Music Thematics Sparked by Design Aesthetics

April 9, 2021In Design24 Minutes

Summer is encouragingly around the corner. Anticipation is in the air.

And the beat rolls on, so to speak.

At a snippet in time when so much about reality seems to be either idle or hanging in the balance, the resilience of music hasn’t wavered in marching culture forward with a sonic boom. The noise has been quite emphatic. And there’s not much reason to believe that the flight of those echoes will fade away any time soon.

Despite the prevailing economic turbulence and soul-searching, creativity’s trajectory hasn’t slumped. Music is (unsurprisingly) shining through as a universal equalizer with momentum cooking from all angles while the world claws and scrambles for more of something to look forward to. Music heads around the globe can safely zero in on promising upcoming releases and brighter, louder days ahead.

Much of the energy can be attributed to an enormous volume of streaming, with Spotify Technology S.A. (NYSE: SPOT) projected to tally almost 355 million total users for Q1 of this year after eclipsing 150 million paid subscribers and amassing $9.5 billion in revenue last year. Not only has habitual podcast consumption been meteoric and a key driver for encouraging dabblers to explore the depths of variety, but the platform’s ad studio segment also more than doubled in revenue year over year. A revival and awakening is on, and artists are undoubtedly being heard. It’s clear that today’s listeners have eyes for music just as much as they have ears for it.

From a purely dollars and cents perspective, the music industry is humming to a steady tune and raking in approximately $170 billion in value to U.S. GDP (with revenues applying a 1.5x multiplier on the broader economy) according to a recent report facilitated by the Recording Industry Association of America® (RIAA). Music’s reach extends far beyond its own walls, also running parallel and feeding into the revenues of adjacent sectors like tourism, hospitality and marketing while keeping over a quarter of a million businesses across the United States afloat.

The breadth of artist expression is rather pronounced. We’re in an era where audience perceptions and interpretations are shifting faster than the speed of sound. Authenticity is under a microscope, and even the most accomplished or respected musicians have been forced to reinvent the wheels of cultural relevance. In the absence of live performances, rightsholders are becoming champions of artist destiny and setting the tone for immersive entertainment with strategic brand partnerships that leverage independently-made content in correspondence with new music releases. Homespun collaborations speak volumes about an artist’s bravado or aspirations in a crowded landscape, also triggering promotional breakthroughs into non-traditional categories that may not have otherwise been possible. Says Daniel Kinney, Senior Vice President of Branding and Strategic Partnerships at Roc Nation: “Artists have a point of view and very strongly-articulated vision of themselves and what they stand for in the public arena…it’s what people want and what they gravitate towards because, at the end of the day, it’s more authentic.”

Beyond just the artists alone, prolific audio engineers have been turning pipe dreams into reality as advocates for an emerging crop of hungry producers. Other familiar faces are playing Monopoly with real cash and paving the way for high-stakes entrepreneurial wins to play out at the drop of a hat. There are flashes of brilliance from the usual suspects of lifestyle brands intrinsic to pop culture, bridging those worlds of then and now by dominating with colorful content strategy, rich product placement and a tangible pulse on artist personas.

All of this buzz underscores an unrivaled and incomparable “experience” tied to music. Past, present, future – the experience is authored by relatability. It’s the heartbeat of culture, both today and tomorrow. It’s a dot connector between even the most diverse sets of audiences, with an undeniable community factor. A way of life. What’s interesting is that the renaissance and spotlight on music’s superstars have spun into far more than just resonance with the artist’s audio ability.

Timeless, generational music talents have amplified voice and lyrical excellence with illustrious visual brand narratives that paint a really lucid picture of the sound.

The optics of eloquent artist branding are sparked by gripping design symmetry that can be both sophisticated yet breathtaking at the same time. The most gifted artists across generations have gradually turned the tides of credibility with razor-sharp brand identities etched in the form of masterful thematics, striking photography, stunning album or vinyl cover artwork, show-stopping experiential magic, and other design-driven storytelling ingredients laced with nostalgia. These artists accumulate years producing and releasing classic music, while in the meantime finessing graceful personas that tower over listeners and transcend the lyrics. Many trendsetting artists are now riding the waves of newfound opportunities made possible by digital transformation and e-commerce scalability, anchoring community engagement around the tales told by exclusive merchandise or rare collectibles. Often, the result is a bulletproof storytelling complexion that’s thoughtfully depicted but appropriately elaborate, more vividly capturing the artist’s expression and tastefully complementing the audio dynamic too.

As culture rebounds and music leaps forward, it’s okay to kick back and let the beat spin. Here’s to reflecting back on some of our generation’s most courageous artist storytelling narratives shaped and articulated with a design edge. Let’s take a trip down memory lane.

Circumstantial Expression, Frozen in Time

With the aforementioned surge in streaming, the days of dropping into a record store, purchasing a CD and flipping through the corresponding album cover booklet later have sadly faded for many. It’s a shame, as the artist’s photoshoots and contextualization intertwined with an album’s production breathes so much firepower into an aura of invincibility for that artist. Despite discrepancies in how today’s listeners are analyzing the framework of a musician’s vibe now compared to then, there’s no denying that crisp photography can still set the stage for an indisputable swagger around artist personas. The artist can be immortalized in his or her surrounding habitat, emphasized in a fleeting moment that’s worth a thousand words.

Especially in the Golden Era of hip-hop, which was headlined by a string of groundbreaking photoshoots artfully executed by visionary Jonathan Mannion. Shawn “Jay-Z” Carter was then just a prodigy when his mafioso-infused debut Reasonable Doubt burst onto the scene in ’96 after a Brooklyn-centric, “John Gotti”-esque rooftop photoshoot at Mannion’s apartment on West 72nd and Riverside in NYC (as featured in an interview by Genius).

The creative process unfolded proportionately into a gridded and audacious contact sheet, almost hypnotizing, inspired by Luc Sante’s Evidence book and a collective gut feeling to chase the “bosses move in silence” approach with Jay-Z’s body language. Ultimately, it was the birth of Mannion’s sensational 25-year career in hip-hop photography and a microcosm of the palpable chemistry he was able to develop with other music icons in the years following

Beyond Reasonable Doubt, Mannion later seized the proverbial moment with a slew of other hip-hop staples including Jay-Z’s The Blueprint (2001), Eminem’s The Eminem Show (2002), and The Game’s The Documentary (2005). The list is extensive, and the photography is a stepping stone towards a deeper understanding of the artist’s environment and ecosystem in which they mash up the lyrics. His words of wisdom? “Make the vision clear and make it your own. That’s how you make work that doesn’t feel like anybody else’s.”

Jonathan Mannion’s diverse portfolio has served as a launch point for many of these artists who continue to scratch the surface of legacy and build rapport within native communities. Last year, Jayceon “The Game” Taylor set up shop in the Melrose Arts District of Los Angeles for an interactive album cover photoshoot with fans in celebration of The Documentary’s 15th anniversary.

Other hip-hop photography standouts like Chi Modu, Estevan Oriol, and Gunner Stahl have materialized similarly impressive legacies carved out independently. These creative talents also helped prime the canvas for other curated hip-hop photography collections to succeed, such as Contact High: A Visual History of Hip-Hop by Vikki Tobak, Strapped Archives by Strapped Entertainment, and Sony Certified by Sony Music Entertainment, among others. The capsules of these photographers have been a gift to the world of music and a masterpiece for artists that have fearlessly pushed the envelopes of design or branding with contextualization.

Polishing Lyrical Swords

Photography demonstrates that extraordinary artist identities can begin with remarkable storytelling narratives that are framed up with poise and mojo circumstantially. The song definitely remains the same with the album cover artwork.

For the more curious listeners of today, the design of an artist’s visual style can command the attention of untapped audiences who may never have heard a track before. Again, jumping back to the days of flipping through CD and vinyl racks more regularly at a Best Buy or local record store, sometimes an immersive album cover would even be the reason why a listener might experiment with an artist in the first place. It would be an inspiration for plucking a CD off the rack with piles of others to choose from. Artists would pour their hearts and souls into an album’s thematics by taking advantage of its booklet with lyrics imprinted word-by-word in custom fonts, credits acknowledged, and a prelude of what’s on the horizon for their respective careers. Visual synchrony and a 360-degree viewpoint of a musician’s circumstantial ecosystem encourage that artist persona to become more palatable for audiences. The most polished have all had their “wow” moments in one way or another.

In recent memory, the creative spirit of Los Angeles-based Top Dawg Entertainment (TDE) has proven to be in a class of its own. TDE continues to be one of the most commanding noisemakers and tastemakers in music, boasting a transcendent portfolio of artists on its label and making splashes with coveted, right-fit licensing partnerships meant to thread the needles of lifestyle with audiences. They’ve also soared to unchartered heights in a short amount of time with polarizing album cover artwork design that pilots the ingenuity of represented artists. A marvelous, convincing display of raw emotion and almost cinematic allure has been fundamental in the dominance of TDE artists and their spin on album cover artwork design.

The humble beginnings of Kendrick Lamar’s journey were encapsulated in the pure brilliance of good kid, m.A.A.d city, which dropped in 2012 courtesy of TDE along with Aftermath Entertainment and Interscope Records. The album is poetry in motion, and its composition has become so closely dissected that it’s now subject matter in higher education. Released in a dual album format with two separate cover art design directions, the deluxe edition cover features a snapshot of Lamar’s mother’s minivan parked on the street outside their family home. A fascinating article by Jeremy Allen of AIGA Eye on Design talks about the image captured through a fisheye lens and intentionally distressed to resemble an old-school Polaroid shot. Scribbled in the bottom-right corner are the words “a short film by Kendrick Lamar”, which was actually the handwriting of label mate ScHoolboy Q. The cover art design and caravan is a symbolic representation of a youthful Kendrick Lamar “circumnavigating the pitfalls” of gang life while tackling different stages of adolescence with surprise.

