Music is an experience, an intentional work of storytelling, and a means of expression that uses sound, lyricism and imagery to convey direct or underlying themes. The curated illustrations and visuals that accompany an album are a definitive part of the creative process and shape how listeners view the project and the artist. Back when shopping for CDs was a thing, and even now in the streaming age, cover art remains at the forefront of the narrative.

Since graphic designer Alex Steinweiss originated artistic covers via Columbia Records in 1939, album art has taken many forms — from portraits to sketches, stills, collages, typography, paintings and, more recently, animations. Arguably, visual art is a larger aspect of the music released today, with musicians creating covers for singles before revealing the LP art.

Some album covers reached such high acclaim that there’s no way to define them other than iconic. These square glimpses of moments inside the artists’ minds are solidified in pop culture, often imitated and even earn spots in museums. Check out the most iconic R&B album covers to ever hit the shelves, in no particular order, below.

1. Lauryn Hill — The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill

The cover art for the only solo studio album by Lauryn Hill features an image of her face carved into a desk with a pencil sitting up top. The image was photographed by Eric Johnson, whose mother used to style Hill’s hair when she was a young girl. While the cover of Bob Marley’s Burnin’ inspired the visual for this album, it was not what the artist first envisioned. Hill wanted photos of herself in a school environment, so she and Johnson initially shot pictures at her alma mater, Columbia High School, in Maplewood, New Jersey.

2. Mariah Carey — The Emancipation of Mimi

Often considered the singer’s comeback album, The Emancipation of Mimi cover features Mariah Carey boasting a gold wrap — which many mistake as a dress — in a confident and powerful stance. Though this is hands down one of her best photos, Carey revealed to Billboard that she prefers the shot on the platinum edition cover. “It’s so weird, but you just had to be confident in wearing something like that and just be really present,” she said in the interview. “I was just in a moment where it’s like, ‘Look, people may have written me off, but I will never write myself off, and this is an important time for me.’”

3. Destiny’s Child — Destiny Fulfilled

Opposite of Destiny’s Child’s previous covers, which have seen the trio in coordinated outfits posing alongside one another in a far shot, the Destiny Fulfilled artwork offered an up-close and personal look at the women responsible for this no-skip album of hits. It also emphasized a shift, perhaps signaling that the end of the group was near, as Destiny’s Child announced soon after the album dropped that they were breaking up. Along with the deviation from coordinated outfits and poses, the LP’s art featured Michelle Williams in the middle, a solid black background and matching hairstyles — all elements that the group had not done before.

4. Janet Jackson — The Velvet Rope

The minimalist cover for The Velvet Rope, which depicted Janet Jackson with her head down and honey curls cascading over her face, was an ode to vulnerability. The album traded melodies of sexuality, independence and fierceness in favor of a more introspective and transparent tune. With ballads like the hit “I Get Lonely,” Jackson invited listeners into her private thoughts as well as her struggles with depression and low self-esteem.

5. Aaliyah — Aaliyah

Aaliyah’s self-titled and final album, which was released around a month before her untimely death in a 2001 plane crash, exudes femininity. The singer gazes onward, loosely grabbing the bottom of a halter top that exemplifies 2000s style. A sharp contrast to her other covers, Aaliyah ditches the dark shades and edgy demeanor that her fans loved her for in exchange for a sensual deep cut.

6. Toni Braxton — Toni Braxton

Every year, someone famous recreates Toni Braxton’s debut album cover for Halloween. Even Beyoncé has revealed her rendition of the icon’s artwork. Braxton’s self-titled LP features the singer against a beige background in a leather jacket, white tank top, and light blue jeans with a gold belt chain around her waist. Her bold red lips match the color of the title. Of course, we can’t forget the iconic pose that shows her hand hiding in a jacket sleeve against her chest.

7. Beyoncé — Dangerously in Love

Beyoncé‘s debut solo studio album cemented her superstar power with its cover. Her iconic rhinestone top was even displayed at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. The Houston native’s inspiration for the photo shot by photographer Markus Klinko was an image he captured of Laetitia Casta, titled “The Web.” In the advertisement for diamonds, the model laid on a dazzling spider web, barely covered in iridescent bondage.

