Standing in front of a movie theater with your name and album title above the door is bad ass. To say nothing of the black and red leather outfit — a year before Michael Jackson would rock a similar style in the videos for “Beat It” and “Thriller.” Plus there’s a poster of the Bruce Lee flick Fist of Fury in the background, which is never a bad move.
Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five – The Message (1982)
Seven fellas hanging on a run-down street corner and one enormous boombox. Looking serious with a hint of playfulness, the album cover looks just like The Message sounds.
Whodini – Whodini (1983)
Band name scrawled in crazy psycho font, leaning against a wall of colorful graffiti in Brooklyn, wearing outfits inspired by Miami Vice. The elements don’t go together at all… and yet… somehow… they do.
Kool Moe Dee – How Ya Like Me Now (1987)
If you’re wondering why there’s a red Kangol hat underneath the Jeep’s front tire, that was the hat of choice for LL Cool J, the man Kool Moe Dee was feuding with at the time. Probably short-sighted to include an allusion to a petty feud on your album cover, but regardless, the cover remains slick.
Too $hort – Born to Mack (1987)
I love Wikipedia’s description of Born to Mack: “This album features sexually explicit lyrics over strong synthesizer bass lines and Roland TR-808 drum programming.” A simple sound perfectly represented by a simple album cover. Too $hort is relaxing on the backseat of his long car. There’s no driver. He’s just hanging on the back, ready to mack — which is what he was born to do.
Big Daddy Kane – Long Live the Kane (1988)
The fast-flowing rapper with the perfect haircut was first seen in glorious purple, gold and white, being offered a plate of grapes and apples by one beautiful woman, a drink out of a goblet by another, while a third stood at the ready to fan the Kane when he got hot. Note that even the floor is painted gold.
Eric B. & Rakim – Follow the Leader (1988)
Shot in Lower Manhattan, cover photographer Drew Carolan said, “The concept was that if you were following the leader, this is what you’d see — their backs.” And in case you’re not sure which one’s which, their names are printed on the backs of their jackets.
Ice-T – Power (1988)
It may look like Ice-T is wearing O.R. scrubs, but the way his girlfriend cavalierly holds that shotgun… nobody’s making any “O.R. they?” jokes. And Ice-T and his DJ both have one hand out of sight. What could they be hiding? Flip the album over, and you’ve got your answer (hint: they’re holding guns, and the back of her swimsuit is more revealing than the front). Ice-T and his crew mean business.
EPMD – Unfinished Business (1989)
On EPMD’s debut album cover they were seen sitting in the studio wearing dull striped sweatshirts. For the follow-up, they were spotted lounging on a Benz and a Camaro in matching Kangol hats. The duo’s name stands for Erick and Parrish Making Dollars, and the second cover proves they had done just that.
LL Cool J – Walking With a Panther (1989)
Sketchy alley: check. Four finger ring: check. Suitcase ready to be handcuffed to own wrist: check. Gold chain-wearing panther: check. I think we’re good.
MC Lyte – Eyes On This (1989)
MC Lyte’s hairstyle and oversized power suit haven’t necessarily aged well, but her DJ looks smooth, and there’s something ageless about lounging by a couple of Porsches before the city skyline. The soft focus adds a touch of mystery to the proceedings. Check out the video from the album’s single, “Cha Cha Cha”: