Evolution of the Baby Rapper Album Cover
A history of how and why rappers started putting their baby pictures on the covers of their albums.
Written and illustrated by Mark Yoder
In hip-hop, musical and aesthetic trends can often be easily traced back to specific origins. Run DMC made oversized gold chains a signifier of wealth in the rap industry. T-Pain, to the chagrin of vocal purists everywhere, made autotune an unavoidable component of today’s rap. The same tracing process can be utilized for more niche tropes as well, most notably: the distinct tradition of putting baby photos on album covers.
The first instance of a rapper putting his baby picture on the cover of an album was on Nas’ debut classic, Illmatic. The cover superimposes a childhood picture of Nas over a picture of his childhood home, Queensbridge, New York. His face compliments the largely autobiographical album perfectly, helping Nas recount his difficult memories from his rough childhood in Queensbridge. The stark contrast between the face of a kid and the bleak world dominated by money, drugs, and murder that Nas describes makes this cover iconic.
Only five months after Illmatic was released, the legendary Brooklyn rapper The Notorious B.I.G. took some inspiration from the iconic cover. His album Ready to Die features a baby who looked similar to him, bringing accusations of biting Nas’ style due to the album’s proximity to Illmatic’s release. Also comparable to Illmatic, the cover works well with the autobiographical nature of B.I.G.’s album. The album begins with a dramatized reenactment of Biggie’s birth and the second to last song features his death by gunshot. Despite the accusations, Ready to Die saw both success and critical acclaim, and is still considered one of the greatest hip-hop records of all time.
Lil Wayne frequently subverted standard rap conventions and pioneered many new ideas in the 2000s. He popularized putting out free mixtapes on the internet to grow his fanbase, setting the precedent for small SoundCloud artists trying to blow up. He used a baby photo of himself on Tha Carter III, Tha Carter IV, and Tha Carter V, but injected his playfully irreverent sense of humor into the artwork by including his signature teardrop face tattoos on the innocent baby version of himself.
Tha Carter III lacks an overarching theme, with the only substantial link between tracks being Lil Wayne’s onslaught of clever wordplay and punchlines. But it does have a few personal moments, such as the song "Shoot Me Down," which references the time he shot himself with a handgun at the age of 12.
The most fitting, modern successor to Illmatic is good kid, m.A.A.d city by renowned Compton wordsmith, Kendrick Lamar. Both albums focus on growing up in very harsh environments and the observations and problems the rappers see in this world. This album plays like a movie showcasing Kendrick’s formative years growing up in the volatile environment of Compton. The cover embodies these themes, featuring a baby bottle next to a 40 oz and his uncle who is throwing up gang signs while holding baby Kendrick.
Canadian rapper Drake decided to follow in the footsteps of rappers before him — including his mentor, Lil Wayne — with his album cover for Nothing Was the Same. While all of the previous covers feature photographs, Drake decided to commission artist Kadir Nelson to create oil paintings of him. There are two versions of the cover: one featuring a baby Aubrey Drake Graham with his head in the clouds, and the other featuring adult Drake. When the two are put side by side, they create one complete painting of the child staring at the adult that he will eventually become.
Drake details his past on the album, paying homage to the previous rappers autobiographical works, but when he raps, “Started from the bottom,” it doesn’t really resonate. His bragging of coming from nothing and making it conflicts with the knowledge that where Drake really started was on the Canadian teen drama series “Degrassi.”
From Illmatic to Nothing Was the Same, this visual concept continues to be repurposed and by a new generation of rappers. Fluctuating in style and authenticity, these covers are probably not going anywhere anytime soon. So, the next time you find yourself attempting to make a classic rap album, make sure to go through your old family photo albums to find the perfect baby picture for the cover.