Ranking Kanye Albums By Cover Art
Recently I’ve been discovering a love for album art. As I dove into this rabbit hole I found the work of Joe Perez, which led me to the work of Virgil Abloh. (I’ll also be including more artists who primarily do album design at the end of this blog, so y’all can check them out.) Virgil is the creative director for Kanye West’s agency, DONDA, and founder of Off-White. As a huge Kanye fan, I wanted to learn more about the artists behind each of his albums (including his collaborative album Watch the Throne, but not including GOOD Music's Cruel Summer.) So… here’s a culmination of everything I’ve learned and discovered, plus a little clickbait-y ranking!
Now, I’m by no means an expert on art and design, but I am passionate about both. Of course, these rankings are entirely my opinion, and by no means diminish the impact of any of these albums or their respective art. (Also, I’ll include all my sources and such at the end of the blog.)
# 8 - Late Registration
Released: August 30, 2005
Singles: Diamonds from Sierra Leone, Gold Digger, Heard 'Em Say, Touch the Sky, Drive Slow
Art Direction: Morning Breath, Inc.
Photographer: Sarah A. Friedman
Late Registration is an iconic album, both in cover art and as part of Kanye’s career. Early on, Kanye was synonymous with his Dropout Bear mascot, as it makes an appearance on his first three album covers. This is the second of those iterations, with The College Dropout and 808’s and Heartbreak also featuring the mascot (first and third, respectively.) My problem with Late Registration’s cover is that it’s simply a further exploration of The College Dropout. Iconic as it is, it doesn’t quite showcase Kanye’s willingness to push the boundaries of art and design like others on this list do.
# 7 - Yeezus
Released: June 18, 2013
Singles: Black Skinhead, Bound 2
Art Direction: DONDA
Design: Joe Perez
Although Yeezus didn’t perform well in terms of albums sold (1,350,000 units worldwide and 750,000 units in the U.S.), it arguably featured 2013’s most iconic cover. Drake’s Nothing was the Same may take that title, though, since it did become a huge internet meme. According to Virgil Abloh, the minimalist approach to Yeezus’ cover was “meant to symbolize the death of the CD.” Channeling the growing popularity in minimalism, the cover shows how modern, and classical, art inspire Kanye’s work. Although easily recognizable and iconic for 2013, Yeezus’ cover has to compete with some of the other covers on the list, and that lands it here at number seven.
# 6 - The Life of Pablo
Released: February 14, 2016
Singles: Famous, Father Stretch My Hands, Fade
Art Direction: Kanye West, Virgil Abloh, & DONDA
Design: Peter De Potter
Photography: Ryan Dwyer
At the time of its release, The Life of Pablo ‘s cover was highly criticized. A lot of people didn’t like the cover and found it to be plain, ugly, and lazy. Artist Peter De Potter used his own signature style to design the cover, and one look at his work is enough to see where the idea for The Life of Pablo came from. Although it may not be Kanye’s best cover, you can see De Potter’s art begin to influence other artists if you look in the right places. Take, for example, Cautious Clay’s singles Cold War and Juliet & Caeser, Jay-Z’s album 4:44, or 2 Chainz’s album Pretty Girls Like Trap Music.
# 5 - Watch the Throne
Released: August 8, 2011
Singles: H*A*M, Otis, Lift Off, N***** in Paris, Why I Love You, Gotta Have IT, No Church in the Wild
Art Direction: Riccardo Tisci & Virgil Abloh
Design: Riccardo Tisici
In my initial rankings, I had Watch the Throne listed as #7, but as I learned about the art (and viewed the cover a ton) it began to grow on me and I moved it to #5. The golden cover looks like something that belongs on the walls of a royal palace. Which makes sense, as the cover was designed by Riccardo Tisci, the creative director of GIVENCHY. The artwork perfectly fits the feel of Watch the Throne, and gives off an air of power and wealth, but it barely ranks behind my next cover on this ranking.
# 4 - 808's and Heartbreak
Released: November 24, 2008
Singles: Love Lockdown, Heartless, Amazing, Paranoid
Art Direction: Willo Perron & Virgil Abloh
Cover Photography: Willo Perron
Illustration: KAWS (Exclusive Edition)
Both the regular and exclusive covers feature a deflated heart balloon and a color palette on the left-hand side. The regular cover features 808’s and Heartbreak ‘s colors, while the exclusive cover features those from Kanye’s previous album, Graduation. This was also Kanye’s first album to move away from the Dropout Bear mascot, and toward the minimal approach of later albums Watch the Throne and Yeezus. One of the most colorful covers Kanye has ever released, 808’s and Heartbreak is arguably one of the most artistic covers to grace a Kanye West album to date. It would take that title, if not for the next album on this list.
# 3 - Graduation
Released: September 11, 2007
Singles: Can't Tell Me Nothing, Stronger, Good Life, Flashing Lights, Homecoming
Art Direction & Illustration: Takashi Murakami
Takashi Murakami is known as the “Japanese Andy Warhol” and did the amazing illustration for the cover of Graduation and the music video for the single Good Morning. This is also Kanye’s last album to feature the Dropout Bear mascot, although My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy has an alternative cover that features it with a unique twist. Most covers at the time featured the artist, but Murakami’s illustration for Graduation stands out in the best way possible. The illustration is still wildly popular to this day, constantly being painted on graduation caps and being used to inspire other artists with his illustrated version of the Dropout Bear.
# 2 - My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy
Released: November 22, 2010
Singles: Power, Runaway, Monster, All of the Lights
Art Direction: Virgil Abloh
Artist: George Condo
My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, or MBDTF, was Kanye’s sixth studio album, and features one of the most controversial album covers ever. Artist George Condo partnered with Kanye to paint multiple alternate cover choices for MBDTF (I believe nine in total). The main cover featured a naked Kanye with a mythical female creature sitting in his lap. People usually associate the cover with the blurred, banned version that is still used for Spotify, iTunes, and others. One of the alternative covers, Kanye’s head wearing a crown with a sword through it, was Kanye’s profile picture on Twitter for years before he deleted the account. Due to the sheer amount of controversy and the beauty of the paintings by George Condo, MBDTF lands at second place in my rankings, just barely beaten by…
# 1 - The College Dropout
Released: February 10, 2004
Singles: Through the Wire, Slow Jamz, All Falls Down, Jesus Walks, The New Workout Plan
Art Direction: Eric Duvauchelle
Photography: Danny Clinch
Yes, my number one is Kanye’s debut album The College Dropout. The original is always the best, right? The College Dropout was the first for a lot of themes that show up in many of Kanye’s covers. It was the introduction of the Dropout Bear, it began the trend of Kanye not showing his face, and the golden design showed Kanye’s appreciation for the arts. At the time, nearly all artists across multiple genres featured themselves on their album covers, something Kanye still has yet to do. (Unless you count George Condo’s illustration for MBDTF.) Google “rap albums from 2004” and continue until 2014, and it’s easy to see that most artists are only recently doing what Kanye has been doing for nearly 15 years. Kanye may have more complex cover designs, and while others have better stood the test of time, none has been more iconic or influential than his original.
If you actually read all the way through this, thanks! If this article / blog has piqued your interest in album art, please check out some of the links below. These are artists and designers who've been working with some big names and making INCREDIBLE stuff.
The following are links that helped me find information for this article / blog.