Solána Imani Rowe, aka SZA, is one of the hottest artists under the sun. She first took the R&B world by storm in 2012 with a self-released debut EP titled See.SZA.Run., then later imposed her will on the genre in 2017 with the highly-acclaimed debut album Ctrl released under TDE’s label. The Ctrl album cover pollinates with SZA sitting in a field scattered amidst broken computer monitors, hinting at shades of chaos or vulnerability while metaphorically representing her vision to break away from an “illusion of control” and societal dependence on technology. Maybe the most underrated or unheralded Top Dawg Entertainment artist is Darryl “Inglewood SiR” Farris, a versatile R&B phenom with the soul and tempo to take your breath away. After blasting off with his debut LP November in 2018, SiR followed up in 2019 with Chasing Summer under exclusive license to RCA Records. Altogether, it was an exceptional statement about his branding architecture from front cover to back cover.

The thematic inspiration for Chasing Summer was based upon SiR’s ferocious, round-the-clock tour schedule and time spent on the road after the release of November. He pays tribute to the extensive travel experiences with a colorful album cover design of tiled bag tags indicating the lineup of some of those cities visited.

On the back cover, he accents the tracklist and credits the production with a passport-style visual arrangement that outlines each song as its own visa stamp. It’s a magnificent token of respect and tip of the cap to the audio engineers behind the album’s lofty hopes and dreams. SiR explains about the album: “We didn’t have any time to do anything but perform, shake hands, and kiss babies. We had a lot of fun, and I learned a lot about myself and people in general. It’s about the duplicity that’s my life. I thought I was gonna find freedom on the road – the freedom to do what I wanted. On the road, I felt like I was chasing summer for sure.”

No doubt that album cover artwork design can be a tipping point for artist metamorphosis. Its thematics and aesthetics are the backdrop of a compelling peek behind the curtain into the complete scope of artist storytelling. There’s a permanence and vibrance that can influence listener interpretations even before a track is heard.

Coloring Outside the Lines

The backbone of artist storytelling can be synthesized with spellbinding photography and layered album artwork that not only accentuates the narrative but also harmonizes ecosystem in the ears of listeners. As musicians skillfully develop multi-dimensional personas that filter through audiences subliminally, they’re able to translate visual genius into product delicacy and scalable e-commerce ambitions rather abruptly along the way. The $12.7 billion graphic design market has been a catalyst for flourishing artists with sights set on unlocking the immense potential of unmistakable visual branding. Some now have the world on a string.

Nowadays who doesn’t recognize the Dropout Bear mascot, the varsity letterman jacket, the bleachers, the Roc-a-Fella chain, “stadium status,” and the scholastic theme that never graduates? Kanye West’s The College Dropout was a disruptive album that launched his branding zeal and identity into another stratosphere.

Since its release by Def Jam Recordings and Roc-a-Fella Records in 2004, Kanye’s debut has been an all-encompassing branding blitz that presses audiences in full force. According to an article by XXL, the album was meant to personify a rebellious yet laser-focused pursuit of happiness and a means to live life on his own terms instead of societal standards or diversions. Photography was snapped by Danny Clinch at a gymnasium on 134th Street and 4th Avenue in New York City, while Roc-a-Fella in-house designer and art director Eric Duvauchelle handled its finishing touches. Both detailed the project and branding execution in an interview with Complex back in 2014. The rest is history.

Other notable hip-hop heavyweights have also buttoned up branding efforts with tenacious visual expression and experiential intricacy blended with the timing of new music releases or anniversaries of classic albums. In July of last year, Raekwon showed out alongside fellow Wu-Tang Clan patriarch Ghostface Killah to honor the 25th anniversary of Only Built 4 Cuban Linx (1995) with a digitally produced Instagram Live show titled “The Memoirs of the Purple Tape,” promoted by a cartoon-ish Raekwon illustration in a purple blazer with his back turned.

NaS rocked the mic exactly a year before that at a listening party hosted by Mass Appeal Records to toast the rapper’s Lost Tapes 2 release by the label. The event was preceded by a scavenger hunt with clues blasted on Mass Appeal’s social media, where fans uncovered educational “artifacts” about the album around New York City and then cashed those in as tickets for attendance to the event.

Now, more than ever, artists are blurring the lines of traditional “branding.” Culture always knocks, and nostalgic artists have an emphatic way of answering or responding with adventurous visual acumen.


An artist’s rhythm and flow dives far deeper than words alone. As the winds of cultural shockwaves circulate like a vinyl record on rotation, the most cohesive musical talents have been settling the score with visual brand narratives that, for listeners, can be just as jarring or surreal as the sound itself.

Timeless artist personas have become synonymous with transformational design, channeling an innate illustrative edge that keeps listeners in the fold, traveling in time, and wrapped up in effortless nostalgia. The breadth and depth of flavorful artist identity is encapsulated in the art of design, relentlessly paying homage to the immortality of years past and days ahead. What’s next is anyone’s guess.

“Hip-hop is the universe, a way to change your environment… We are all stars in the galaxy, cosmically connected with the purpose of shaping culture.” – NaS

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