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A Brief History Of Nudity & Sexually Explicit Imagery In Hip-Hop Album Artwork

Posted By on October 25, 2021

In light of Meek Mill’s controversial “Expensive Pain” artwork, we revisit some of Hip-Hop’s most sexually explicit album covers.

“Is this what you want black women? Is this how you want to be respected?” a Philadelphia man yelled in a now-viral video that has spread across social media over the past two weeks. In the video, the man angrily pointed at a bus in his hometown, wrapped with the NSFW cover art from Meek Mill’s fifth studio album Expensive Pain, a cubist-style painting by Nina Chanel Abney that predominantly features three nude Black female strippers.

“This is how you want to look? This is how you want to be portrayed?” the riled local continued. “Stand up to this bullshit! I’m from Philly — I actually should support Meek Mill. This is fucking disgusting bullshit…That’s her fucking pussy! Let’s not mistake what that pink dot is. This is disgusting!”

While the debate as to whether Meek Mill was right or wrong to have wrapped that vehicle with his sexually graphic album cover is a worthwhile conversation, the backlash against the artwork as a standalone piece prompts a different discussion. From John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s Unfinished Music No. 1: Two Virgins in 1968 to Halsey’s newly released album If I Can’t Have Love, I Want Power, nudity and sexually explicit imagery have been present on album covers for decades.

Naturally, the shock of seeing body parts that are typically kept private has resulted in several iconic album covers being condemned by fans and critics alike, and as a result, many artists have been forced to partially censor their artwork or change the covers entirely. While many consumers understandably want to shield youth from nude imagery, that perspective often doesn’t translate to settings where nudity is framed as high art, like in Francois Clouet’s 16th-century painting, Gabrielle d’Estrées et une de ses sœurs.

Speaking to that point, Killer Mike recently came forward to defend Meek Mill’s album cover for Expensive Pain. “It’s art,” the Run the Jewels rapper and activist argued. “We as a society see naked humans in art in museums. We should also be cultured enough as adults and parents to have a convo about nudity and art with our children. I say this as a parent, rapper and a High Museum of ART Board member.”

Regardless of how you personally feel about the use of nudity in album artwork, popular album covers are going to be scrutinized, whether artists go the Drake route with playful, kid-friendly artwork or the Meek Mill route with sexually explicit imagery. In light of the discourse that the controversial Expensive Pain artwork has sparked, here is a survey of some of the most NSFW album covers in Hip-Hop history.


Luke – In The Nude (1993)

Album cover for Luke "In The Nude"Luke/Lil Joe Records

Anyone familiar with Uncle Luke’s legacy knows about his Miami-based Hip-Hop group 2 Live Crew and the boundaries that they pushed with albums like 1988’s Move Somethin’ and 1989’s As Nasty as They Wanna Be. While 2 Live Crew’s most controversial album covers primarily featured bikini-clad women, Uncle Luke’s 1993 solo album was even more graphic, especially considering the time period in which it was released. On the uncensored version of the cover, Luke and four women pose completely nude in a bathtub, with soap suds and strategic hand placements keeping the cover from becoming too X-rated.


Master P – The Ghetto’s Tryin to Kill Me! (1994)

Master P "The Ghetto’s Tryin to Kill Me!" Cover Art
Master P/No Limit Records

Master P’s The Ghetto’s Tryin to Kill Me! was released through Priority Records in 1994, and the album’s cover infamously featured Master P having sex with a woman while an armed man peered in through a window in the background. The New Orleans trailblazer’s cover is one of the rare instances in which a rapper is portrayed having sex in their album artwork, and while it didn’t feature any explicit nudity, it’s a great example of how Hip-Hop has used NSFW imagery in an artistic way.

Furthermore, Master P’s iconic album artwork also influenced the cover of Freddie Gibbs’ 2009 compilation album The Labels Tryin’ to Kill Me: The Best of Freddie Gibbs.

Freddie Gibbs "The Labels Tryin' to Kill Me: The Best of Freddie Gibbs" Cover Art
Freddie Gibbs

Ice-T – Gangsta Rap (2006)

Ice-T "Gangsta Rap" Cover Art
Ice-T/Ice Touring

In contrast to Master P’s The Ghettos Tryin to Kill Me!, Ice-T’s final studio album left little to the imagination. Gangsta Rap arrived in 2006, and its cover was an intimate photo of the rapper-turned-actor and his wife Coco Austin laying in bed fully nude.


Kanye West – My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (2010)

Kanye West - "My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy" Cover Art
Kanye West/George Condo/UMG Recordings, Inc.

One of the paintings that George Condo created for My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy shifted away from real-life depictions of sex and nudity in exchange for an image of monstrous-looking Kanye drinking a beer and having sex with a nude, winged creature. The graphic cover for Kanye West’s 2010 opus was originally believed to have been banned from retailers like Walmart, but despite Ye’s unforgettable Twitter rant aimed at the retail giant, Walmart went on to deny those claims. Regardless, the provocative cover remains either censored on streaming services or replaced with the alternative ballerina cover to this day.

