Record albums refuse to die even though sales are no longer what they used to be. Musicians continue to rely on long-form collections of songs to tell personal stories, and album cover art remains a crucial aspect of the storytelling. In 2018 (as I’ve done for many years), I explored music released during the year to identify the most memorable album cover art. I looked for album covers that:
- Capture your attention.
- Express the essence of the artist.
- Say something about the musical content of the album itself.
This year, I was struck by the number of album covers that expressed what it means for an artist to be the Other, especially to be LGBTQ. The year witnessed a bumper crop of works created by LGBTQ musicians, perhaps most notably by Janelle Monáe, whose acclaimed Dirty Computer created a public forum for Monáe to announce her pansexuality. The album cover art of LGBTQ artists was as intensely personal as their music. Here are three examples:
Blood Orange, Negro Swan
Negro Swan, the fourth album from Blood Orange, the moniker for musician Devonté Hynes, expresses the complicated journey of the black LGBTQ experience. Blood Orange recently said that Negro Swan is “an exploration into my own and many types of black depression, an honest look at the corners of black existence, and the ongoing anxieties of queer/people of color. A reach back into childhood and modern traumas, and the things we do to get through it all.” The album’s title underscores race-based Otherness by using wordplay to subvert a term, black swan, meant to signify a rare thing of beauty. Songs such as “Charcoal Baby” articulate the artist’s vision, with lyrics such as:
No one wants to be the Negro Swan
No one wants to be the odd one out at times
Can you break sometimes?
In “Dagenham Dream,” Blood Orange recalls how he stopped wearing makeup and tried to start conforming after getting beat up for being an Other, much to the sadness of one of his school teachers:
And my eyebrow acted like the boys in town
Then my teacher told me that this, made her sad
Had to act just like the others to get around
But Blood Orange also offers hope that he will embrace his Otherness, as in the song “Smoke,” in which he sings,
Choosing what you wear and getting this far
Waiting for the smoke to clear . . .
The Sun comes in, my heart fulfills within
Indeed, Blood Orange has also said of Negro Swan, “The underlying thread through each piece on the album is the idea of hope, and the lights we can try to turn on within ourselves with a hopefully positive outcome of helping others out of their darkness.”
The album cover personifies Negro Swan through the image of Kai the Black Angel, who appears sitting on a car’s front passenger window frame with a white do-rag on his head and angel’s wings sprouting from his back. His head rests on his arms. His facial expression looks ambiguous. Is he calmly resting? Resigned? Sad? It’s hard to tell because his face is partially obscured by his arms.
In the video for one of the album’s songs, “Jewelry,” Kai the Black Angel appears briefly sitting on the car’s window frame. His facial expression again exudes a sense of calm. He also looks hopeful for the touch or embrace of the viewer. He reaches out toward the camera with a gentle wave, and as the car moves away from view, he continues to gaze back at the viewer, as if to make the brief moment of communion last as long as possible. For a few seconds, Kai the Black Angel shares the light that Blood talks and sings about on Negro Swan.
Janelle Monáe, Dirty Computer
On Dirty Computer, Janelle Monáe celebrates LGBTQ sexuality while confronting judgments that are inevitably cast upon the Other. On the song “Crazy, Classic Life,” she sings with confidence and defiance,
Young, Black, wild and free
Naked in a limousine . . .
I just wanna party hard
Sex in the swimming pool . . .
I’m not America’s nightmare
I’m the American dream
Just let me live my life
Elsewhere, she explores what it means to live as a sexual being on her own terms, as in the song “Take a Byte”:
I’m not the kind of girl you take home to your mama now . . .
Maybe it’s lust, maybe it’s love, maybe it never ends
Ooh, say your goodbyes (say ’em now)
Play in my hair and nibble there all on my mocha skin
Yeah, just take a byte
In “Pynk,” she speaks bluntly and frankly about a sexual experience whose meaning is even more clear in the song’s video:
Pink like the inside of your . . . baby
Pink behind all of the doors, crazy
Pink like the tongue that goes down, maybe
Pink like the paradise found
Pink when you’re blushing inside, baby
Pink is the truth you can’t hide, maybe
But the album cover dials down the overt sexuality and instead presents the artist in another light. Her eyes are nearly closed, and her face is covered with a beaded veil. Why? One explanation I’ve read makes perfect sense: she’s expressing an homage to her mentor Prince:
The connection is obvious in the video “Make Me Feel,” which sounds and looks like a Prince video. In it, Janelle Monáe explores her own lust for female bodies. And indeed she adorns the beaded veil in the video as she does on the album cover.
