The Illmatic Code (hip-hop album covers covered get uncovered)

January 9, 2009

Illmatic, Ready To Die, Tha Carter III

Behold! The three greatest hip-hop albums of all time.

Just kidding. Actually, most hip-hop scholars would say the first two albums, Nas’s Illmatic and the late Biggie Small’s (The Notorious BIG) Ready To Die, are among the greatest hip-hop albums ever made. The third album, Lil Wayne’s Tha Carter III, however, might have more fans in the 16-and-under set. Who knows? Maybe it will one day be considered one of hip-hop’s greatest albums. I haven’t listened to much of it, so I couldn’t tell you. Besides, this blog is about design (and stuff) so I’d like to uncover a not so widely known secret about these three album covers. If it is widely known, I didn’t know, so pretend you didn’t know either.

Lets begin with the first album, Illmatic. Released in April of 1994, it was Nas’s debut, and some say his best album. The album cover is a shot of young Nasir Jones, superimposed on a backdrop of what I assume is Queensbridge, the rapper’s stomping grounds and the subject of many of his songs. It’s nothing groundbreaking, but then again, what hip-hop album covers are? It works though. Gets the point across fairly well.

Ready To Die was released in September of 1994. It was Biggie Small’s debut album, and is widely considered the greatest hip-hop album of all time. This album is near and dear to my heart as it is one of the first hip-hop albums I can associate with a specific time and place in my life. Not only that, but it is hands down the best monday morning album ever. Back when I used to take the subway to work, I used to bump this HARD in the AM, looking at other commuters like I was all tough. Anyway, I’m getting sidetracked. The album cover is probably my favorite hip-hop album cover. It’s a shot of a baby, whom I always thought was meant to portray not only a small BIG but also reference the Bad Boy Entertainment logo. As a kid, I thought it was brilliant. Actually, I probably just thought it was “dope.” The image has always stuck with me though, which says a lot about its effectiveness.

Bad Boy Entertainment Logo

This is where things get fun. There’s a bit of controversy surrounding the first two album covers. Apparently, it has been suggested that the concept for Ready To Die’s cover art was taken from Nas’s Illmatic. Interesting. I don’t see it. Sure, both have portrayals of the artists as children, but beyond that, there’s nothing there. Okay, maybe the colors, but beyond that, I’d say they’re pretty different.

Nasir, himself, addresses the drama in his song “Last Real Nigga Alive” (thanks Grover)

Fast-forward to June 2008. Lil Wayne releases Tha Carter III, his sixth album, and the third player in this little study. Clearly the cover art is referencing Illmatic as well as Ready To Die. Actually, the album art could even be called the offspring of the first two albums. Not only do you have Lil Wayne as a baby, which is undoubtedly inspired by Ready To Die, but it’s a close up and it has a similar layout to that of Illmatic. Lil Wayne takes it a step further though, by giving Little Lil Wayne his signature tattoos. Unlike the alleged “jacking” of the Illmatic concept by Ready To Die, this is obviously paying homage. And while the photoshopping looks a little suspect, I quite enjoy looking at that Little Lil Wayne. I’d be proud to call him my son, though I’d give him a timeout for writing all over himself with a tattoo needle. Daddy’s things are not toys, thank you.

So there you have it, one of hip-hop’s great conundrums covered right here. I heard there’s a Notorious movie coming out soon. Maybe it’ll shed some more light on the album art question. For one thing, no amount of google-fu could unearth the identity of the Ready To Die baby. Lets just hope he isn’t out there chasing dollars by trying to become a designer like some other album cover babies from the early 90s.