Judging Mixtapes by the Cover

When I scan hip-hop blogs for material to cover in this column, I’m looking for certain things. Names I recognise and respect, mostly, but if I never looked past artists that I already know, I’d have a much harder time expanding my knowledge of the genre. On the other hand, there is a lot of crap out there, and I just don’t have the time or energy to listen to every new track put out by every new emcee. So how does an artist I don’t know catch my eye?

Honestly, I judge them by their covers.

Album cover art is a long and storied element of the music business, and the covers of great albums often become iconic cultural images. They can also be very telling. Take a duo like Capone-N-Noreaga, who for years have put out mixtapes with covers featuring themselves trying to look intimidating in big black coats and platinum chains, perhaps sitting behind desks covered with stacks of money, guns and drugs. Image is a big part of hip-hop culture, and rappers really do usually dress the part they sing about. It doesn’t take Sherlock Holmes to figure that these two fancy themselves dangerous gangster crime bosses, and will be rapping to that effect. But these days that sort of thing doesn’t really interest me as much, and so as talented as they might be, Capone-N-Noreaga don’t make it onto my playlist.

On the other hand, if I encounter a mixtape with cool and album art that suggests a more forward looking intellectual stance, I’m very likely to check it out, or at least click through to read the comments to see what other people think of it. That’s what happened this week when I downloaded TiRon’s MSTRD, a new mixtape with an abstract cover that layers different shades and textures of brownish-yellow like shattered glass. The font, combined with TiRon’s name, put me in mind of Tron and other (cyber)spacey science fiction. “Dope cover,” I thought to myself, and, having no idea what it sounded like, I clicked download.

As it turns out MSTRD, which I originally assumed stood for “mastered,” actually stands for “mustard” (hence that particular colour palette), and TiRon happens to originally be from once official worst place in America, Kankakee, Illinois, not far from where I myself once lived. The mixtape does indeed have a low key, space jazz sort of aesthetic as TiRon raps about girls, growing up and the double-edged nature of wealth. He isn’t always the most compelling, polished emcee, but he makes his ponderous style work most of the time. I’d point you especially to “Cigarettes,” a grim song about poverty and vices, and “The Richers,” which features verses by (A Man and His Mixtape approved!) Blu and Asher Roth. Blu and Asher don’t even outclass TiRon that much.

I’ve discovered a lot of cool material through this cover art-based selection process, and I haven’t hit many duds. And I think it makes sense that artists with an original design sense will have an original musical style as well. It is a little trickier with studio albums, of course, as record labels have graphic designers on staff to help artists come up with good covers — or at least weed out the awful ones. But mixtapes are a rawer form, and more likely to be honest representation of a musician’s intellectual inclinations. At the very least, cover art can point you to the artist’s own understanding of what hip-hop should be about. Is it necessarily about booty, bullets and blow? Or can it be about something a little more abstract, like the nature of beauty or the complexities of coming of age? Can’t it be about anything?

Download TiRon’s MSTRD at http://www.2dopeboyz.com/2010/06/04/tiron-mstrd-mixtape/.

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