(Originally published on The Lancer).
One of my favorite songs this month has been “Droppin Jewels” off Young Thug’s new album, Punk. But what’s a good album without a great album cover? The cover, which features two side profiles of Thug facing each other, was inspired by Octavio Ocampo’s painting, Forever Always. This iconic surrealist piece from 1989 depicts a couple seeing themselves both simultaneously young and old, with the “young” figures artfully hidden within the “old” faces. Punk features this same symbolism, along with the beautiful pink imagery that Thug has been consistently hinting at throughout his album rollout, including his NPR Tiny Desk concert and his Rolling Stone feature.
After seeing the original painting, I was able to appreciate the Punk cover even more. I thought about how brilliant it is that artists are bringing the past back to the mainstream through pop culture; whether it be through repeated motifs in photography, purposeful sampling in music, and connections across cultures, there are countless examples of artists bringing history from the past back to life.
Musicians have consistently pulled inspiration from other genres of art. We see a clear example of this in the 1996 photograph of The Notorious B.I.G, featuring Biggie sporting a large cigar with a black bird perched atop it. This is a recreation of a 1962 photograph of famous film director Alfred Hitchcock doing the exact same thing. This photograph is later referenced in Biggie’s 2005 song “Beef,” where he calls himself the “rap Alfred Hitchcock,” citing his masterful, detail-oriented storytelling skills.
Modern hip-hop has also been monumental in keeping jazz alive in pop culture. Madlib, Freddie Gibbs, and Kanye West are all great examples of musicians who regularly sample jazz in their work. When listening to Armani Caesar’s “Mani Moves Freestyle,” I was motivated to find the sample, which turned out to be the jazz classic “Searching” by Roy Ayers. Since then, I have explored Roy Ayers’s music further, demonstrating how the work of newer artists can keep youth engaged in the older roots and history of their musical inspiration.
Sampling not only makes connections across generations, but can also link cultures together. One of my favorite examples is the “Exposing Me” beat popularized by various Chicago and Brooklyn drill rappers in 2019. This beat samples “Sanam Re,” a Bollywood song from 2016 featuring popular singer Arjit Singh. The beat was later transposed up and used in the song “Whoopty,” which has amassed over 486 million streams on Spotify after blowing up on TikTok. Other hip-hop artists like BROCKHAMPTON have also sampled Indian music in their songs. Being of Indian descent myself, it’s honestly really cool seeing my homeland culture becoming a part of the American mainstream.
Musical artists, including Drake and Billie Eilish, have also used fashion to showcase global cultures. They collaborated with Takashi Murakami, a famous designer who has done monumental work to bring his Japanese culture to the streetwear mainstream. The popular rainbow flower motif that he is most known for was inspired by Murakami’s early studies of Nihonga, a traditional Japanese-style painting: specifically “setsugetsuka” (snow, moon, flowers). Murakami used his innocent, smiling flower design to express the emotions of Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombing victims. The design has been featured in collaborations with the aforementioned artists, as well as Virgil Abloh, Louis Vuitton, and Supreme.
Inspired by the connections I’ve seen other artists make across history, time, and culture, I’ve found a way to incorporate timeless connections into my own art. My latest project is called the “Icarus” sweatshirt—drawn in the style of Pharell William’s 2006 album In My Mind. In ancient Greek mythology, Icarus flies too close to the sun, melting the wax on his wings and causing him to fall to his death. This got me thinking— what if Icarus had technology? What if Icarus had an airplane, or even a parachute? I metaphorized technology with the addition of a seatbelt for Icarus on the back of the sweatshirt. A circular pocket at the front represents the Sun he would have flown into, with the belts, representing technology, holding the Sun down so it cannot harm him.
What I’ve learned from studying the iconic artists of the past and the present is that “design” will always be about rearranging existing puzzle pieces into something new. What we as artists take as inspiration will always reappear in our work as we create and innovate the future.
Art by Matthew Tran.