ avatar in various surreal scenes as he progresses toward graduation.

17. Beastie Boys – Licensed to Ill

Released: November 15, 1986

Label: Def Jam, Columbia

In 1986, the music world met a trio of teenage white kids from New York with a punk rock rodeo clown attitude and the backing of Hip-hop’s premiere record label. The now legendary two-sided cover captured their irreverence with the image of a jumbo jet being snuffed out like a joint.

16. Madvillain – Madvillainy

Released: March 23, 2004

Label: Stones Throw

Madvillian was the collaborative project of producer Madlib and former KMD rapper MF Doom. Much like the man at the mic, the album was shrouded in mystery. It remained unreleased for two years due to bootleg concerns. The cover of the duo’s only album features MF Doom reflecting that mysterious vibe in his signature metal mask.

15. Snoop Dogg – Doggystyle

Released: November 23, 1993

Label: Death Row, Interscope

After the massive success of his own album The Chronic, Dr. Dre stepped behind the board again to produce the debut record from his friend and collaborator Snoop Dogg. The record introduced a unique talent that balanced gangsta street cred with feel-good stoner vibes. The album cover depicts the playful yet salacious themes suggested by the title and contained within the grooves.

14. Black Star – Mos Def & Talib Kweli Are Black Star

Released: September 29, 1998

Label: Rawkus, Priority, EMI, MCA, Universal

Mos Def & Talib Kweli Are Black Star, commonly known simply as Black Star is the debut and only studio album (so far) to spawn from the early collaboration of two legendary NY rappers. The album’s title and its cover are a reference to Marcus Garvey’s historic ‘Back to Africa’ movement and his Black Star Line shipping company.

13. Ms. Lauryn Hill – The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill

Released: August 25, 1998

Label: Ruffhouse, Columbia

In 1998, The Fugees’ Ms. Lauryn Hill stepped into the solo spotlight with her debut album, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. Now considered a landmark release, it fused R&B, hip-hop and reggae and helped define neo-soul for future generations. The album cover features the singer’s face carved into a piece of wood.

12. 2Pac – The Don Killuminati: The 7 Day Theory

Released: November 5, 1996

Label: Death Row, Interscope

A quarter century after his death, the shadow of Tupac Shakur still looms large over the world of Hip-hop. In 1996 his murder and the aftermath was daily front page news. Two months after the tragedy, Death Row dropped his fifth studio album, with Pac credited as Makaveli. The album’s cover alludes to his death and legend, featuring the rapper as Jesus on the cross.

11. GZA – Liquid Swords

Released: November 7, 1995

Label: Geffen

For his second solo album, Wu-Tang Clan’s GZA added a comic book twist to the martial arts imagery favored by the group. The cover features ninjas in a bloody battle. The scene is set on a giant chess board, reflecting the rapper’s love of the game.

10. UGK – Ridin’ Dirty

Released: July 30, 1996

Label: Jive

Houston’s Underground Kings came up at a time when Hip-hop was defined by the east and west coast scenes. Their 1996 masterpiece Ridin’ Dirty played a part in putting the South on the map. On the cover, UGK duo Pimp C and Bun B are seen in their car, ready to roll out for the lost weekend documented within the album’s grooves.

9. The Pharcyde – Bizarre Ride II The Pharcyde

Released: November 24, 1992

Label: Delicious Vinyl, EastWest

With their 1992 debut album Bizarre Ride II the Pharcyde, the LA quartet of Imani, Slimkid3, Bootie Brown and Fatlip introduced a fun-loving freestyle hippie vibe that kept one foot in the West Coast and one in the East. The cartoon image of the group on a rollercoaster depicts the fun-loving vibe of the record.

8. Jay-Z – The Blueprint

Released: September 11, 2001

Label: Roc-A-Fella, Def Jam

Jay-Z was awaiting two criminal trials when he dropped this seminal masterpiece in 2001. The album’s cover responded to that reality by embracing a gangster aesthetic. It features Jay seated and smoking. Faceless subordinates stand before him, awaiting instruction. Beside him sit various implements of his trade. The image was inspired by a similar photo in ‘The Firm,’ a book by photojournalist Jocelyn Bain Hogg documenting British organized crime.

