Pen & Pixel
Pen & Pixel is a Houston, Texas-based graphics design firm that specializes in musical album covers, especially for gangsta rap artists in the Southern US. For a long time it was the house design firm for the famous No Limit Records label.
Pen & Pixel is famous for its identifiable design vernacular of gaudy 3D- and effects-laden text like album titles and rapper stage names which are often "studded" with diamonds or made to look like marble through heavily layered Photoshop-filtered graphics. These typically overlay a scene depicting the album artist ostentatiously surrounded by women, liquor, gold- and diamond-coated material effects, and other signifiers of a gangster lifestyle.
The company's CD cover art usually includes paraphernalia associated with wealth like luxury cars, helicopters, candlesticks, dollar bills, and women. Such displays often contrast said wealth against the woes of poverty amin New Orleans and the American south. Beyond materialism, common themes discussed in the company's oeuvre include: death, violence, criminal guilt, manhood, persecution (especially by police), and urban paranoia.
The art criticism site PopMatters described the company's work for late 90s New Orleans record label No Limit as follows:
|“||Every pixel of eye space was packed with cut-and-paste hood rich mis-en-scene. Every theme discussed in the audio content, fear, persecution, compunction, mortality, was represented by clip art on the cover: say, a snarling dog on Skull Duggery’s These Wicked Streets; or an ominous crow perched on C-Murder’s Life or Death, hinting at the latter outcome. Above all, of course, the imagery dealt in bottomless, mellifluous wealth, as if even the lowly packaging department could afford to stud Master P’s stage name in diamonds, on every CD... They portrayed a No Limit paycheck, as a ticket to immortality, as if Mr. Serv-On, Sons of Funk, and the label’s other third-round draft picks didn’t just leave New Orleans’ uptown blight, they ascended from it and became platonic ideals. Usually, in hip-hop, newfound opulence signals liberation, but on the lifeless gaze of most No Limit rappers, it more closely resembled euthanasia.||”|
A Houston Press article tracing the origins of the term bling states,
|“||Chopper City in the Ghetto came out on Bryan "Baby" Williams and Ronald "Slim" Williams Cash Money label, and—as was almost always the case for a Cash Money release in those days—the cover was designed by Houston's own Pen & Pixel Graphics. Even before the word was in common usage, Pen & Pixel's covers defined bling: boxy letters that resembled gold studded with diamonds; tricked-out Rolls-Royces, Bentleys, and Lexuses; columned plantation-style mansions; platinum dollar signs; and jewelry-draped rappers smirking while talking on cell phones, often with scantily clad hotties looking on lustily. Pen & Pixel's covers created the necessity for a word to describe them, and bling is it.||”|
The firm's artwork came to define the visual style and, to a degree, the artistic direction of a segment of the Dirty South hip hop movement:
|“||Even the cover artwork of Comin' Out Hard, courtesy of Pen & Pixel Graphics, was influential, as the company would go on to design all of the bling-blinging No Limit and Cash Money albums of the late 1990s.||”|
Writing for the New York Times, Will Stephenson described Pen & Pixel's design as:
|“||The firm's weird, pixelated decadence conveyed fantasies of kitsch and capitalism taken to their illogical extremes.||”|
- 'Deadly Packaging: The Cover Art of No Limit Records by Drew Hinshaw, Popmatters.com 2007
- On da Lingo: Tracing Houston roots in three omnipresent hip-hop terms by John Nova Lomax, Houston Press 2004
- All Music Guide review of "Comin' Out Hard"
- Stephenson, Will Letter of Recommendation: Pen & Pixel New York Times. July 13, 2016