A History of Scandalous Rap Album Covers
By Chris Yuscavage, Complex
Remember when album covers were a really important part of rappers' albums? Now that most people steal or buy their music online, albums covers can go overlooked. Or at the very least, they live mostly as .jpg files rather than as a piece of art you can hold in your hand and admire. Back in the day, album covers were the first thing that people saw when they picked up an album at their local record store. So rappers routinely pushed boundaries and got creative on their album covers in order to try and generate sales.
Some of them went all out when it came to creating album covers, resulting in a bunch of scandalous rap album covers that got people talking more about the album covers themselves than the actual albums. Some were overtly sexual and some were hyper-violent, but they all were over the top. So as we celebrate the 25th anniversary of one such album this year—Ice-T’s Power, which dropped September 1988—we decided to take a look back at The Most Scandalous Rap Album Covers of All Time. Shocking, aren’t they?
Ice T, Power (1988)
Label: Sire Records
From the pose that Darlene Ortiz struck on the cover of Ice-T's Power to the shotgun that she held in her right hand to the barely-there swimsuit that she wore, she stole the show here and gave Ice-T one of the most infamous rap album covers of all time. In fact, Ice-T could have slept-in the day that this cover was shot and let Darlene do her thing by herself. That's all anyone sees when they look at this cover anyway, right?
2 Live Crew, As Nasty As They Wanna Be (1989)
Label: Luke Skyywalker Records
In 2013, an album cover like this probably wouldn't be that big a deal. But in 1989, the cover—along with the content of the album—ruffled more than a few feathers and became a target for Tipper Gore's Parents' Music Resource Center. A federal district judge also ruled that the album as a whole was obscene and made it illegal for people to own it (the ruling was later overturned by overturned by the Eleventh Circuit). But really, what else would you expect from an album called As Nasty As They Wanna Be?
Disco Rick, The Negro's Back (1990)
Label: JR Records
Do we really even need to explain this one? The cover for The Negro's Back featured the Miami-based artist sitting in front of a fire with a KKK hood in his hand and a noose swinging nearby. This album cover had controversy written all over it.
Choice, The Big Payback (1990)
Label: Rap-A-Lot Records
On the first track on The Big Payback, Texas rapper Choice took aim at Eazy-E, Too $hort, Ice Cube, The Geto Boys, and more. Weirdly, the album featured her stepping on hats with the names of those guys on them. Why? Uhhhh...Yeah, it's been more than 20 years now and we're still trying to figure it out. What's with the hats?! What a ridiculous way to throw shots at someone.
Geto Boys, We Can't Be Stopped (1991)
Label: Rap-A-Lot Records
If this photo was staged, it probably wouldn't be half as scandalous as it actually is. But the photo that appeared on this album cover was taken a shortly after Bushwick Bill shot himself in the eye during an argument with his then girlfriend. Scarface, Willie D, and several Geto Boys associates convinced Bill to take a photo at the hospital for the album cover, and he went along with it. He ended up regretting it later, though. "It still hurts me to look at that cover because that was a personal thing I went through," said Bill, in Check the Technique: Liner Notes for Hip-Hop Junkies. "I think it was pretty wrong to do it, even though I went along with the program at first."
Ice Cube, Death Certificate (1991)
Label: Priority Records
When Cube released Death Certificate, it was clear that he wanted to shake shit up in America. The album dealt with important social issues like racial profiling and the right to bear arms. So he sold the seriousness of the album by "killing" America on the cover. It featured a dead white man with a toe tag that read "Uncle Sam" draped in an American flag and Cube standing over him. There was a powerful message hidden in the image. But it got lost on a lot of people who were too shocked to comprehend it.
P.K.O., They Scared of a Nigga (1992)
Label: Youngsta Records
P.K.O.—which stood for Pound, Ki's, and Ozees—was known for saying and doing controversial things. Just look at some of the song titles from their third album, They Scared of a Nigga, which included "Cop Awareness," "Black Nigga Movement," and "Shoot the Police." But one of the most controversial things that the Texas-based group ever did was create this album cover. It featured them standing in front of the tombstones of President George Bush, former Grand Wizard of the Knights of Ku Klux Klan David Duke, and former Chief of the Los Angeles Police Department Daryl Gates (and none of the men were actually dead at the time!). It was a menacing image, for sure, but the best part was that they couldn't be bothered to figure out President Bush's birthday and just wrote he was born, "Long time ago."
