Hip-hop and comic books have long coincided in pop culture. Both have characters who conceal their identities with monikers, sport superhuman abilities (on the mic or otherwise), and, of course, result in some truly killer artwork. It’s a perfect well of iconography to pull from, so it’s no surprise that rappers and producers have taken direct influence from the pages of DC, Marvel, and anywhere else for decades. Marvel editor-in-chief Axel Alonso, says comics and hip hop “share a common narrative: they’re all about the underdogs struggling, striving and persevering against overwhelming odds.”
In an effort to codify this artistic kinship, Alonso and the studio have officially meshed the two worlds into one. Currently in the midst of its second wave, Marvel has re-imagined over 80 heroes with their own classic hip-hop album covers. “It’s about two creative art forms shouting out to each other,” Alonso told Fuse, “Hip hop is the backbeat for any number of people who are writing, drawing, and editing these comic books.” In addition to the vital role that music will play in the Luke Cage series, it’s safe to say Marvel is returning the favor tenfold.
Here are Screen Rant’s 15 Best Marvel Hip Hop Variant Album Covers.
15. Luke Cage – Hard
For Luke Cage showrunner Cheo Hodari Coker, the addition of hip hop elements was a no-brainer. The unbreakable brawler lent himself perfectly to the aura of rap culture, from his street-styled Carhartt and Timberlands to sharing the genre’s hometown: New York City. Coker also said that each of the Cage episodes would be titled after tracks from famed duo Gang Starr, while cameos from Raphael Saadiq, Faith Evans, and Method Man would further nail down the show’s street cred.
Given that Cage is an East Coast cat, and tracks from luminaries like Nas (“Made You Look”) and Ol’ Dirty Bastard (“Shimmy Shimmy Ya”) have popped up in the first two trailers, it seemed only fitting his Marvel cover be modeled after another NYC icon: LL Cool J. Perched atop a car to emulate LL’s 1987 album Bigger And Deffer, Cage sports his vintage attire while the word Bad becomes a far more menacing Hard. The cherry on top of artist Marco D’Alfonso’s cover, however, is the fact that Cage is bending the metal fence under his vice grip– a feat that even LL couldn’t match in his Kangol heyday.
14. Black Widow – Black Widow
Missy Elliott is not to be trifled with. From her earliest days in the group Sista to writing songs for Aaliyah, the rubber-mouthed MC has been in step with her male peers since day one. With that in mind, it’s obvious why Black Widow was selected to assume Missy’s mantle of Supa Dupa Fly. The 1997 album was a breakthrough for Elliott, as warped samples and outlandish music videos made it impossible to pin her musical identity down. Tracks like “The Rain” and “Friendly Skies” had little in common besides a laid-back sheen and high quality– and the ability to adapt, of course, which has always been one of Widow’s strengths.
As a S.H.I.E.L.D. agent, Widow, born Natasha Romanova (or Romanoff), can manipulate and dupe nearly any of her peers regardless of strength or physical limitations. Even then, Widow couldn’t look more relaxed in Phil Noto’s cover art, and the titular fly in Supa Dupa has been replaced, fittingly, with a black widow spider. If we had to guess a favorite track for the constantly on-call crime fighter, we’d say “Beep Me 911.”
13. Deadpool – Psycho
Deadpool has been a particular favorite of the Marvel Variant Series. He’s been Ill with an homage to Bun B’s Trill (2005) album, and turned Pimp C’s The Naked Soul of Sweet Jones (2010) into The Deep Pockets of Wade Wilson. All UGK antics aside, however, the Merc with a Mouth cracks this list with a brilliant take on Wale’s 2009 debut Attention Deficit. The original cover, depicting a kid in front of a TV-ridden store, captures the scattered, hi-definition insanity that comes with its titular affliction. For Deadpool, of course, the revised cover takes on a deeper, decidedly less stable context.
Rocking headphones and a pack that swaps pens and pencils for grenades and rifles, Wade (as he’s credited) is overloaded with screens of his own masked image. The word Psycho fills out the frame, as artist Kaare Andrews blends the cynicism and naiveté that makes this anti-hero tick. Whether Deadpool would dig Wale’s entire album remains to be seen, but he’d probably vibe to “Chillin” during a workout or the next time he’s coloring.