8. Usher — My Way

The cover for 1997’s My Way portrayed Usher holding onto railings in a dark stairwell while biting his lip seductively. With tracks like “You Make Me Wanna…” and “Nice & Slow,” Usher’s second studio album introduced the world to his persona of a ladies’ man.

9. Jodeci — Diary Of A Mad Band

Diary Of A Mad Band rose to critical acclaim and almost became an instant commercial success. The album’s cover and Jodeci’s distinct streetwear style — unlike anything of the R&B savants at the time — captured an essence of confidence and influence that took the music industry by storm. The sepia-toned cover portrayed the band standing on a transit bridge, dressed in neoprene fishing overalls as if it were a casual outfit.

10. Monica — Miss Thang

With one leg perched, her head held high and a sassy, assured look on her face against a blurred background of moving cars, Monica let everyone know she did not come to play. The cover of her debut album, Miss Thang, was edgy yet approachable. It offered a bit about her but not too much; you had to listen to the songs to learn more.

11. Rihanna — ANTI

Did you know ANTI is the first album ever to be released entirely in Braille without text or liner notes in the packaging? The cover is taken from Roy Nachum’s painting “If They Let Us, Part 1.” It depicts a photorealist interpretation of Rihanna as a little girl holding a black balloon with a crown covering her eyes. The title of the artwork comes from a Chloe Mitchell poem that discusses being powerful yet misunderstood, which is a pivotal theme in the singer’s work. Nachum told Rolling Stone that the black balloon serves as a metaphor of escaped reality, while the crown symbolizes the jadedness of power and success.

12. Solange — A Seat at the Table

A Seat at the Table’s cover was inspired by the “Mona Lisa.” It’s a nod to the “stateliness, the sternness that, that image has,” Solange said to Beyoncé in a phone conversation between the two for Interview Magazine. The clips in her hair appeared to be an homage to Black girlhood, her mother’s career in hair salons and the painstaking task of styling your hair daily.

13. Childish Gambino — Awaken, My Love!

The artwork for “Awaken, My Love!” is in reverence to the cover for Funkadelic’s 1971 album, Maggot Brain. Shot by creative director Ibra Ake, the artwork for Childish Gambino’s third studio album features model Giannina Oteto in a headdress designed by Laura Wass of WXYZ Jewelry. Oteto’s mouth is agape and her eyes roll back as if she’s experiencing a spiritual event. The blue tones make this cover even better, ensuring that its viewers see every detail.

14. Michael Jackson — Thriller

The cover for Thriller displayed Michael Jackson in a white suit that belonged to the shot’s photographer, Dick Zimmerman. Unbeknownst to fans, just past M.J.’s sleeve, a 6-week-old tiger cub sat on top of his leg. The 2001 special edition of Thriller revealed the cub’s presence with a shot of Jackson hugging it. Zimmerman wrote that the icon kept the tiger away from his face during the photos for fear of getting clawed.

15. Marvin Gaye — I Want You

You’ve probably seen Ernie Barnes’ “The Sugar Shack” painting used as the cover of Marvin Gaye’s I Want You; it is pretty famous and sold for $15.3 million in 2022. The 1976 work portrays an intoxicating dance scene in a Black club with partygoers stretched out and enjoying the moment. It’s considered one of the most culturally important artworks in history and was also in an episode of the sitcom “Good Times.”

16. Prince — Purple Rain

Purple Rain is indisputably one of Prince’s most popular songs and albums. It depicts the artist in an enchanting scene, wearing an embellished purple suit and straddling a customized 1981 Hondamatic motorcycle. As he gazes at the camera, smoke blows beneath his ride. Though it looks like an alley, this photo was reportedly shot on a Warner Bros. California studio backlot that was designed to look like a New York apartment complex.

17. Erykah Badu — Baduizm

Baduizm’s cover showed Erykah Badu in bohemian fashion, holding her snake scarf-wrapped head in what seemed like anguish or disorientation. This album gave us some of the best gems of her career, including “On & On” and “Next Lifetime.”