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What's In A Cover?

Identifying the significance of album artwork and how it aids listeners

to interpret the music better.

At first glance, the cover of Zinoleesky’s Chrome promises a project full of electro house or EDM music, something reminiscent of Galantis or Skrillex. However, when the music starts playing, our ears are attacked by street anthems: something familiar yet strange in the context of the I, Robot-esque silver-faced alien robot adorning the album art. It begs the question: how important is album art to fans and their perception of music?

Although we listen with our ears, music is a multisensory activity. Our favourite songs all have memories attached to them: memories of places, memories of people, memories of times we were happy, or sad, full of hope, or down on luck. Apart from our memories, music also affects our bodies, with doctors using music therapy to aid recovery from various ailments. Album art serves as a visual connection to the album, with the images and color tone setting the mood for the album and becoming reminders of the emotions or reactions the music evoked.

For Seyifunmi, a student of the University of Lagos, the cover of Jon Bellion’s The Human Condition holds a lot of memories for her: “There was a time I was going through stuff, and I only had like, four songs on my phone. The one I listened to the most was a song on that album, and it always calmed me. So now, anytime I see the album art, I always remember how it helped me despite how down things were.”

To Ikenna Onyemaobi, a pro-gamer, album art is influential because it gives him an idea of the mood the music will serve and prepares him mentally for the music. For him, the cover of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band by the Beatles was very “bubbly” and readied his mind for the psychedelic rock that laced the entire project.

Most times, album art provides an insight into the artiste’s state of mind while creating the song or body of work; most notably, the cover of Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. For the project, West made five covers, all designed by contemporary artist George Condo. The grotesque images depicting various mythological creatures like a sphinx and a harpy were intended to illustrate the artiste’s relationship and struggles with fame in the wake of his mother’s death and the incident with Taylor Swift at the VMAs.

According to artist/producer Tochi Bedford, album art is important to him both as a fan and an artist. He tells B.Side that the art to him is “special and important” because when he listens to the songs, he actually sees that art, even when it isn't on screen. This informs his decision when selecting graphic artists and photographers for his album art. “I've never really chosen the artist first. I always have a concept first, or vibes that I'm feeling at that time. Then I think of who's the best possible person to achieve it, and I always love working with friends,” he explains.

Surprisingly, for Bedford, there is never a concept ready from the start. “It's pretty rare for me to have a concept from the get-go,” he admits. “I mean, sometimes it does, but most times I usually do a lot of different shoots and concepts, then pick one that matches the mood of the project or song the most. It costs more this way, but it's usually worth it.” At the end of the day, he admits he just wants the fans to feel exactly what he felt when making the project itself and hopes the art can contribute to that.

The most challenging album-art-related job is probably that of the graphic artists/designers because they have to interpret and execute the musician’s idea without sacrificing their own artistic style and integrity.

Album covers go beyond mere graphic design. They are stamps; records of particular moments in history.

Layeni Kamal, also known as BOJ, has designed album art for acts like Psiv, 1641 and karim, among others. Whenever such artists commission him, he considers a lot of things before starting the design. “First, I usually just take some time to listen to the song. Most times, after that, I usually have an idea for the cover, then yarn with the artiste and see if our heads are in the same space, then start designing. It really depends on who I'm working with, but most times, I consider both the fans and the artiste, like 60% artiste and 40% fans,” he tells B.Side of his creative process.

Oluwatimilehin Aregbesola, popularly known as Aré, has designed covers for Fasina, Gbasky, Jahblend, Ajebo, and others, and considers the artiste before any other thing when designing. According to him, their identity is what majorly informs his design process: “First I look at their identity, both personally and musically, and try to incorporate that into their art as a means of registering that aforementioned identity. Basically, I listen to whatever music I’m designing for [in order] to get all these things I’m yarning, and basically ride whatever wave the music gives to me. I recall an experience designing a song cover for Save Soundz’ Can’t Let Go and, although it was a love song, the song sounded like something I’d listen to while on a night drive.”

Another person who shares this view is Duks, popularly known as Sir Duksalot, a director, designer & illustrator in film & entertainment. For him, the artist and their vision remain paramount, above everything else. “I like to get into the head of my client⁠ — makes work a lot more feasible when I can create with less back & forth,” he explains. “For example, my favourite clients Olamide, Nonso Amadi, Melvitto or Gabzy & his team would allow me to have a private listen to the entire project, ask what I think about the sound & how I'd like to translate it with my art. Most times, they would give me 100% creative control, and sometimes I would ask them for input on what they feel about 2 or 3 drafts presented. They would send all my money upfront, so there are no hiccups. They're the absolute best.”

Duks does not take the fans into primary consideration in trying to correspond with the artiste’s vision. “If I'm being honest, I didn't make the music, so I'd care what anyone feels if it was my own music or my personal work. What I do is make sure the artwork matches the vibe of the music & If the art surpasses the vibe, that's not my fault. I'm like a hired assassin with these⁠ — I get the job done, no questions.”

Album covers go beyond mere graphic design. They are stamps; records of particular moments in history. Drake sitting on the Toronto CN Tower for the Views album reminds us of 2016 and its parties during possibly the best summer of our lives. The warm tones on Santi’s Suzie’s Funeral album cover are a timestamp, signifying the point when he transformed entirely from rapping Ozzy B to trippy, smooth Santi. Artists investing resources and ideas in album art is integral to the music experience and leaves a mental connection between the fans and the body of music. Like DJ Spooky once said, try this experiment: go in a record store and just try and guess what the music sounds like by looking at the album cover. You just may be right – as long as the album isn’t Zinoleesky’s, of course.

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