12. Wolverine – Old Man Logan
Old Man Logan (2008-09) shoots readers fifty years into a future where villains have taken over the United States. Heroes have been long-erased, while the few that remain, like Logan, live in hiding with their families. Money is scarce, landlords are brutal, and the only choice Logan gets thrown his way is of the illegal variety– the downside of repressing his Wolverine persona. The storyline is a bleak account of a society gone savage, and author Mark Millar’s vision serves as the comic book equivalent to Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven (1992).
Fittingly, the salty aggressor also gets saddled with one of rap’s most notorious verbal brawlers: Ice Cube. The former N.W.A. rapper, a stint comparable to Wolverine and his X-Men days, went right for the throat with Death Certificate (1991)– an album that attacked the desperate measures one must take to survive in the ghetto. In Tim Bradstreet’s Marvel re-imagining, Logan stands above a toe-tagged corpse. However, the corpse is not Uncle Sam, as is the case with Cube’s cover, but his own, as he embraces the savagery of Wolverine and never looks back.
11. Spider-Man – Miles
Reaction may have been mixed in 2011, but Miles Morales has proven to be a success among modern Marvel fans. The Brooklyn native came from a wildly varied background than his predecessor, with an African-American father, a Puerto Rican mother, and an initial ambivalence towards crime fighting. In the wake of Peter Parker’s death, however, Morales answered the call and took over the Spider-Man mantle for the studio’s Ultimate Marvel imprint. This webslinger distinction was furthered by writer Brian Michael Bendis, who gave Morales a criminal lineage that spawned from his jailbird uncle Aaron.
The same internal struggles are front-and-center on Nas’ 1994 masterpiece Illmatic. Raised across the bridge in Queens, the MC born Nasir Jones was an old soul in teen form; spitting his experiences through intimate details and multi-syllabic displays. Like Morales, Nas came from a childhood of shady role models, and the disillusion that peppers tracks like “One Love” and “Memory Lane” splashes both album covers with the authenticity of a bumpy subway ride. Marvel’s interpretation of Illmatic was created by Adi Granov.
10. Ant-Man – The Astonishing A.N.T.
Even before his untimely demise, The Notorious B.I.G. was larger than life. From record sales and critical acclaim to hits like “Juicy” and “Big Poppa”, the Brooklyn baritone was a Swiss Army MC– able to destroy any opponent (or beat) in his path. This is a skillset, funnily enough, that Biggie shares with his appointed Marvel counterpart, Ant-Man. The sizable superhero may be a polar opposite in name, but his unique abilities enable him to take on foes towering in presence and minuscule in molecules. And like Biggie, Ant-Man, AKA Scott Lang, rose to prominence after a lengthy criminal career.
Biggie’s debut Ready to Die (1994) was a startling account of such a lifestyle, while a naive, afro-ed infant sat iconically in the center of the cover art. In Mark Brooks’ Marvel version, of course, the small B.I.G. is transformed into an Ant-Man with the tongue-in-cheek title Ready to Shrink perched beneath him. Complete with ‘The Astonishing A.N.T.’ moniker to drive things home, this witty remake works on so many levels that we hope to get a Life After Pym follow-up sooner than later.
9. A-Force – Straight Outta Comics
Writers Marguerite Bennett and G. Willow Wilson wanted to create a team that emphasized Marvel’s heroines, with Wilson explaining it would be a chance “to put people who would normally have no reason to interact with each other on one team.” This brainstorming ultimately led to the formation of A-Force in 2015, a team made up of all female Avengers members. Led by She-Hulk, the lineup of Dazzler, Medusa, Nico Minoru, and Singularity were well received by the public, as Greg McElhatton of Comic Book Resources praised Marvel for “taking a concept that could have simply been dashed off and then ignored and turning it into a book that I’d cheerfully read every month.”
For their variant cover, these tough ladies were bestowed with the artwork of rap posse N.W.A. The abrasive ’80s group became icons through their debut release Straight Outta Compton (1988), which defined pop culture with anthems like “Gangsta Gangsta” and “F— tha Police.” A-Force is way less controversial in their practice, but their action-packed exploits make Adam Hughes’s slick recreation another crossover success. Although, Straight Outta Arcadia may have been more fitting.