7. Raekwon – Only Built 4 Cuban Linx…

Released: August 1, 1995

Label: Loud, RCA

Raekwon dropped his debut solo album at the peak of WuTang Clan’s hip-hop dominance in 1995. The cover features Rae and fellow WTC member Ghostface Killah leaning in with smoke and guns blazing. However, the record’s packaging made an even bigger impact. The cassette distribution was packaged in purple plastic which led to the album being commonly referred to as The Purple Tape.

6. Nas – Illmatic

Released: April 19, 1994

Label: Columbia

Nas’ 1994 debut album chronicles the rapper’s formative years growing up in the projects of Queens, NY. Its cover reflects that history. We see a photo of the rapper at 7 years old, superimposed over a stark urban scene. Donned in an afro, he peers through the eyes of an old soul toward a future far beyond Queensbridge. The cover for Illmatic was so groundbreaking and ahead of its time that it inadverantly caused a ruckus between Big and Wu-Tang.

5. Wu-Tang Clan – Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers)

Released: November 9, 1993

Label: Loud

Wu-Tang Clan’s debut album brought hardcore underground to the mainstream in 1993 and changed hip-hop forever. The group is known for their raw freestyle accounts of life on the streets. The other overlying theme to their aesthetic is their love of Kung-fu. The group’s name, the album title and its artwork were directly inspired by classic martial arts films.

4. A Tribe Called Quest – The Low End Theory

Released: September 24, 1991

Label: Jive

Tribe Called Quest’s sophomore release is widely regarded as one of the greatest hip-hop albums of all time. The album’s cover mirrored the jazz-heavy vibes and Afrocentric positivity contained within. The album epitomized the early 90’s NYC philosophy and sound of the group’s Native Tongues collective.

3. Outkast – Aquemini

Released: September 29, 1998

Label: LaFace, Arista

Outkast’s third album Aquemini was a concept record of sorts, intended to depict the two differing personalities of Andre 3000 and Big Boi. They follow that theme lyrically throughout the record. The album cover was drawn by Andre’s brother Greg Hawkins and depicts the two rappers as poet and pimp in a classic contemporary Black art style.

2. NWA – Straight Outta Compton

Released: August 8, 1988

Label: Ruthless, Priority

In 1987 NWA released their debut album and changed the music industry forever. In addition to launching the careers of Ice Cube and Dr. Dre, the record became the gold standard by which all gangster rap is measured. The cover features the young crew standing in a circle with leader and label owner Eazy E pointing his gun at the camera.

1. Eric B. & Rakim – Paid in Full

Released: July 7, 1987

Label: 4th & B’way, Island

This pioneering East Coast duo’s 1987 debut changed Hip-hop in more ways than one. While the songs introduced Rakim’s legendary flow and Eric B.’s funk-infused turntable technique, the artwork is a touchstone of the culture. The pic features the duo in designer clothes and fat gold chains, standing in front of a wall of money. The pic launched a tradition of flaunting cash that continues to this day.

17 comments
  1. what alot of people don’t know about the pharcyde album is the Rollercoaster is actually going into a woman’s vagina !!! which makes the album cover even more dope!!!! and side note fear of a black planet shouldve made the cut

  2. No Life After Death or All Eyes On Me cover? 400 Degrees? Trap Or Die? Nelly Country Grammer?

  3. I thought Brand Nubian’s all for one would’ve been on this list. That album is extremely educational for it’s time.

    1. The Geto Boys: Till Death Do Us Apart
      The Lost Boyz: Legal Drug Money
      Dr Dre: The Chronic
      Snoop Doggy Dogg: Doggy Style
      Ice Cube: Lethal Injection
      2Pac: Me Against The World
      The Lost Boyz: Love Peace N Napiness
      Redman: Maddy Waters
      Coolio: Gangstas Paradise
      Mjg & 8ball: Seating On Top Of The World
      Scarface: The Dairy
      The Notorious Big: Ready To Die
      Nas: It Was Written

      ETC….

  4. Who ever put this list together literally put anything it’s some classic albums on here but all these covers are not groundbreaking 😂😂

  5. How did you leave out.
    Boogie Down Production ( Criminal Minded )
    RUN DMC
    LL Cool J ( Bigger and Deffer
    Eazy – E ( Eazy Duz It )
    Fugees ( The Score )
    Spice 1 ( 10 )
    Ice Cube ( Amerikkka’s Most Wanted )

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