An examination of the renaissance-driven cover illustration for a modern rap marvel.
Throughout the years of constant exposure to new music, one becomes accustomed to the imagery and associated identity of a genre's inhabitants, all due in part to the album covers that serve as representation. Assuming a record's sound or thematic elements on cover alone is a practice that has existed for decades, mostly to those who scoured their local record store bins for premium finds. Every now and then, you'll come across a record that not only challenges the audiovisual standards of their counterparts, but pushes creative boundaries in an organic fashion. On September 25th, Dreamville, Interscope, and SinceThe80s welcomed a record that did just that. That record, titled Spilligion, came by way of creative powerhouse, SPILLAGE VILLAGE, and placed the multifaceted Fred Lozano on the helm for artistic duties.
SPILLAGE VILLAGE, which consists of J.I.D., EarthGang, 6LACK, Mereba, Hollywood JB, Jurdan Bryant, and Benji, is a supergroup defined, bursting at the seams with soundscapes galore. From neo soul to funk, R&B, and more, the amount of elements present throughout Spilligion make it a musical treasure to behold. One could loosely categorize it as a rap record, though the categorization itself would be doing the record a disservice. Compositions this unique require an art direction of the same nature, the likes of which today's subject, Fred Lozano, handled with precision.
We go Behind the Cover of Spilligion with art director Fred Lozano to discuss the making of the record's boundary pushing visuals:
It's been a couple months since the arrival of the masterpiece of 'Spilligion' and from the jump, it's evident that the album cover is a deviation from what one would consider a typical rap album cover, though the album in itself is far from your straightforward rap record, making this a perfect partnership. Visually, where did you look to take ‘Spilligion’?
Lozano: That’s kind of what we were aiming for at the start, to have something that you weren’t expecting while also staying aligned with the themes of the album. When I first started working on it, the original idea was to take an old 21 Savage cover that I did for a project that never came out and adapt it. The themes were similar, but we decided to run with a completely different direction. I wanted to pull from old renaissance paintings and stuff that you would normally associate with a religion, specifically to give it a bit of a heavy metal flair to it that touches on the duality of the imagery.
When you first look at the reaper on the cover, you automatically associate it with what the grim reaper is, but the actual purpose of it is the complete opposite. It symbolizes that even in death or in destruction, there can be peace and you can find a light afterward, which aligns with the themes of the album given everything going on in the world right now.
I like that you mention the significance of the reaper on the cover, which is a segue into my following point regarding how it plays on religious iconography. It’s immediately apparent and could frankly still be considered taboo in a sense, given the sacred nature of some of those figures. What drove that particular creative direction?
Lozano: When we first dropped the cover, there were a few reactions that took it as a bit too blasphemous. That wasn’t really what we were going for, but I got it. We just figured that once everyone heard the group’s actual message, it would make sense. We wanted to get those messages across, that although everything is fucked up right now, we need to pull together and unify to get through it.
I feel you. That’s the beauty of this cover, and covers in particular. You evoke an initial reaction from audiences who haven’t heard the material yet they create a predetermined assumption of what the music is going to be like based on the cover alone.
Lozano: Yeah, that’s something that I always try to get across. I don’t want to make a cover that you just look at and think ‘oh whatever’. I want to make images that stick with the listener, so it’s always dope when that comes across as the reaction.
Definitely. Spillage Village is really the epitome of community effort, bringing together artists and elements from across the spectrum for a seamless listening experience. You manage to capture their unity on not just the album cover, but merch, single release artwork, vinyl layouts, and more. How important is it for you as an artist to have a mutual trust with the group or musician when approaching a project?
Lozano: It makes it a lot easier, which is why I like working with all of the artists in the group. I’ve been working with J.I.D. and Earth Gang for a couple of years now and I did J.I.D.’s first two releases under Dreamville. Whenever I link up with somebody, it’s always a lot better when there’s mutual respect and not something where they’re having me do exactly what they have in mind. I like to bounce ideas off one another. It’s always great to collaborate with individuals that are flexible in that aspect.
Seeing as you’ve worked with J.I.D. on multiple occasions, including stage visuals for his most recent tour, it's obvious you’ve struck a good partnership. The cover of ‘Spilligion’ is of course a continuation of the group’s bear image. Assuming the group wanted this to remain constant, how did you aim to approach and interpret the bears in your own artistic manner?
Lozano: They’ve always used the bears. It’s like the symbol and logo of the group, so I wanted to be sure to incorporate that. I wasn’t really sure how to go about that initially because I didn’t want to just throw bears in there. It contrasts from what I wanted to do visually, so I came up with the idea of the masks. There’s an old photo from years ago when they first got together where they had the masks. It gave me this idea of taking the bears and turned them into the masks, which also provided some mystery. You can’t see their faces, so it could be anybody behind those masks, giving off that ‘V For Vendetta’ (2005) type of vibe.
In terms of the bear cubs, you would normally associate that with being cute and cuddly, so I wanted to flip that a bit. It’s still a cute and cuddly cub, but at the same time, it has a ferocious feature on its face. The group’s music is similar to that. They’re spitting bars and everything but at the same time, they don’t preach something that goes against what you would consider wholesome.
Each of the tracks finds each musician bringing something different to the table, providing a good mixture of flows and sound elements from across the spectrum to coalesce into one. Same goes for the cover, which is definitely the more elaborate of their covers. There’s a duality between the cute and cuddly bears amidst a heaven-like setting with grim reaper figure front and center. Where did you find common ground in terms of the creative approach to the cover?
