Cover art is more than an album’s visual depiction. In many cases, cover art takes on its own mythos. And J. Cole’s album artwork tells as much of a story as his music does. In many ways, Cole’s cover art has mirrors his evolution as an artist over the course of his decade-long career.
From his pivotal 2009 mixtape The Warm Up, shot by Chad Griffith—that was meant to be taken indoors until a blizzard locked them out which resulted in the now-iconic shot of Cole standing in the snow cradling a basketball—to Cole simply sitting on the roof of his childhood home for the cover of 2014 Forest Hills Drive, every album cover that comes from the Dreamville head honcho has brought fans deeper into his life, music, and artistic journey. For Dreamville’s VP of Creative Services, Felton Brown, this is a history he also had a large hand in writing.
Brown initially met J. Cole after he interviewed him about his debut mixtape, The Come Up, for his rap blog Pardon Me Duke back in the mid-2000s. From there, Brown began working with Cole and Dreamville on the side while still doing freelance graphic design and advertising gigs out of a WeWork-type space owned by Director X. Brown has captured every pivotal moment of J. Cole’s career. Whether it was capturing the scrappy rookie on his 2010 mixtape Friday Night Lights, showing the fully realized superstar sitting amongst the clouds on 2014 Forest Hills Drive, or depicting the retrospective father looking to the future on 4 Your Eyez Only. And now Cole is a seasoned veteran preparing for what might be his last dance on The Off-Season.
Through his hard work and consistency, Brown has become a part of the Dreamville family and now sits as VP of Creative Services, overseeing the ideation and creation of concert set designs, festival themes, and album covers for several members of the label’s roster.
With The Off-Season out now, Felton Brown gave Complex the full story on how the cover art came together, what it symbolizes, and how it reflects the album and where J. Cole is in life right now.
Dreamville has grown a lot over the past year, launching Dreamville Studios and having its own content house. What has it been like watching the imprint grow as a label and company?
I’ve been on the journey with Cole from when he was in college, so there was always a thought that the team would eventually expand and grow into all these things. And I think one thing that I’ve always seen is that this [Dreamville] could go as big as Cole could go, and I always thought he was great as an artist. It’s only been the last few years where we’ve had time to settle back and forth. Whether it’s between tours or between COVID, we’ve had time to put things to the side and be like, “What does the company look like beyond music and beyond the J. Cole trajectory. What does it look like for all the artist’s trajectories, and what does Dreamville look like as a whole company for everyone?” And now it’s getting to that place from the original thought of, “Yo, it could be this big. It could be this kind of company.” So, we’ve always known that eventually there would be other ceilings to break, but now to see it happen in real pieces, real meetings, new avenues such as The Messenger podcast, and tons of meetings that we’ve taken for things that haven’t happened yet, now it’s becoming more real than just ideas.
So from your perspective as VP of Creative Services, how have you seen your job expand with the company?
I’ve always been in a place where I’ve worn many hats, but now my space is to figure out the spots that I can’t fill and who do we bring in to collaborate on those thoughts. So the goal right now for me is to figure out what it looks like to expand and connect with other creators and fill the gaps from a creative aspect of who we can bring in to facilitate. As much as I’m a multi-disciplined artist, there are things I don’t do, so it’s all about bringing in the right people in the right places for collaboration.
The day-to-day is talking to everybody in each vertical and figuring out, like, what is it that I can do or what is that I can find to fix a problem. So if I’m working with Raeana [Roberson] helping the apparel team, or Derrick [Okolie] and Matty [Robinson], or my daily conversations with Candace [Rodney] and Damian [Scott], it’s always like, “What’s the connection, what’s the missing pieces,” and fill it in.
How has your relationship with J. Cole evolved since you first met?
Our relationship was initially all personal, all hip-hop, talking about music every day because we’re both fans of hip-hop in an intense way. I’d say now, we’re even deeper friends because we’ve had so many years together as friends seeing each other’s ups and downs. Our relationship as friends has become more solid, just over the time we’ve spent together. The only difference is now, on the day-to-day he’s still someone I work for, and we have deadlines and expectations of solidifying and conquering things. So, at the end of the day, as much as we’re friends, my No. 1 thing is for him to be satisfied as a client when we work on projects. I always want Cole to be happy with whatever we’re working on, and if it can’t be me, as the Head of Creative Services, I’ll bring in someone that will be able to execute.
Was Friday Night Lights the first album cover you ever made?
