Hip-hop and comics both benefit from exaggeration. Men in iron suits and literal Norse gods wrestling with green rage monsters inspired Darryl McDaniels to declare himself “Son of Byford, brother of Al” on “Hit It Run.” Early promo posters and bombed out graffiti walls all across the boroughs of New York relayed personality the same way Silver Age comics spun stories out of candid snapshot covers. Emcees and producers alike boldly galvanize with their names like Batman would: Metro Boomin; Noname; Q-Tip; Gucci Mane. Even a government name glows when it’s up in lights (Kendrick Lamar, Vince Staples.)
Much like comic covers pioneered by the likes of Jack Kirby and Alex Ross continue to bedazzle eyes on stands to this day, album covers still pose questions through exaggeration in 2016. A skull casts a veil of uncertainty over the otherwise quaint innocence of Noname’s Telefone. The MONDA tattoo covering Cousin Stizz’s left forearm speaks to triumph and cranks up to the future. DJ Khaled exudes flourish the way only a man who willed his way into musical and SnapChat ubiquity can. It’s covers like these that initially sparked Axel Alonso over at Marvel comics to spearhead the hip-hop variants, which has honored everyone from Grand Master Flash and The Furious Five and the Wu-Tang Clan to Future and Chance The Rapper and just started their second phase a few months ago. 2016 was as great a year for music art as it was for music, and if the ears upstairs are listening, here are 13 ideas for some new hip-hop variants and what heroes would do them the most justice.
Noname – Telefone (Moon Girl & Devil Dinosaur)
When I first saw the cover for Noname’s debut solo project, it immediately radiated the same warmness as that children’s book you used to fuck with when you were five. It’s a perfect fit for Lunella Layfayette, the genius 9-year-old at the center of the newly revamped Devil Dinosaur comics. Devil Dinosaur is about as strange and obscure as a time-traveling bright red T-Rex can be, but imagine the Telefone cover reimagined with test tubes on the left instead of flowers and Devil Dinosaur’s snout perched on top of Layfayette’s head. They’ve already been used in a Summertime ’06 inspired cover by Jeffery Veregge, and like Vince’s album, the parallels of Black innocence lost on Telefone would help drive the point home.
DJ Khaled – Major Key (Black Panther)
Marvel fans have been counting the days until Ryan Coogler‘s upcoming Black Panther film and Ta-Nehisi Coates’ run on the comic proved to be a critical and commercial shot in the arm for the series. This is fitting, since T’Challa – as the King of Wakanda – is royalty, and no album cover that dropped this year screams stoic royalty the way DJ Khaled’s certified Gold Major Key does. T’Challa sitting with a lion at his feet surrounded by Wakandan wildflowers and sitting in a vibranium throne might even manage to beat out Brian Stelfreeze’s fantastic Panther/Jay Z variant from earlier this year, but what do I know?
Young Thug – Jeffery (Doctor Strange)
Rappers rarely come as polarizing as Young Thug, five years into his career and still turning heads with his music and his fashion. The cover for his latest joint Jeffery was no exception, but it also exudes a grace and control that hasn’t really been present on any of his previous album artwork. I see a Doctor Strange variant hiding in this cover somewhere, draped in his levitation cloak and the Eye of Agamatto surrounding his head.
ZelooperZ – Bothic (Ghost Rider)
This was a challenge. Zelooperz managed to channel the manic vibes of his sophomore project into this self-painted album cover, but all I see when I look at it is Ghost Rider. A wreath of flames flying around his dome with the leather jacket and studs and this one’s a winner.
Westside Gunn – FlyGod (Hulk)
Gunn’s one of New York’s finest right now, and if his high-pitched rhymes aren’t enough to draw you in, the cover for FLYGOD might be enough to do the job. The kid on the front is wearing gold chains and a smile, but the scratches from the wreath on his head and bloody tears combine to tell a story of facades and struggles. What better character to epitomize this than The Hulk? Catch Hulk with a menacing smile and maybe some cables around his neck and head and you’re done. This could work for either Bruce Banner or new Hulk Amadeus Cho, but either way, it’d be a wild cover.
