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Pen & Pixel: massive understatements, life lessons, and missed opportunities

May 27, 2010

Despite the fact that album covers tend to be a mostly visual medium, the magic of language has always held the floor in rap music. Consequently, as readers of my Pen & Pixel posts have learned over the past few weeks, words play a big role in the Pen & Pixel oeuvre.

Often rappers express a desire to take their album cover as an opportunity to impart an important life lesson. Usually, this lesson isn’t moral; rather, it tends to be very sound, practical advice. Think less motivational kitty poster, more “what to do if this plane starts plummeting” pamphlet in the pocket of the seat back in front of you.

Mr. Serv-On, for example, implores us to consider the importance of purchasing comprehensive life insurance.

Luxury Rydaz show us what happens when you take the time to “be about your paper”, and demands that we do the same (but why does their mansion look like a Spanish monastery?).

The most life-changing advice comes in a roundabout way from Memphis legend Project Pat, which is that one should not fuck with him. He does this on not one, but two album covers, which were released with merely a year and a half between them. Yikes.

In 2001 Project Pat put out Mista Don’t Play: Everythang’s Workin. The cover features a high-as-hell Pat displaying a bank roll while someone rots away in his trunk, which is presumably a commentary on how he doesn’t ‘play’.

Similarly, Project Pat sends a stern warning to snitches on his next album cover. Guess what happens to them, especially if they are stupid enough to walk around with a shirt that says “snitch” on both the front and the sleeves? He lays da smack down. Ominously, this album was released while Pat was incarcerated for being a felon in possession of firearms.

Project Pat is a great example of someone who took his album titles and ran with them. But Pen & Pixel covers are rife with missed opportunities: albums with great titles, yet the cover art has nothing to do with the subject at all.

Based on title alone, Guillotine’s Medieval Madness had limitless potential. Personally, I would have some something Renaissance Faire-themed: armor-suited knights stabbing each other with lances; resplendent tables full of turkey legs and grapes; sexy, busty wenches serving Guillotine grapes and beer. All members of Guillotine would be wearing crowns, and may have their heads caught in jewel-encrusted guillotines to prove a metaphorical point about the trappings of power and wealth.

Instead, they went the “stabbing a burning globe with a kitchen knife” route.

Da Fada’s album title opened many doors of artistic opportunity. Russian Roulette games, ensemble horror movie takeoffs, or even a giant Clue board would have been amazing. Instead, we got this nonsense: a map of Southern Louisiana. Well, at least the map is gold.

And finally, the biggest wasted opportunity of all time, which needs no explanation:

To MC 2 and JDOG I say simply, “prove it.”

In opposition to the “too much title, not enough Pen & Pixel” dichotomy, albums with Pen & Pixel covers sometimes convey a baffling sense of restraint in their title. This being the bling-y, over the top world of rap, it’s surprising when the title doesn’t match the bravado implied in the cover’s art. MC Breed, for example, literally lives in a diamond house with gold trim. Yet when apparently prompted to describe his lavish lifestyle, he uses a saying that was invented by stoners to sum up the redeeming nature of the not-so-bad schwag they have just smoked. Either that or he just stole one of the first lines from “Juicy” because he thought it would make him sound cool.

OBG’Z have a similar problem. They live in a hall that seems to go on forever, much like an MC Escher drawing. In shiny home furnishings alone, it’s quite clear that these guys are set for life. But they merely “can’t be faded”? Maybe they mean, “it would be impossible to turn these long, luxurious locks into fade haircuts.”

Meanwhile, if this is “premeditated drama”, then what is “premeditated murder”?

Yes, Mind Over Body, it is “un-x-pected” that you are ghosts who can stick your hand right through the door of your Range Rover. Now let’s see what happens when you try to drive it. The joke’s on you, Mind Over Body!

Lil Sin, whom you may remember from his struggle to choose between heaven and hell, has one of the most famous Pen & Pixel covers of all time with Frustrated By Death. Is ‘frustrated’ really the right word choice here? What about ‘choked’, ‘stranged’, ‘abducted’, ‘mercilessly waved around in the air by the bony bullying arm of death’?

This must be how Lil Sin ended up in that heaven/hell situation.

Alright folks, my next P&P episode features the all-time greatest Pen & Pixel covers(!!), and then I’m putting the kibosh on this operation for awhile. In the meantime, refresh yourself with some old P&P posts; I’m gonna take some time with the next one.

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