Music and art have always had a connection. In modern times, musicians often engage artists to create album cover art. An example was Andy Warhol’s print of a banana serving as the cover for The Velvet Underground & Nico in 1967.
The Japanese artist Yoshitomo Nara is known for his love of music, especially rock, punk and folk. When his exhibition came to Los Angeles County Museum of Art in the spring of 2021, a playlist was made available so visitors could stream it while viewing his work of art.
The first room looked like this, with actual covers from his album collection serving as an art piece in its own right:
Nara himself has been responsible for creating album covers and videos for many bands, including:
Shonen Knife, an all-girl pop-punk band from Osaka, Japan, who gained international fame when Kurt Cobain, a longtime fan, personally invited them to open for Nirvana.
Bloodthirsty Butchers, an indie/punk band from Sapporo, Japan, who broke up when their front man died in 2013.
R.E.M., the iconic alternative rock band from Athens, Georgia, collaborated with Nara to release an animated music video for the song “I’ll Take the Rain” from their 12th studio album Reveal.
He even did one for a Ramones tribute album.
A more recent partnership was with the rapper/producer Kanye West and George Condo, a visual artist who works in painting, drawing, sculpture and printmaking.
As with many influential and important music artists, Kanye had a “classic period” that encompasses his first seven albums, including an extended collaboration with Jay-Z. He has often been identified by the press and fellow musicians as a significant influence on hip-hop music and an inspiration for other rappers to take more creative risks with productions.
In particular, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, released in 2010, stands out, not only for Kanye, but as one of the best and most influential albums across all of popular music at the time. It received universal acclaim from fans and critics alike, but also generated comments like “nobody halfway sane could have made this album.”
The album was recorded after a particularly controversial period for Kanye. During the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards, he went on stage as Taylor Swift was giving her acceptance speech for winning the best female video award for “You Belong with Me”. He grabbed her mike and declared, not once but twice, that “Beyoncé had one of the best videos of all time!” He was loudly booed and was promptly removed from the show. Condemnations came fast and furious, including no less than two U.S. Presidents, Barrack Obama and Jimmy Carter.
In response, Kanye retreated to a self-imposed exile in Hawaii. There, he recorded his masterpiece with input from many prominent artists and producers, including Jay-Z, John Legend, Rihanna, Chris Rock, Nicki Minaj (who stole the show with her verse on “Monster”), Bon Iver, Elton John, RZA, Mike Dean, Rick Ross and No I.D.
Leaning heavily on maximalist aesthetics, Kanye incorporated various elements and influences from his previous work, including progressive rock (“Power” has a killer sample of King Crimson’s “21st Century Schizoid Man”), soul, electro-funk, baroque instrumentation, heavy metal (“Hell of a Life” was clearly inspired by Black Sabbath’s “Iron Man” and the riff is used heavily), as well as classical music.
Such an important album requires an important artist to create a worthy cover art. Kanye’s choice was George Condo, who has a musical background. Condo studied various instruments when young and majored in musical theory in college. As an art student in Boston during the late-70s, he played bass and electric viola in a punk band, the Girls. While playing a gig in New York, he met Jean-Michel Basquiat, who was also playing that night with a band called Gray. The two artists/musicians developed a bond and “became good friends.” Condo then moved to New York and became a full-time artist. During the early-80s, he worked at Andy Warhol’s Factory.
Here's Condo describing his experience working with Kanye:
It's great to have Kanye West to collaborate with. He works off my paintings and my paintings work off his music. He does in music a lot of the stuff I do in painting – sampling, appropriating, presencing. He doesn't think of himself as a hip-hop artist but as an artist. Even his public persona is part of that art – it's another instrument he plays. (theguardian.com)
Kanye and Condo met several times during the process. During the visits, the two listened to Kanye’s music and brainstormed ideas for Condo to create. Their collaboration resulted in eight to nine paintings. Five of them were selected to function as interchangeable album covers that are included with each album.
NOTE: Due to the explicit nature, the fifth cover has been pixelized.
According to the New Yorker, Condo stated that Kanye was looking for “something that will be banned.” Anyone who has followed Kanye would not be surprised by such comments. He certainly took advantage when Apple, Target and Walmart (though denied by Walmart) banned the album covers and tweeted: "Yoooo they banned my album cover!!!!! Banned in the USA!!! They don't want me chilling on the couch with my Phoenix!" Condo also benefited as the noise swept through the internet and exposed his art to Kanye’s 2¼ million followers.
As with many aspects of Kanye’s life, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, arguably him at the peak of his power, has also been tumultuous, but the result has been highly creative and entertaining. As a companion piece to Kanye’s music, Condo’s artwork has also been controversial, engaging and amusing and just like Fantasy, a true original.