Leave Drake alone. Looking soft (or in some way excessively dapper to the point of alluding to softness) has been a stamped ticket to $ucce$$ in all rap calendar years except 1993 and ‘94. Yes, even for hard core and “keep it real” rappers. The hunt for fame, fortune, mo' sales and female support (which usually equals mo' sales) indirectly prevented many a hardcore rap fan from enjoying some of the finest in barbaric beats, superior garden variety tough talk, beef, controversial subject matter, death threats, and other alpha male entertainment that made rap so endearing to those approaching puberty in search of "the real." Why? Thanks to a random jamoke on the art direction staff or a mountain-climbing, Les Paul-playing A&R, some hard and extremely funky rap LPs remain unheralded and unappreciated today because of a pillow soft or thoroughly deceptive album cover. Some of these albums provide sonic moments that even today would be appreciated by rare rap eBay fanatics and Youtube mongers in search of Golden Era greatness that fell through the cracks, but the covers still make the uninformed rap fan wonder if these albums remain obscure for good reason. Here are some of the most cloying and ill-fitting rap album covers of all time - and audio proof that negates their appearances.
8. Cooly Live - Livewire (RCA, 1992)
Ah, the early days of rap on RCA, when there was no "Loud" subsidiary - just loud outfits and God awful album artwork. Pre-Wu-Tang-esque samples and clever vocal loops, poignant commentary on relatively controversial topics like interracial dating and AIDS, a Marley Marl production cameo, a kitchen sink approach to creative sampling, and decent battle rhymes - they were all thrown down the trash chute thanks to 12" artwork that saw our artist (Cooly Live) looking like a prime candidate to get stuffed into Cube’s trunk in the “Be True to the Game” video. Then there's the actual Livewire cover. First, we have Cooly in a coat that could possibly be from Karl Kani's never unleashed diffusion line. Next, Cooly has his Hammer-esque pants pulled up to a level that only Dick Sargeant or Dick York could appreciate. Yet, RCA wasn't stupid enough to insinuate that there was nothing dangerous about Cooly. No. By calling the album Livewire and having Cooly hold an actual live wire (that probably wasn’t live at all), Cooly appeared to have embraced danger in ways that even the proponents of draconian drive-by justice on the West Coast never did. When you flip the jewel case over, it only gets worse...
Any hopes for an image that fits the music are emphatically dashed with expeditious, Joe Clark-kicking-out-drug-dealers swiftness. All album-associated imagery was from the 2 Bigg MC school of styling, but what so many keep-it-realers and reminiscin’ fools fail to recall is these fashion faux pas were par for the course in the early ‘90s. You just hoped your A&R didn’t demand you to rock this stuff for your promo campaign. When it came to his music, though, Cooly really was true to the game. Yes, even down to his women.
Proof: "I don't know that much about Matzah / I don't know that much about pasta / But what I do know while the drummer keeps drummin' / What I need in my life is a Black woman."
"That's What I Like (No Cream in My Coffee)"
7. Redhead Kingpin - A Shade of Red (Virgin, 1989)
This cover was originally the template for Gene Griffin and Teddy Riley's lost New Jack Christmas - Swingin' with Santa LP. When the LP was shelved, the art template was used for Redhead Kingpin's debut LP instead. That's my guess. Hampered by a Yuletide color scheme, a loud, Galleria Mall dress suit, and a blinding tile layout (on the back cover), this thing can only be viewed safely at 300 dpi by those with Cataract glasses. And to keep it 100 percent real, the album did contain a few (good) club ditties ("Do The Right Thing" and "Pump It Hottie"). But Red never sacrifices the quality of his rhymes for the dance floor and as far as beats go, the album was just as good as any rap LP from '89. Probably better. But the cover makes you feel like you just ate a poinsettia.
Proof: The instrumental cut ("The Redhead One") was used as the backdrop for the raid on the Carter crack house in New Jack City. Furthermore, its use of samples and sound bites are nearly on the level of Prince Paul during the same era.