But the video also appears in a completely different context, as part of a 48-minute movie, Dirty Computer – An Emotion Picture, that debuted in April along with the album’s release. The movie depicts a world in which people living lives of individual freedom are rounded up and have their memories erased. A voice-over explains, “You were dirty if you looked different. You were dirty if you refused to live the way they dictated. You were dirty if you showed any form of opposition at all. And if you were dirty, it was only a matter of time . . .”
Monáe portrays Jane 57821, whose life of unfettered sexual joy makes her an outlaw and a target for the authorities. Her life is told through sequences taken from her standalone videos, including “Move Me,” which recontextualizes Monáe as Jane 57821 wearing the jeweled veil. In the context of Dirty Computer– An Emotion Picture, her joyous pansexual life puts her at risk for being persecuted and subjected to a horrible fate. Now we see the cover in a new light: her sexual identity, which is a source of pride and joy, also creates a personal risk, as it does for the Other.
In a Billboard interview, she elaborated on the meaning of the movie:
Dirty Computer is a near-future story about a citizen who finds love and danger in a totalitarian society. She’s an outlaw because she’s being herself . . . Overall, I wanted to reflect what’s happening in the streets right now, and what might happen tomorrow if we don’t band together and fight for love.
Jane 57821 is alive today, fighting for her own identity in the United States. Jane 57821 is Janelle Monaé.
Ah Mer Ah Su, Star
Star is an expression of self-love and healing from the perspective of a transgender artist, Amerasu Star, who performs as Ah Mer Ah Su. In an interview with PAPER, she says the album reflects her learning self-compassion and acceptance after surviving an abusive relationship with a man and being diagnosed as bipolar type two. On the song “Heartbreaker,” she not only transcends a relationship but turns the tables on a man who is hurting her:
I once tried to put you under my spell
Then realized I’d failed and I was overwhelmed
I’ll run into the arms of others
To try to forget you
And it hurts, it hurts, it hurts
But being a heartbreaker is easier than being broke
Here is how she describes the song meaning to PAPER:
I think I’ve had my heart broken too many times by men, to the point where I’ve become someone who ghosts people or runs away. It’s my way of turning the tables, of running away from feeling too good, because I want to break your heart. I’m tired of being heartbroken; it has happened too many times. As a transfemme, it happens so much that we are with shitty dudes who don’t care about us at all really. They view us as sexual objects and I’ve been devastated by that, so I wanted to totally change the narrative.
The overwhelming vibe on the album is about claiming your own narrative by reaching within. On “Need You, Need Me,” she defiantly looks forward after breaking free from an abusive relationship. On “Be Free,” she asks her audience, “Are you growing?/Are you showing any sign of change?” The soaring “Perfect” exhorts the listener to reject self-loathing, stop trying to chase for perfection and instead embrace something more positive and healthy:
How many days have I spent feeling shame?
Where I said I was to blame for my circumstance?
What would you do?
If you couldn’t be you? . . .
I’ll never be perfect
The world isn’t perfect and neither are you
The album cover art, taken from the video for “Perfect,” expresses the album’s themes. The vibrant colors suggest the star that shines within us. Ah Mer Ah Su holds herself tenderly with her eyes closed, as if lost in a moment of self-love. The somewhat grainy and blurred image seems to capture the narrative of “Perfect” – the reality that there is no such thing as perfection, and what matters is accepting and celebrating ourselves as we are. Hers is a universal message, too. As she told Billboard,
[M]y album isn’t just for transgender black people. I want everyone to listen to this album and listen to a trans woman sing about her experience. I want everyone who listens to understand what it’s like to be me and realize how precious and delicate — yet strong and empowering — my story is. I want my sisters to listen to this album and know that they are worthy, beautiful, and deserving of love.
Ah Mer Ah Su, like Blood Orange and Janelle Monáe, has connected with listeners in emotionally powerful ways. Fortunately we have her music and artistic expression of her songs to deepen that connection.
For more examples of memorable LGBTQ album cover art, check out my SlideShare. What album cover art from 2018 resonates with you?