Paris, Sleeping with the Enemy (1992)
Label: Scarface Records
The original album art for Sleeping with the Enemy had Paris hiding behind a tree and getting ready to assassinate President George Bush. But due in part to the cover art—and due in part to the fact that the album included songs like "Bush Killa" and the cop-killing anthem, "Coffee, Doughnuts, & Death"—Warner Bros. refused to release it. So Paris left the label and put it out on his own Scarface Records. But guess what? The album art was apparently so scandalous that he still decided to put it on the inside of the album and went with a tamer image on the front cover.
Kool G Rap & DJ Polo, Live and Let Die (1992)
Label: Cold Chillin'
Right before G Rap and DJ Polo teamed up to release their third and final album together, Ice-T released his controversial Body Count single, "Cop Killer." So when the duo brought their album to Warner Bros. for the first time, complete with album art that featured two guys getting hanged, the label wasn't having it and refused to distribute it as part of a deal that they had with Cold Chillin' Records.
Kris Kross, Da Bomb (1993)
We get what Kris Kross was trying to do here. It was pretty obvious that they included a mushroom cloud on the cover of Da Bomb to sell the idea of dropping a bomb on the music industry with their sophomore album. But their label had a tough time selling this album overseas, specifically in Japan, because of the image of a bomb dropping. So they had to create a special cover specifically for Japan to avoid offending anyone.
Ice T, Home Invasion (1993)
Label: Rhyme $yndicate Records
Just one year after releasing the controversial song, "Cop Killer," with his group Body Count, Ice-T followed it up by having artist Dave Halili—who also did some work for Body Count—create the cover for his fifth solo album. It featured a young white kid immersing himself in black culture while terrible acts of violence took place in the background. However, Ice-T's label Warner Bros. Records refused to release the album with that particular cover on it. And rather than compromise his work, Ice-T decided to leave the label to sign a deal with Priority Records where he was free to release the album with the artwork that he wanted. That didn't stop more than a few retailers from banning it from their stores, though.
Trinity Garden, Don't Blame It On Da Music (1994)
Label: Cartel Records
Why did so many rappers in the early 1990s think that it was acceptable to put dead people on their album cover? Seriously. Why did that seem cool? We don't know. But the Trinity Garden Cartel did it here, and it was not a good look. Aside from the dead body on the cover, they also ran into trouble with the Houston police when their label was sued for including several cops on the cover that looked awfully similar to real-life cops. The cover had to be edited and re-released a short time later.
Willie D, Play Witcha Mama (1994)
Label: Wrap Records
Had Willie D released an album cover with him standing over a patch of dirt with a shovel in his hands, it wouldn't have made this list. But because he did all that and included a poorly-Photoshopped image of a dead woman's head on the cover, it definitely deserves a spot here. Did he really even need to bother with the red "WARNING! THESE SONGS CONTAIN EXPLICIT LYRICS" sticker on the album? With an album cover like that, that goes without saying, no?
Makaveli, The Don Killuminati: The 7 Day Theory (1996)
Label: Interscope Records
When this album cover was originally created, it was meant to be an artistic representation of how 2Pac felt about the media's treatment of him. He reportedly felt that they were crucifying him. However, it obviously took on a much different meaning after 2Pac died and Death Row decided to release The Don Killuminati. Suddenly, people were wondering whether Death Row was trying to compare 2Pac to Jesus. And even though the album included the disclaimer, "In no way is this portrait an expression of disrespect for Jesus Christ," the album cover still offended a lot of religious people.
Master P, Ghetto D (1997)
Label: Priority Records
Armed with the hit singles, "Make 'Em Say Uhh!" and "I Miss My Homies," Ghetto D is one of Master P's most successful albums. However, it almost wasn't released because of the album's original title, Ghetto Dope, and the original image of a crackhead smoking out of a glass pipe that appeared on the cover. But fortunately, P heard the complaints, shortened up the name of the album, and changed the cover to a weird collage to avoid further problems with retailers.