Nah, I did album covers for people in the hood. As a graphic designer, you get in where you fit in, so I did a lot of artwork on my come up but I would say Friday Night Lights was my first important cover. And then 2014 Forest Hills Drive was my first one on a shelf. Those were my first real ones in the space of hip-hop where it was an important piece.
You’ve been responsible for a lot of classic Cole covers like 2014 Forest Hills Drive. Taking on The Off-Season now, did you feel any added pressure to deliver on the art since it’s Cole’s first album in three years?
I think the only pressure was surrounding us getting it done. We did a really deep exploration of getting this artwork done. There were a few months of trying a lot of different things, so the pressure was really when the date was getting more solidified and we weren’t there yet. We finally secured it in the fourth quarter, so there was a lot of pressure.
Were there any other options for the cover that you almost used?
There was another cover that paid homage to earlier works of his, and the only reason we didn’t use it was because the image was too much of a timestamp and people would just have probably looked at The Off-Season from the perspective of the homage. That’s why we needed something new and took a different route.
It’s interesting that it came down to the wire like that.
We usually work that way, though. The thing about us, we’re just fourth-quarter soldiers. I don’t know why. It’s not something for the faint of heart, but we work well under pressure. It’s not the best practice, but we’re tested for and we’ve done it many times. Like the things that you see on the forefront that look so seamless takes a strong team of a lot of people in the back that are working 24 hours to execute it perfectly.
We finished the album artwork two weeks before we announced it. We flew down to [North] Caroline and went through a few different renditions of creative and it got down to where the album was creatively, sonically, and the overall tone. We wanted something that was a little more encompassing of the whole feel of the album, so because of that, we had to go back [to North Carolina] again. Basically, Ib [Hamad] had an idea that he wanted me to flesh out, and usually that process—the vetting, figuring out who we’re going to use—takes some time, but because we didn’t have any time I knew I had to lean on things that I trust. We can’t fly him [J. Cole] somewhere to shoot it, so we’re going to shoot close to home. We leaned inwards.
We reached out to Scott [Lazer], and he recommended a production team that we got, and I reached out to a close friend of mine who is an incredible photographer that I’ve worked with in my years in advertising named Justin Francis. He’s an incredible photographer, director, and cinematographer. I was just like, “Look, it’s fourth quarter, I need someone who’s super multi-disciplinary like me and who’s very agile on his feet,” and we talked through the whole night about the project and idea, put together a crazy presentation, and sent it to Cole and Ib. I wanted to meet and talk about it on the phone, but Cole was like, “Nah, that looks good. Let’s just get to it,” which was great because usually he’d want to talk about it. But I’m thinking, since he’s finishing recording it anyway, he looked at the game plan and saw it was solid, and he just gave me the blessing. We hit the ground running, Justin brought out this $50,000 camera, we got the pyrotechnic guys and got going.
It looks like this cover art pays homage to Cole’s previous basketball-themed covers like The Warm Up and Friday Night Lights. Were you trying to make that connection to those previous covers here?
I think that’s where the initial idea for the brief came from. It was a way to encompass the mixtape series, even though they’re all pretty much albums. Being it’s his third installment, usually third times the charm and it was a way to bring that era not necessarily a close, but from talking to Cole about what he wants, and even in the documentary, the ambition of packing the lyricism, I think he wanted to do that again. He hasn’t gone mixtape-y in a long time. The last mixtape was Friday Night Lights. Everything else was concept albums.
So he said, this time around, he’s going to push his pen as hard as he can, and what a beautiful way to celebrate that by burning down the hoop. Which was crazy when it all came together because, when you think about it, The Warm Up started with snow, Friday Night Lights was basketball, and now you burn it down. Even if you think about his first video, “Simba” went through the seasons. It started in the summer and went through to winter in that first video. Cole is always thinking double-time. That’s one thing about him, all of that stuff is purposeful, like you see today with SLAM. That tweet that they put out, “Jordan was like Jesus, Slam was the bible.” He wrote that like a decade ago. As crazy as it sounds, it’s all serendipitous the way it worked out.
Anyways, we get down there to shoot and the day we were supposed to shoot, it pours the entire day. So we have to extend to the next day and reach out to production to see if we could get the permit extended. Our pyrotechnic guy was like, “I can shoot in the rain, doesn’t matter,” and I’m like, “Yeah, that’s fine but if Cole’s not in the mood to shoot while it’s pouring on him we might not get what we need out of him for the cover.” So that night, we went and did some photos at his gym and just had a good time just talking about the process, and then the next day we shot it and it was beautiful outside and he was super happy with the shoot. It was great because I’m a nervous wreck when it comes to productions. The No. 1 thing I want whether I was in advertising or whatever is while we’re on set, if we have a Capture One set up, if the client sees a couple things and they’re happy then I get a little easier because I can start to get a little looser with how I’m thinking. So the second he was comfortable, I was extremely comfortable.