"The Redhead One"
6. 45 King - The 45 King Presents...The Flavor Unit (Tuff City, 1990)
One afternoon in 1990, someone at Tuff City Records had a boardroom epiphany after buying some fruit flavored gum or a lunch break at Sizzler: “What equals flavor? Food, nigga! Flying through the sky! Comin’ at yo ass fo the nine-oh! Oh, and put a few mics on that muthafucka so they know the flavor is lyrical, not just literal.” Are there not other ways to say "flavor?" This art direction train wreck is an amalgam of anti-oxidants, Trans fat, and atmosphere that I could never fathom - it looks like a board in the Nintendo game, “Stinger.” If I wasn't such a fiend for 45 King's work, this cover would've easily been egregious enough to get the album fronted on. Luckily I overlooked the citrus attack and embraced the music for what it was - prime time early '90s East Coast rap.
Proof: If there's a song called "Crunchtime," they're probably not rapping about biting into a Granny Smith.
"Crunchtime" - Lord Alibaski
"I Feel Like Flowing" - Apache (R.I.P.)
5. Wrecks-n-Effect - Wrecks-n-Effect (Motown, 1989)
Ah, the image of “urban” in 1989 - "street," "tough," and straight out of an after school special about teenagers in the hood looking to stay positive and raise money to save their in-danger-of-closing rec center via talent shows and exhibition basketball games. The first issue of this album's cover was pretty damn unsightly, too, but it was more like a Quark-era attempt at Atari-esque, retro graphics gone wrong than it was stylistically misleading. The rap ballad, "Juicy," is the lone song on the album that fits this version of the cover. The rest of the album? Hard battle rhymes, dusty samples, and swift drum programming. When considering that Aqil (A+), the MC, was only 16 when this was recorded, you realize that he never collected the props he really deserved - he rhymed like a full-grown man. The "New Jack" image strikes again, and in a case of coincidence, Redhead Kingpin produced the hardest beats on the album.
Proof: W-n-E had the cojones to take a swipe at the revered "hip-hop band," Stetsasonic: "I don't really care who's up next after Wrecks, Stet [Stetsasonic] is the runner up / And by the way, the new kid, yo he sucks."
"Leave the Mike Smokin'"
4. Barsha - Barsha’s Explicit Lyrics (Bumrush!, 1990)
The sleeveless leather vest, matching leather gloves, and step fade point to one clue: This must be a Dancehall album. It's obviously not, but as a kid I always thought it was. Ah, and Barsha is in front of a makeshift, photoshopped bar. And "Bar" is short for Barsha? Get it? Yuck. C&C Music Factory meets Tim Dog is also a possibility if I've never heard it. The Brooklyn MC was actually part of the First Priority family with Audio Two, MC Lyte, Kings of Swing, etc. The former two became known for red and white-themed Shirt Kings attire and the latter for a dapper, gangster dress code, but they were both acceptable products of the times and their album artwork was never this reminiscent of some campy compilation of ghetto balladry and Dancehall hits that you'd find in a Caldor's cut out bin. But should you find this gem at a decent price, snatch it up with the quickness. Barsha was a fierce MC / mack daddy and sonically, the album provides the trademark King of Chill / Audio Two thump. Could be in the top five First Priority Records releases of all time, but the cover and lousy promotion surely get the assists in its obscure status.
Proof: This album contains the first known sampling of Berry Gordy's The Last Dragon. That's some O.G. shit.
"Pick Up The Pieces"
3. Little Shawn - The Voice in the Mirror (Capitol, 1992)
Appealing to the ladies didn't always equal soft. In fact, some of rap's most nefarious characters doled out back rubs and Valentine's Day cards on record. If there was ever an MC who represented Romeo rappers who would knuckle you down, it was Special Ed's crony Little Shawn. The cover for his first and only LP wasn't all that misleading; there's plenty of time devoted to making the ladies feel comfortable and the ‘quiet storm with a bottle of Colt 45 and your panties on the chandelier’ vibe of the artwork is somewhat fitting. But when he went into the phone booth and came out swinging (literally and lyrically), people who got put on their asses didn't feel too comfortable. The woefully underrated Howie Tee comes with some obscure loops and hard drums while Shawn pounds the competition, contrary to what the cover suggests. In summation, he'll make love to your wife on his waterbed, then destroy you in a battle and break your nose for being an asshole. That's what you call a rap renaissance man.
Proof: "A lot of people got [beat down] over that 'Little Shawn was crying uncontrollably' shit." (A quote from a VIBE Magazine interview in the '90s.)