Lozano: Honestly, this was one of easiest processes. We had that one idea off the jump, of taking that old image of the group wearing the masks and modify it. I had something in mind early on and sent the group a rough version, which ended up being the final one. The reaction was just, ‘This is the one.’ It was pretty simple. I usually do a couple of options, but they stuck with the first one I sent over.
So would you say that you were pretty much allowed free reign in terms of your interpretation of the concepts and themes?
Lozano: Yeah, pretty much. We went back and forth for slight changes, but they trust my vision. It all works out well.
Nothing more can you ask for as an artist. From the heavenly atmospheres to the contrasting bear masks and death as a central figure, there’s plenty of details to appreciate throughout the cover, which again make it all the more significant for those who picked up the vinyl.
Lozano: As soon as we put everything out, there was a flood of people asking for the vinyl. It’s dope when that happens.
It’s one of those that is meant for the physical format for sure. About how long did the cover itself take to complete?
Lozano: They sent over the first single, ‘End Of Days’, around March or February. That sort of gave me the vibe for what they were going for. We started around then and got the initial build of it done about a month later. Once we established the consistent imagery, then I moved onto the singles and branding. Over the months, I made some slight detail changes and messed around with some color. Conceptually, it took about a month or a month and a half.
Did the single artwork build into what became the final album cover or was it vice versa?
Lozano: The album cover was the first that we did. That’s kind of the process I like to do, establishing the final concept first just to have the idea down. That way, all the branding, singles, and stuff are consistent. It’s always something I look for in releases, consistency. I’ve always been attracted to when singles make it seem like there’s a creative outline behind a record release schedule. It wasn’t just all thrown together.
Definitely. Though it was never officially used, your cover design for Gucci Mane and Metro Boomin’s ‘Drop Top Wop’ bared resemblance to that of the Akira (1988) film poster, which you mentioned was inspiritation. For ‘Spilligion’, did you find yourself pulling from any external elements aside from the creative direction that the group was looking for?
Lozano: That’s definitely where I drew the inspiration from for that Gucci Mane. I wanted to recreate that movie poster in a way since it’s such a strong image. It always stuck with me.
As for ‘Spilligion’, I’d say images of the Virgin Mary, old renaissance paintings of heaven, and things like that. I definitely wanted it to have that feel to it. Heavy metal covers were also a big inspiration.
Neat that you mention that. A lot of artists are of course inspired by a particular painting, artist, or in some instances, a particular album cover. Mandatory question for us here at Heaviest of Art. Do you recall a time when an album cover captured your attention and made you pick up a record?
Lozano: There’s been a lot of those. I can’t think of any off the top of my head, but I’ve seen so many covers that will draw me into record. Actually, a recent one would be FKA Twigs’ ‘Magdalene’ (2019). I’ve seen her name around quite a lot but I never really got around to checking the music. That album cover drew me to diving into her discography, and I was glad I did.
Gotta love that feeling of discovery. ‘Spilligion’ itself has that striking imagery that would give off a varied interpretation to those who aren’t already familiar with the group’s work. As you mention, you had some people shunning the ‘blasphemous’ imagery.
Lozano: Yeah, those Instagram comments were expected to be honest. It kind of sucks that we lost that feeling of discovery through vinyl with the rise in streaming. At the same time, I feel that cover art is more important than ever because there are so many records available to everybody. It’s like a win-lose situation.
I'd agree. Aside from using art as a marketing perspective in shirts, billboards, etc., it’s also an identity. Though we ourselves began as metal centric, we’ve branched out to highlight the works of artists across the musical spectrum because again, art is universal and perceived in different ways by audiences of all kinds. I’ve actually just interviewed Harmonia Rosales, who illustrated Nas’ ‘King’s Disease’ (2020).
Lozano: It’s crazy that you mention the Nas album because I was actually going to recreate the original painting that was referenced in that cover. I’m so glad I didn’t because it would’ve come out around the same time frame. I would’ve had to switch everything over. I remember seeing that album cover and being glad I dropped the idea very quickly. It’s really good.
With that said, seeing the initial reaction your cover for ‘Spilligion’ had was not something that your typical rap album cover would get. It’s a deviation from what one would consider the norm for the genre’s album covers, which is normally a promo photo with some added elements. How important is it for you as an artist to not be limited in terms of bringing something new to the table for a genre that normally doesn’t see that kind of work?
Lozano: It’s pretty important. If it makes sense for the project to go with something familiar to audiences and the scene itself, then obviously that’s the route to take. For the most part, I always try to branch out and do something that is unexpected. I don’t like doing your usual rap album cover or what you’d normally associate with the genre. I’ve been doing this for years now and it has taken years to get to the point where I can consistently go about that approach with a musician that has that same mindset. It’s cool.
Good to hear that you’ve hit that mark. From The Weeknd to Kids See Ghosts and Drake, you’ve worked on a countless amount of notable projects yet ‘Spilligion’ can very well be one of your strongest yet with such a robust execution, especially given that you were involved with merch, various singles, and more. What makes this one different?
Lozano: Maybe it’s the artist mentality, but I usually look at my work after finishing and think ‘meh’. After a little bit, I start picking it apart in my head. For this one, I never had that. I was waiting for a couple months after finishing it for that thought to creep in, but I never had it come. It’s probably the product I’m most proud of. For who got the vinyl, you’re going to get something crazy.
Spilligion is available now via Dreamville, Interscope, and SinceThe80s. Get yours HERE.