8. The Avengers – The Avengers
We can’t talk Marvel without mentioning The Avengers. The megateam has been one of the studio’s defining crews for decades, whether it be the original lineup seen on film or the substitution of Jane Foster’s Thor and Miles Morales’ Spider-Man (both seen above). There’s a lot of heroes to keep in mind, but revolving membership has done little to diminish the unity that The Avengers have maintained in the worst situations. And when it comes to groups who’ve spent decades of prolonged excellence, few in hip hop compare to The Roots.
Founded by rapper Black Thought and drummer Questlove, the band struck it big with 1996’s Illadelph Halflife and have expanded genre boundaries ever since. The Roots also share a high turnover percentage with The Avengers, while their jazzy, chic aesthetic brings a uniformity typically reserved for comic books and cartoons. As for Earth’s Mightiest Heroes, this detailed cover looks thoroughly chilled against the orange skyline. Artist Jim Cheung even slips in a massive “A” logo behind the team, to further a fish-eyed view that screams “Artsy” in equal volume with “Avengers.”
7. Black Panther – T’Challa
Love him or hate him, Jay-Z is a hip hop institution. The hustler-turned-rapper has spent twenty years ruling the charts as a pop star, and New York City as its self-appointed king. Black Panther, Marvel’s answer to Jay-Z, matches his East Coast counterpart and then some. While it’s taken nearly half a century to get Black Panther on the big screen, his being the first prominent superhero of color has never gone forgotten– nor has his trumping lineage as the literal King of Wakanda. Jay’s supposed swan song The Black Album (2003) draws plenty of parallels between the two: titans of their territory, suitors of equally famous women (Beyoncé, Storm), and men who thoroughly enjoy dark colors.
The T’Challa variant cover is marvelously (pun intended) brought to life by artist Brian Stelfreeze Doe, who proceeds to replace Jay’s lower-than-low baseball cap with Panther’s signature mask. Even more exciting on second look is the silhouetted image of panther stripes behind him; furthering the cultural intrigue sure to be at the heart of his 2018 solo film. To paraphrase Jay, what more can we say?
6. Extraordinary X-Men – Extraordinary X-Men
In the wake of Marvel’s Secret Wars, X-Men have taken a backseat to the newly popularized Inhumans. Nevertheless, the world’s most-discriminated bunch have reunited with Extraordinary X-Men, a bleak tale that deals with mutant extinction and the ragtag members remaining who will save the day. Penned by Brian Michael Bendis, Extraordinary brings together Storm, Colossus, Nightcrawler, and Old Man Logan amidst other familiar faces like Iceman and Magik.
The album counterpart for Extraordinary isn’t so much a perfect fit as it is a fascinating counterpoint. By taking an X-Men team that’s more cynical than their Uncanny iteration, and applying it to the colorful canvas of De La Soul’s 3 Feet High and Rising (1989), artist Sanford Greene points out that the message of both aren’t dissimilar. Most of De La Soul’s landmark record deals with the desire for peace and harmony– two goals their mutant peers can certainly get behind. Hippie hip hop may not be an X-Men style, but who hears “Me, Myself, And I” without wanting to bust out the boombox and call for a truce?
5. Captain America & Falcon – Welcome To Pleasant Hill
For Grammy winning duo OutKast, their 2000 album Stankonia was as much a political statement as it was a musical one. By melding funk, rock, and hip hop, Big Boi and André 3000 created their own futuristic city– one by which, as the latter lyricist explained, “you can open yourself up and be free to express anything.” It was a subversive concept all around, but most striking was the album cover, which saw the rappers posed in front of a black-and-white flag with inverted stars. For these ATLiens, The American Dream was in dire need of a do-over.
The idyllic notion is chillingly echoed in Andrew Robinson’s re-imagining of Welcome To Pleasant Hill. Titled after the prison that brainwashes its inmates and drops them in a ruse of suburban bliss, it equals its celebrated influence in social critique. And when it comes to political unrest, there’s no better pair in the hero business than Captain America and Falcon. Now if only we could get an animated adaptation set to “B.O.B.”