KMD, Black Bastards (2001)
A surefire way to cause controversy with a rap album cover—or, hell, any album cover—is to feature someone getting hanged on it. That's exactly what KMD (a group that included MF DOOM, then known as Zev Love X) did back in 1993 when they attempted to use this cover for their sophomore album. It didn't fly with their label Elektra Records, though, who decided to put the project on the shelf permanently and drop KMD because of the album cover. Eight long years later, the album was finally released with the original cover. But by that time, DOOM's brother DJ Subroc had been killed in a car accident and the album was overlooked by most rap fans.
The Coup, Party Music (2001)
Label: Tommy Boy Records
The Bay Area group The Coup couldn't have picked a worse time to create this cover. Their album was set to drop in early September 2001 and featured them blowing up the World Trade Center on the cover. And then September 11th happened and, well, obviously they couldn't use that cover anymore. So they scrapped it, pushed the album back to November 2001, and released it with a much less scandalous cover.
Immortal Technique, Revolutionary Vol. 1 (2004)
Label: Nature Sounds
Immortal Technique released Revolutionary Vol. 1 without any help from a record label or distributor. He pressed up copies of the album himself and sold them on the streets of New York City. That made it tough for him to move units but gave him the freedom to create a crazy album cover for it. That cover featured dead police officers, a bullet-riddled wall, and a "mic and sickle" (a play off the hammer and sickle that represents Communism) in the middle. It was every bit as scandalous and controversial as some of the topics that Immortal Technique rapped about on his album.
Nas, Untitled (2008)
Label: Def Jam Recordings
In 2007, Nas announced that he was going to call his ninth solo album, Nigger. Obviously, that didn't sit well with a lot of people. Some of his fellow artists supported him, but everyone from Will Smith to 50 Cent to Oprah Winfrey to Bill O'Reilly called him out for it. So eventually, Nas was forced to change his album title and decided to go with Untitled instead. But he still raised a few eyebrows when he appeared on the cover of the album shirtless with the letter "N" on his back constructed out of superimposed scars. He didn't get to keep his original title, but thanks to the cover art, his message came across loud and clear.
Kanye West, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (2010)
Label: Roc-A-Fella Records
According to George Condo—the artist who created the original cover for MBDTF that featured Kanye West being straddled by an armless phoenix—Kanye wasn't just looking for a controversial album cover when he first approached Condo about working with him. He was looking for album art that would get turned down by major retail stores like Best Buy and Walmart. He was looking for "something that will be banned," Condo admitted in a feature that ran in The New Yorker shortly after the cover was released (sadly, it's not online but you can read about it here). But Kanye wasn't actually kept out of stores as a result of the cover, because he also created several alternate covers that appeared on every copy of MBDTF sold in retail stores.
The Game, Jesus Piece (2012)
Label: DGC/Interscope Records
Don't be fooled. Game knew exactly what he was doing when he put this album cover together. He was trying to get attention for his fifth album and—no surprise here—it worked. All he needed to do was slap a red bandana around Jesus' face, put a "Jesus piece" around his neck, and include cannabis leaves in the stained glass pattern in the background, and it got Game all the attention he needed. "The Roman Catholic Church called Interscope," he said shortly after the album cover art was released, "and it got really crazy." It sure did, and it helped Game get a bunch of free publicity.
Action Bronson, Saaab Stories (2013)
A lot of modern-day rappers shy away from releasing album covers like the one that Action Bronson released earlier this year. It featured a woman down on all fours ready to either drink out of or throw up into a toilet while another woman stood in the background playing with toilet paper in the bathtub. It said, SAAAB Stories, across the front, but it might as well have said, "PLEASE BAN ME FROM EVERY MAJOR RETAIL STORE IN THE U.S.!" Still, Bronson didn't seem to care. "Don't fuck with my art," he said in a press release that was distributed along with the cover art. "I love every single person, but at the end of the day your father ain't shit. Thank you for your support. Peace and love." Um, okay? But what does that have to do with the chick putting her head into...oh, whatever. The album was dope, so does it really matter?