By Simon Vozick-Levinson
Updated October 24, 2007 at 12:00 PM EDT

One thing we know for sure about Jay-Z is that the guy tends to work quickly. He famously cut 2001’s The Blueprint in something like two weeks, and his latest, American Gangster (out Nov. 6), came together this fall in about a month. In addition to rustling up some beats and laying down his rhymes in record time, that meant Jay needed to find an iconic cover image for the album — stat. He ended up turning to well-known fashion photographer Arthur Elgort, who told me all about the rush job when we spoke recently.

“His people called my agent: ‘We’d like to do it first thing on Wednesday morning,'” Elgort recalls. “This was only Monday evening! They said, ‘Can you think of something fast?’ I said, ‘Lemme take you on a walk down the street. I know a place.'” At eight o’clock that Wednesday morning, they gathered in a pub in NYC’s West Village, blacked out the windows, and rearranged the furniture to resemble a pivotal scene in the album’s big-screen namesake. The pub was all theirs until noon. The only problem? The big man himself was nowhere to be found. “The night before, Jay-Z went to his friend Kanye’s party that had something to do with an album that was doing very well, and they forgot to go home early,” explains Elgort. (“[Kanye and I] went to the GQ party first, then we went to a club after, and I couldn’t get up so early,” Jay-Z later told me with a chuckle.)

Jay finally turned up at around 10:25 AM — just in time. “Jay-Z comes out of the car, and the guy looks amazing,” Elgort says. “Very soft-spoken, handsome. He says, ‘Thanks for doing this for me fast, I’m in a little bit of a hurry.’ I said, ‘We gotta be in a hurry, because we’re out of here in an hour and a half!'” A few quick shots later, and they were done.

Good thing, too. “I can’t stay on photo shoots for so long,” Jay confided to me. “I’m not good with making the same face all the time.” But he digs the way this one turned out, going so far as to compare it to the cover of his 1996 debut, Reasonable Doubt:”I had the little suit on, I looked like a kid playing in my father’scloset then. I fill my suits out right, it’s more official now. Youknow what I mean? Everything feels full circle.”

And that, P-Dubs, is how a classy album cover gets made. Check out next week’s issue of EW, on stands this Friday, for lots more on the making of Gangster…And in the meantime, ever wonder how any of your favorite album covers were made? Let’s hear ’em.