And with the burning hoop specifically, Cole eluded to the fire he once felt reignited in his Players Tribune essay. Does the hoop on fire represent his reignited passion for rap, or does it reflect the end of the basketball-themed cover continuity now that the hoop is burned to ashes?
I mean, what do you think?
I think it’s both.
I don’t think that’s far-fetched, but I also think it’s open to interpretation because Cole has kind of let everyone know where he is in his journey. He’s laid it out through his music for a long time, so he doesn’t really leave too much mystery as to where he is. Symbolically, and especially considering where he is right now as an artist, that image is basically saying everything that it needs to say. I think this project will prove that no one currently pushes it as far as he has lyrically in the genre right now.
Was the cover shot at a specific basketball court?
No, we built that whole thing. We went scouting for the whole weekend, and it was hard because at first we didn’t see any courts that made sense. Then we found this tech company that had a huge parking lot, and we literally made our own court. We built a floor panel. We made, like, five hoops that we were going to burn and we shot it in the night under the sky. It’s not a real court, we just made everything.
You mentioned that because of the time constraints, it was a quicker process to finalize this idea. How hands-on is Cole usually when it comes to his covers?
He’s all in the project. During the photo shoot, we had a Capture One turned around at him so he could see himself while we were working. He’s also in the conversations. As we’re doing the shoot, he’s very conscious of how much fire is behind him, if there’s too much smoke, and things like that. Cole is very involved with his projects. Most of the time when I create I think of myself as a surrogate, so when I’m working on something with someone it’s really not mine. It’s really his, so during the time he has to be as involved as I am, if not more when it comes to how we’re looking at getting this thing done.
How has the process of making the cover for The Off-Season differed from getting other covers together like KOD and 4 Your Eyez Only?
I’d say the difference is with this one I had more space to grab tools in terms of people. I feel like, with 4 Your Eyez Only, we were already shooting a documentary so we were already capturing so much for that so it all came together. I think this one led with an idea and then we brought it together. With KOD, Cole already had this idea of the concept of the album and “King Overdose” that was laid out in his head before.
Many of Cole’s albums that you worked on had accompanying art that visually continued the story of the cover, like the added pictures connected to 2014 Forest Hills Drive. What kind of art can we expect to coincide with The Off-Season?
I think the imagery you’ll see with this isn’t like a life story like KOD or 4 Your Eyez Only. Think of this more of what you saw with The Warm Up. What you’re going to get is the agility, the determination, the athleticism of him as an artist. The imagery just personifies him as a person and as a symbol for that music. It’s not like we’re going to take you down a sports memorabilia space. I think his relationship with basketball here is more of a representation of his training and his execution as an artist.
Looking ahead, have you roadmapped what you want to do creatively with the next two projects in “The Fall Off Era,” It’s a Boy and The Fall Off?
I think we’re just doing homework right now. We’re starting initial conversations on everything now, but the ink hasn’t dried on anything. All I do every day is study different creative ways to figure out how we can make connections for the next steps. It’s a lot of prepping. Right now, we’re trying to enjoy what’s to come for The Off-Season, but it’s early enough for those projects where we haven’t really landed on anything. Once the music starts forming, then we’ll start getting into that. We’re just going to enjoy The Off-Season. I think it’s going to be an interesting summer.
Is Dreamville Fest happening?
Dreamville Fest is coming back, we just can’t do it yet. Our plan was coming back next year, now everyone is doing things in the fall, but we’re coming back in 2022, absolutely. We just want people to be safe, but we’re probably coming back in 2022, the same time we did it in 2019.
What was your favorite cover art to make for Dreamville?
That’s tough. I can give you a top three and why. No. 1 would be 2014 Forest Hills Drive because it was the first time I got to go into a record store and buy my own artwork. When Cole drops a physical in stores, even though you can’t get them in stores anymore, I buy ten copies, so Forest Hills Drive was one for me because I got ten copies and gave them to my friends. No. 2 would be Revenge of the Dreamers 3 because that was a project I got to work on with a bunch of my friends and just all the scrambling at the last minute and coming up with the vision of it, that was incredible. I got to work on it with a couple friends and now they got hip-hop plaques too. And I’d say three would be The Off-Season because honestly, especially where I’m at now, I thought I’d be working on other business with Dreamville, but we got to get back into the grit one more time, and I got to work on it with one of my closest friends Justin Francis.