MBDTF wasn’t Ye’s last time having nudity in his album covers, either. During the lead-up to the G.O.O.D. Music compilation album Cruel Summer in 2012, Kanye released “Cold,” which featured George Condo’s illustration of a headless woman with her breasts exposed.

Kanye West "Cold" Cover ArtKanye West/George Condo/UMG Recordings, Inc.

The WeekndHouse of Balloons (2011)

The Weeknd "House of Balloons" Cover Art
The Weeknd/The Weeknd XO, Inc.

House of Balloons is the mixtape that started The Weeknd’s meteoric rise to pop superstardom, and the unforgettable black-and-white album cover notably featured a naked woman surrounded by balloons. Upon its release in 2011, the cover boldly showed the woman’s nipple, and when it was added to streaming services nearly a decade later, her breast was censored out altogether.


Frank Ocean – “Pyramids” (2012)

Frank Ocean “Pyramids” Cover ArtFrank Ocean/Def Jam Recordings

Following the near-universally loved single “Thinkin Bout You,” Frank Ocean dropped off “Pyramids” a month ahead of the release of his debut album Channel Orange. The single’s artwork features a The Simpsons-style depiction of an erect penis, which is extremely uncommon for even Hip-Hop’s most NSFW imagery.


Mac Miller – Macadelic (2012)

Mac Miller "Macadelic" Cover Art
Mac Miller/Rostrum Records

After his chart-topping debut album Blue Slide Park in 2011, Mac Miller’s entire style evolved into a darker, more mature sound, and the viewers got their first glimpse of the late rapper’s sonic shift on 2012’s Macadelic. The mixtape’s cover art features an illustrated collage of nude women, a far cry from the youthful inspiration behind the simplistic cover of Blue Slide Park.

Between 2012 and 2013, Mac Miller continued to explore female and male nudity in his cover art. He most notably posed nude for the cover of Watching Movies With The Sound Off in 2013, but also used a sultry photograph of a naked woman for the cover of his one-off You EP in 2012, which he released under the guise of Larry Lovestein & The Velvet Revival.

Mac Miller "Watching Movies With The Sound Off" Cover ArtMac Miller/Rostrum Records
Larry Lovestein & The Velvet Revival "You" Cover ArtLarry Lovestein & The Velvet Revival/Larry Lovestein, LLC

Death Grips – No Love Deep Web (2012)

Death Grips "No Love Deep Web" Cover Art
Death Grips/Third Worlds, LLC/Harvest Records

Experimental Hip-Hop group Death Grips took NSFW covers to a new level when it released its second studio album, No Love Deep Web, in 2012. The album’s artwork is essentially a picture of an erect penis with the album’s title scribbled on it, and the cover is almost always censored through pixelation or with a black rectangle.


Azealia Banks – Slay-Z (2017)

Azealia Banks "Slay-Z" Cover Art
Azealia Banks/2017 Chaos & Glory Recordings

Azealia Banks initially planned to use an uncensored nude as her Slay-Z mixtape cover, and although the topless photo of the controversial rapper achieved viral notoriety, you won’t find it on any streaming services without the mixtape’s title covering Azealia Bank’s chest.


TygaKyoto (2018)

Tyga "Kyoto" Cover Art
Tyga/Hajime Sorayama/2018 Last Kings Music/EMPIRE

Just as Death Grips’ No Love Deep Web prompted outrage with its use of male genitalia, Tyga pushed the limits of NSFW album artwork by using an illustration that explicitly showed a tiger-lady hybrid’s vagina and nipples for the cover of 2018’s Kyoto. In addition to causing an uproar due to its alleged appropriation of the Japanese flag, the album cover was heavily censored, but even in the final version that currently appears on streaming services, it is still one of the strangest and most sexually explicit album covers in Hip-Hop history.


Travis ScottAstroworld (2018) 

Travis Scott "Astroworld" Cover Art
Travis Scott/David LaChapelle/Epic Records/Cactus Jack/Grand Hustle

Although the vibrant, kid-friendly cover of Astroworld is the most recognized artwork for Travis Scott’s quadruple-platinum album, the 2018 album also came packaged with an alternative NSFW cover. The woman with braces who is normally seen on the back cover of Astroworld is instead featured at the forefront of the night-themed cover, completely nude. Another naked woman is seen inside a glass box, wearing only nipple covers and underwear. Astroworld was ultimately released with the more commercial-friendly cover, but limited edition vinyls were issued with the darker David LaChapelle artwork.


Meek Mill – Expensive Pain (2021) 

Meek Mill - Expensive PainMeek Mill/Nina Chanel Abney/Maybach Music Group LLC/Atlantic Recording Corporation

And of course, this list ends with the album that inspired this entire conversation, Meek Mill’s Expensive Pain. Painted by Nina Chanel Abney, the album’s artwork shows an abstract portrait of Meek Mill crying in the center of the cover, surrounded by three fully nude women and artistic representations of wealth.


Having now seen an array of some of Hip-Hop’s most sexually explicit album covers, where do you stand in the debate? Should nudity be perceived as art or obscenity when it comes to album artwork?

Via HNHH