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The cover for hip hop classic Illmatic was originally going to have a picture of Nas holding Jesus Christ in a headlock. I’m not sure why that didn’t go ahead (although you would think the label might have had some concerns) but the ultimate cover is a far more reflective and subtle effort.

Illmatic was released in 1994 and today it regularly tops lists of the best rap albums ever released. The cover features a picture of Nas as a 7 year old that was taken after his father, musician Olu Dara, returned home from an overseas tour. Obviously no one told him to say cheese. Art Director Aimee Macauley superimposed the picture over a New York city block, which represents the ghetto.

According to Nas, age 7 “was the year I started to acknowledge everything [around me]. That’s the year everything set off. That’s the year I started seeing the future for myself and doing what was right. The ghetto makes you think. The world is ours. I used to think I couldn’t leave my projects. I used to think if I left, if anything happened to me, I thought it would be no justice or I would be just a dead slave or something. The projects used to be my world until I educated myself to see there’s more out there.”

Speaking to XXL only this year, he expands: “Really the record had to represent everything Nasir Jones is about from beginning to end, from my album cover to my videos… That’s what it was all about for me, being that kid from the projects, being a poster child for that, that didn’t exist back then.”

It’s a moving image that feels quite cinematic – the young child amid the ghetto, looking forward into an uncertain future. It also inspired an apt cover for the follow up, 1996’s It Was Written.

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Whether Illmatic has inspired other covers is the source of much controversy. A scant five months after its release, The Notorious B.I.G came out with the album Ready to Die. The cover art does seem fitting for an album that opens with the birth of a baby and goes on to spin a narrative based on Biggie’s life.

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It would even be cute if it wasn’t for the dark bravado of the title. But in 1995, Raekwon and Ghostface Killah cried foul on the song “Shark Niggas (Biters)”

YaknowhatI’msayin? Niggaz niggaz niggaz niggaz is bitin off your
album cover and shit
Yeah!
Whoa bad enough they biting lines like niggaz killed me
Yeah
When they came with some Nas, niggaz bit offa Nas shit!
KnowhatI’msayin?

(What he’s saying is that Biggie copied Nas)

The biggest selling hip hop album of 2008 was The Carter III by Lil Wayne. I’ve been enjoying the exploits of hip hops’ new king and appreciate his showmanship and efforts to create a unique persona, although there’s more than a few people that disagree with me. The cover for the Carter III has naturally attracted comparison to Illmatic, given that it features a photo of the artist as a child.

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A return to childhood and the formative years of youth are common in hip hop, another example being the classroom theme and artwork for The Miseducation of Lauren Hill. Would Nas be right to claim that the other kids have been copying his work? Let’s have a class discussion – one at a time and raise your hands please.