Album art is more than just an eye-catching design. When done well, album art can portray the sound of the album and can become a recognizable image that represents the brand of the artist. In the age of music streaming, listeners see more album artwork than ever before, but two distinctly unique groups have used strikingly similar album artwork techniques to develop their brands with great success. On their respective trilogies, indie pop group The XX and rap duo Run The Jewels crafted and built upon minimalist album artwork to create unmistakable brands.
As far as music goes, The XX and Run The Jewels (RTJ) couldn’t be more different. The XX invite listeners into their world with spacey production and intimately personal lyrics, delivered with alluring vocals that will leave you breathless. RTJ assaults your world and announce their presence with gritty electronic production and punch lines that hit so hard you’ll can’t help but to gasp for air. The artwork of the XX’s first album (The XX, 2009) couldn’t be any simpler: a white X on a black background. RTJ’s debut album (Run the Jewels, 2014) features two hands: one twisted into a gun, and the other a tight fist grasping a gold chain– all against a black background as well.
The minimal designs chosen introduce the brand, but leave plenty of room for later development of the image. Each of these albums achieved widespread critical acclaim, and both groups would go on to capitalize on the success of their debut albums.
On their second albums, Coexist (2012) and Run The Jewels 2 (2014), both groups stuck with the same basic design from their first album, but made key changes. The XX added swirling colors and switched to a bright white background, which mirrored the brighter sound of the new project. RTJ also changed background colors, but added the bandages over the hands from the first album.
Both of these changes hardly affect the essence of the artwork. Fans will still immediately recognize the motifs from the first albums. But the changes show that these are entirely new albums, akin to their predecessors but at the same time distinctly unique.
On the finales to each group’s trilogies, RTJ and The XX make their most dramatic changes. I See You (2017) abandons the stark contrast between the X logo and the background, and instead opts for a more monochromatic yet flashy silver cover with the band members’ reflections in it. The signature X is still there, but is less on display and more focus is on the artists instead. Run the Jewels 3 (2016) scraps the bandages and reveals dazzling, gold hands where there was diseased flesh on their debut album artwork. The basic red background has evolved into a gorgeous blue gradient, and it seems that RTJ has been reborn.
(Side note: both of these albums were scheduled to be released on the same day, but Run the Jewels 3 came early as a Christmas gift to their fans)
Both groups began with minimalist designs; their logos were bold and their backgrounds were simple. As their’ music developed, so did their album art. Any good marketer will tell you that brand recognition is key, and RTJ and The XX brilliantly crafted unique logos to complement their unique sounds. And their careful planning paid off massively. I See You reached #2 on the Billboard Top Albums list in its first week and (at the time of publishing) Run The Jewels 3 peaked at #13.
Of course, other artists have designed album art based on similar principles of minimalism, such as The Antlers’ 2009 album, Hospice (Which bears a striking resemblance to Run The Jewels 2), and Kanye West’s hyper-minimal Yeezus. However, The XX and Run The Jewels have produced continuations on their original minimal designs better than anyone else in the business has.