Music Vs. Industry: The Importance of Artwork in Hip-Hop

Music is no longer an artform – it’s an industry. Industries have to make money. In the music industry, it isn’t enough to just release a three-minute song anymore. With continuously advancing technologies, anyone with a smartphone can go viral and grab a hit. To sustain a career however, you need to be business savvy. The music has to take a backseat, the industry is now the driving force. It’s all about constructing a brand. The brand.


It’s rare for good music from a new, emerging act to shine through. For genuinely talented artist’s music to shine through, they have to understand the industry. There has to be consideration behind the press run, the stage production and the live performance, the music videos and perhaps most significantly the artwork.


Vic Mensa told The Breakfast Club all about depth of meaning weaved within the artwork for his debut album ‘The Autobiography.’ Speaking to Charlamagne, Angela Yee and DJ Envy, Vic explained the album cover the story he tells on album cut ‘Homewrecker.’


“I really depict the situation in the album cover which, you see me like in the middle of a trashed apartment with the stone coming out the wall,” says the Roc Nation rapper. Mid-sentence Charlamagne interrupts: “I thought you was just writing raps, throwing papers to the side.” But not Vic, “I was but you know if you look a little bit closer like the kitchen table is flipped in there and there’s broken glass on the ground, and I wanted to make it clear that all these papers on the side and everything that I was crumpling up and writing it was kinda like I was sitting in the middle of this chaos and writing about it.”


It’s interesting that on the surface an album cover can appear to be so simple that a well-versed hip-hop media forerunner like Charlamagne can miss the deeper meaning. the other end of the spectrum Lil Yachty spoke to Complex’s Everyday Struggle trio Joe Budden, DJ Akademiks and Nadeska Alexis about the artwork for his album ‘Teenage Emotions.’ I’m not sure he needed to explain the meaning behind the artwork though. ‘Teenage Emotions’ features a group photo of various social outcasts – a reflection of Lil Yachty and his audience.


Jonny Keay manages the design work for North East based hip-hop label Legitimate Anarchy Records. I asked him about his opinion on whether design worked better when there are intricate details or whether it’s better to express meaning in a more instant manner.


“That’s a tough question, because obviously depending on the target audience of the work produced, things tend to go down better in different ways. I mean commercially, things like Lil Yachty’s album artwork, functions on such a basic level that anyone can look at it and think pretty much the same thing, but there isn’t much of a deeper level to it. Personally I appreciate the ones with the little details a lot more, because as a fan of the artist you’re following, you’re likely to pick up on what’s intended regardless. But it’s without question that pieces like Lil Yachty’s can work on a much grander scale by just using something that can be understood at first glance.”


As a graphic design student working in the music industry, Jonny is well aware of the importance of visual art in music. “It’s becoming increasingly important that a group or even an individual pushes a certain image they want for themselves, whether that be through the style of artwork on their releases, or how they handle their entire marketing campaign as a whole.”


Some artists have turned against hyper-marketing. Artists such as Kanye West, Jay Z and Frank Ocean rarely do any press. There’s a reason for that, though. There’s barely any point in promotion when you’re one of the biggest stars in the world. Even down to the cover-art. Jay Z’s ‘4:44’ album cover doesn’t even feature his name, but does read “this is his 13th studio album.” Similarly Frank Ocean’s ‘Channel Orange’ is a very simple, stripped back cover art. No artist name, no extra information, just simply the album title. As for Kanye West? ‘Yeezus’ came as a blank CD with a mostly transparent cover except for a red stick. No artist name. No album title. That being said, you have to be a certain type of artist to pull of a marketing campaign with no marketing. 99.9% of new artists need to grab attention.


Jonny agrees that “music isn’t enough to be successful nowadays, people want a complete package, that includes things from high quality visuals and videos, to well thought out marketing and eye-catching designs.” Jonny explains “the best designs are consistent and concise and eventually people learn to associate logos and styles with the individuals/groups involved.”
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