Gucci Mane – Everybody Looking (Guardians of the Galaxy)
The mural Gucci is facing on the cover of Everybody Looking could be on the side of any elementary school wall, but the mesh of colors also reminds me of a galaxy map. Imagine the Guardians of the Galaxy gathered around a giant holographic map, Star-Lord in the middle pointing up at a new sector to explore.
Royce 5’9” – Layers (Wolverine)
Royce’s honesty and pure rapping ability really gave his new best-selling album true layers. There’s only one hero who could match Nickel 9’s ferocity on the mic: Wolverine. Between nigh immortality, being brainwashed, and having indestructible metal piped through your body, Wolverine’s got layers of his own that could easily see the light of day in a Royce variant. The fact that it’s yet another opportunity for newly minted Wolverine X-23 to shine is just the icing on the cake.
Cousin Stizz – MONDA (Miles Morales)
Boston area hip-hop had a great 2016 between Michael Christmas, Mr. Lif, and Cousin Stizz, who got some nationwide respect for his new joint MONDA. A tour and a placement on Atlanta will do that to you. The cover – a detailed photo of Stizz staring down his tattooed forearm – would do new Spider-Man Miles Morales a great service. Black youth on the move in comics, film, and music is a wave that Stizz and Morales should get to experience together in variant form.
Big Sean & Jhene Aiko – Twenty88 (Cloak and Dagger)
I’ll admit upfront that as big a fan of Jhene as I am, this project was a little underwhelming. Regardless, her chemistry with Sean is as palpable on record as it is on this intimate cover, which would deserve a duo who could match this level of cool intrigue. Cloak and Dagger are the only Marvel match I can think of; introduced in a 1982 issue of Spider-Man, Cloak and Dagger were runaway teens used and abused by the world who were mutated into personifications of darkness and light, respectively. Given Sean and Jhene’s respective relationship histories, the duo might have a bit more in common with Cloak and Dagger than meets the eye. That and there’s a Cloak and Dagger TV series coming next year on FreeForm, so why not?
Oddisee – AlWasta (Ms. Marvel Kamala Khan)
AlWasta has an absolutely gorgeous cover – painted in just under a week by Nana Yeboah – to compliment its live grooves and poignant bars. It almost looks like a well-worn postage stamp saved from the shredder. Oddisee boasts strength and confidence dropping bars about every day life, his hopes for the future, and being of Sudanese descent in post-9/11 America. He’s never kept his religion a secret from the world, but “Lifting Shadows” brought it to a lot of people’s attention; something that the new Ms. Marvel Kamala Khan tapped into with her debut in 2014. Her Marvel ascent over the last two years deserves a reverent variant of the AlWasta cover that you’d be proud to throw in the corner of an envelope.
A Tribe Called Quest – We Got It From Here..Thank You 4 Your Service (Skrulls)
Very few were expecting A Tribe Called Quest to break their ribs and transform to musically address the state of Trump’s America, but they did exactly that this past November. For their amorphous yet immediately recognizable joints (and the alien looking thing standing in front of the vinyl sleeves on the cover), only the shapeshifting Skrulls could embody the essence of We Got It From Here…Thank You 4 Your Service. Maybe a Secret Invasion revival?
Denzel Curry – Imperial (New Mutants)
Don’t let the ULT fool you: Denzel Curry’s been a lyrically sharp ball of sound since his Nostalgic 64 days. His muscles can’t possibly flex anymore than they do all over this year’s Imperial; you’d think he’s got the energy of the other 12 people standing on the cover with him. This display of camaraderie could only be likened to one of the younger teams in Marvel’s arsenal, and the New Mutants could be that team. If only Marvel and Fox could fix their movie rights issue.
Smoke DZA x Pete Rock – Don’t Smoke Rock (Luke Cage & Iron Fist)
Hip-hop doesn’t come more homegrown than Smoke DZA and Pete Rock’s hotly anticipated joint Don’t Smoke Rocks (a name we mostly predicted back in 2015). DZA’s second project of the year (after his Harry Fraud collab He Has Risen) is a showcase both old and new in sensibility, right down to the black turtlenecks and black truck of the decidedly vintage cover. Luke Cage and Iron Fist have been given a lot of hip-hop love over at Marvel, but I can’t think of a New York duo better suited for Pete Rock’s cavernous beats.