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Lil Nas X Did at Least Something Right With ‘J Christ’: He Revived the Art of the Album Cover

As new music launches go, the arrival of Lil Nas X’s “J Christ” single and video earlier this month was hardly blessed. The artwork that adorned the single — Lil Nas X strapped to a cross and being hoisted up by five women, an apocalyptic sky behind them — led to a predictable uproar from the religious front. So much so, in fact, that Lil Nas X posted a video on his socials explaining the imagery (“It was literally me saying I’m back like Jesus”) and apologizing for offending anyone with the song’s accompanying, pretty devilish video, which is jammed with crucifixion imagery and an incongruous allusion to Noah.

Was the single cover for “J Christ” ridiculous, over the top, and begging for controversy? No doubt. But now that it’s been two weeks since all hell broke loose, we can’t say we’re not mesmerized by the artwork. And in that regard, Lil Nas X got at least one thing right: He helped further the ongoing renaissance of musical cover art.

Starting with the lavish painting on his debut album Montero — that psychedelic ancient-temple landscape with a nude Lil Nas X floating in the middle — and now its follow-up, the rapper shows he’s keenly aware that album art is a unique and powerful form.

Dating back to the likes of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, Exile on Main St., and Nevermind, to cite a mere few of hundreds of examples, the record jacket has had a pretty storied history. But by the dawn of this century, something was out of focus. With the LP dead and the CD waning, the rise of digital music seemed to put a damper on design. Covers grew less detailed and blunter, dominated by big, blocky lettering and simple images and fonts. It’s as if they were being designed for online music sites or the tiny screen of your phone, where they’re reduced to the size of postage stamps.

But over the last decade, lavish, eye-grabbing jackets starting making a return, a trend that was surely tied in with another comeback — that of vinyl. By now, it’s pretty clear that a good chunk of people who buy LPs don’t play them as much as use them for home decor: They’re the new dorm-room posters.

Since those 12-by-12 packages are more popular than they’ve been in a long time, artists and designers — and the pop stars who hire them — seem to be newly inspired. As Lil Nas X shows, the hip-hop world has particularly stepped up with some of the must-see cover art of the last few years. Start with Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly and its provocative photo of what looks like a post-revolution party on the White House lawn.

Last year alone gave us Lil Uzi Vert’s Pink Tape, depicting him in front of an American flag with a matching jacket, his spiky hair practically jabbing into the stripes. On Set It Off, Offset is seen plunging from an upside-down world on fire, which captures our dystopian landscape as much as any record could. Reason to Smile, from British hip-hop artist Kojey Radical, shows him elevating into the air, as if he’s experiencing the Rapture. With its AI-generated art of a crazed board of executives, Lil Yachty’s Let’s Start Here was as disturbing as a Jordan Peele film.

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Pop and rock have made a strong showing too: The guy posing atop an abandoned car on a beach of the 1975’s Being Funny in a Foreign Language; the detailed everyday-stress cartoon illustrations (by Scarlett Curtis) on Ed Sheeran’s Autumn Variations, a cover that would surely only exist with the return of vinyl. Kelela’s solemn face emerging from — or being submerged into? — water on Raven. The rainbow on fire of Sigur Rós’ Átta, which conjures vintage art like that of Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here. Even Yes, who blew many a prog-rock fan’s mind with the art on Tales from Topographic Oceans and Relayer, again recruited Roger Dean, creator of those jackets, for last year’s Mirror to the Sky.

We haven’t seen a barrage of cool artwork like that in years. And now we can add Lil Nas X to the list. As much as he may have alienated conservatives — and perhaps some of his own fans by backing down — he won over the art-cover geeks.

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