4. Kamala Khan – The Education of Kamala Khan
Kamala Khan was an anomaly when she debuted in 2013. As the first Muslim character to headline her own superhero series, the self-appointed Ms. Marvel broke new ground and established an immediate fanbase thanks to her quirks and fresh characterization. Growing up in post-9/11 New Jersey, Khan provided a unique female voice in a predominantly male genre– an experience echoed by real life rapper-singer Lauryn Hill. A fellow New Jersey native, Hill rose to fame during her tenure with the Fugees before hitting it big with her 1998 solo debut The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill.
Miseducation preached equality, acceptance, and self-love while still finding time to net five Grammys and massive commercial success. Taking these feats into account, it seems probable that Khan and her award winning co-creator Sana Amanat would be big time Hill fans– if they aren’t already. Jenny Frison’s artwork is subtle in its changes, but the biggest difference, the altering of Miseducation to Education, speaks to where this bright young hero is headed.
3. Guardians of the Galaxy – Guardians of the Galaxy
Whether in the comics or the smash 2014 film, Guardians of the Galaxy are not the typical superhero team. They’ve got talking animals and trees in their entourage, plus a team leader who still likes to rock his walkman from the 1980s– in short, they’re Marvel eccentrics. Which is exactly why this album cover fits so perfectly within the Guardians oeuvre. The victims this time around are The Pharcyde, a group who thwarted West Coast gangsta rap in the ’90s (or in this case, typical superheroes) for a playful, self-lacerating detour.
In place of guns and drugs, rappers Slimkid3, Fatlip, Bootie Brown, and Imani spun tales about failed love (“Passin’ Me By”), juvenile jokes (“Ya Mama”), and legal concerns (“Officer”) with salivating excitement. Shawn Crystal’s take on the Bizarre Ride II (1992) cover is a perfect hybrid of this silliness with spaced out detail that subs roller coasters for asteroids! While Rocket Raccoon’s Run The Jewels cover is also a sight to behold, there’s little that can be done to dethrone this galactic gem.
2. Iron Man – Invincible
Given that Wu-Tang Clan’s Ghostface Killah frequently assumes the moniker Tony Stark, we would’ve loved to draw upon one of the group’s albums (especially the spectacular War Machine cover) for the list. That being said, Brian Stelfreeze’s brilliant mash-up of Iron Man and 50 Cent was simply too good to pass up. Both underwent harrowing ordeals– Iron Man with shrapnel and 50 Cent with gunshots– to not only survive, but thoroughly demolish the competition in their wake. All the while, the injuries they sustained only made them stronger in the public eye, as can be seen by the shattered glass and undamaged figures that appear on both covers.
To further the parallels, 50’s album Get Rich or Die Tryin’ (2003) was a game changer for the genre– the same braggadocious praise that could be applied to 2008’s franchise starter Iron Man. Few pop culture fixtures enjoy the limelight more than these two, and we can easily imagine Tony Stark riding around with “Like My Style” ruminating through the speakers. Invincible indeed.
1. Doctor Strange – The Mystic
Dr. Dre’s The Chronic (1992) is a seminal piece of hip hop history. On the album that brought G-Funk to the masses, the rapper-producer created a canvas of squealing synths, chopped samples, and California mythos. Even today, after two albums, two decades, and a film adaptation (Straight Outta Compton), Dre remains a sonic sorcerer for the likes of Eminem, The Game, and Kendrick Lamar. When it came time to select a hero to match the former N.W.A. beatmaker, Marvel didn’t have to look much further than fellow physician Stephen Strange. Juan Doe’s art is the perfect complement to this comparison.
The surgeon-turned-sorcerer is an anomaly in the Marvel universe. Whereas other heroes received their powers through freak accidents or mutation, Strange obtained his through spiritual ascendance and Eastern philosophy. By doing so, the good Doctor remains a singular icon in the studio’s history– much in the way that Dre is to rap. To further the parallel, Strange also has a little film adaptation set for release this month. His favorite Dr. Dre track? We’re going to guess he’d like “High Powered” because it sounds like a psychedelic gangsta trip.