"Funky Funky Rhymes"
"Yes, He Did Leave the Stage"
2. Greyson & Jasun - Sweatin' Me Wet (Atlantic, 1991)
It kills me to put this cover in here because this is family. (My mentor, Vance Wright, produced the album and G&J are my people.) Facts are facts, though - if the suits at Axe Body Spray were designing ads to target black folks, this is what one of ‘em would look like. The purple color scheme, the inexplicable set-up in a giant shower stall, and the awkwardly placed, beleaguered females standing up top and hoping the photo shoot ends soon...then the group is blazered up (but not wet, because the shower isn’t on) and looks about ready to get a smooth, close shave and a long hot shower on, followed by a romantic date. I used to see the record in stores (before I knew Vance and the group) and wonder why the hell it even had a parental advisory sticker. How hard could it be? That is until I eventually bought it out of sheer curiosity. Not only was the album not tailor made for the girls, but the songs that even bothered to address the opposite sex only alluded to doggin’ ‘em (“Girls B Buggin’”), havin’ 'em on your Johnson (the title cut), or running out of one’s house nude after her seven foot Cuban boyfriend threatened to nail your balls to her forehead (“Laura”). The rest of the album featured Greyson’s vitriolic battle rhymes and a story-telling prowess that even Slick Rick (who’s featured on the album) would give props to. Pound for pound, Sweatin' Me Wet was as solid as any good New York rap album was in 1991 and is well worth a revisit - but you’d probably think you were buying a compilation of Selsun Blue commercials or some shit.
Proof: "I'm not trying to be smooth on this record. Rappers nowadays need to be slaughtered - 'cause half of them are garbage...I'm crazy, I'm havin' a dog day afternoon, I'mma send everybody in the world to the moon."
“Hard As They Come”
"Livin' Like A Troopa"
1. Special Ed - Legal (Profile, 1990)
I’m gonna set myself up for a blizzard of accusations of drunk dialing this opinion in, but fuck it: Legal was a better album than Youngest In Charge. And you know it was, too, stop being textbook. The impact of “I Got It Made” aside, Ed’s sophomore album was more mature and polished, but not in the ways that those two adjectives usually imply in hip-hop (being older, too “grown” to have fun, and much wacker). The rhymes were better and more consistent, Howie Tee’s sound cemented him as one of the era’s best (Legal marks the first usage of the “Hair” and Belle Epoque samples) and “5 Men and A Mic” (which in a case of irony features the aforementioned Little Shawn) is a realistic candidate for a Top 5 all-time posse cut for those who know their shit. You know all of this - and you know Legal was Ed’s tour de force. But you go with Youngest In Charge, partly because of “I Got It Made,” but mostly due to the shopping mall photo booth-themed album artwork for Legal. While Ed gave us urban griot on his debut LP, he gives us Clearasil ad on Legal. He’s cheesing, full of joy, ain’t gonna hurt nobody - he’s just dancin’, y’all. Worse, there’s an entire film roll of vogue shots on the back cover - 12 of them, to be exact. Not one ice grill. Not one pimple. Not one ingrown hair. Not one crooked tooth. Just a stew of pastels and gleeful grinnin’. Ed was a teenager, but he managed to not display a modicum adolescent awkwardness and became a heartthrob in the process. The broads loved Ed, but he could rhyme like he was 27 and didn't need to make radio hits. And you hated him for it, so you wrote off Legal with angry prejudice. Yes, you did because I did. To my 13-year-old, uninformed mind, Ed had gone Aloe & Lanolin on us. My cousin bought Legal on tape because she thought Ed was cute. I stole the tape after I heard it because it was Ed’s best album and one of the best albums of 1990. And you know it was, too. You just hated the cover for being so... fucking soft. Stop lying to yourself.
Proof: “There’s no particular style, I just say what I feel / And if I say it, you obey it and kneel / And if you’re still standin, I’mma put my hand in a fist / Then apply the force to my wrist / That’ll surely flaw ya, forget ya lawyer / If you try to sue me I’mma say I never saw ya.”
“Ready 2 Attack”
“5 Men & A Mic”
The moral of all this? Don’t judge an album by its cover. Unless it’s a Drake album.