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The declining impact of surprise albums

Trey Alston

 // Oct 4, 2018

Artist // Instagram

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of any other agency, organization, employer or company.


Beyoncé's eponymous fifth album came on December 13, 2013, following a long period of intense secrecy as she worked with a small circle to create something bold. In the "Self-Titled" mini art feature released in tandem with the album to peek into its creation, Beyoncé explained her yearn for an immersive musical experience beyond the traditional hype machine associated with albums: trailers, a few singles, and bam, release. In the wee hours of that Friday morning, BEYONCE appeared on the iTunes store without any prior announcement or promotion. By the next morning, the firestorm surrounding the album's sudden release infiltrated the worldwide web. The surprise LP satiated the public's voracious appetite with both its musical aptitude and startling sense of stupefaction.

Unbeknownst to her, Beyoncé would be instrumental in the popularization of the "surprise" album. Radiohead, long fans of the nontraditional album release schedule, tried their hand at doing it in 2011 with The King of Limbs, but it wasn't recognized as anything but a one-off attempt to do something different. It wasn't until BEYONCE that the world realized the gravity of this sudden shift in structure.

An album's surprise release creates a more raw, visceral take on it, unhampered by preexisting expectations. Without the preparation by journalists to set the stage for an album's impending release, fans aren't given the opportunity so speculate and introduce bias. The cycle of raising awareness doesn't happen so everyone goes in equally blind. It can be a scary prospect, but also a welcome one. There were always going to be lavish album rollouts with six-figure budgets to get peak interest. Beyoncé wanted to bring something new to the table, intrigue that creates a different kind of astonishment.

What started as a novelty has become normalized—not exactly commonplace, but not something with the same amount of surprise as it initially held, either. Rihanna released ANTi in 2016 with little to no headway after it was leaked. Drake released his surprise mixtape If You're Reading This Its Too Late that same year. J. Cole sprang his latest album K.O.D. on fans with a few days' notice, relying on the element of surprise to sell them on it. After a multitude of delays and wondering, A$AP Rocky released TESTING in May. With more and more iconoclasts turning to this release type as a means of imploring fans to check out their music, is it really all that unique anymore to do it?

The surprise album comes as a response to the world of music streaming that has replaced shelf lives of CDs. Back when antennas were still attached to TVs, the right thing for artists to do would be to boldly announce the album on television a few months out and create a circus to grow the spectacle surrounding it. Similar to movie trailers, this manner of thinking helped to build a world around each release, making albums living and breathing entities in the process. Albums cost a pretty penny for the working class, too—upwards of $20 for a deluxe edition, which by itself is fine. But when taking into account that everyone wants to support more than one artist, a Friday on which multiple releases come out could quickly spiral into a sizeable chunk of change. The competition to create the best music didn't end there; it also extended into the rollouts to create the stuff of legend.

The streaming age bought two immediate changes: music could be in listening ears within seconds instead of having to travel somewhere to purchase it and, also, it's now much more affordable. All of the extra bells and whistles that were continuously put out with each release amounted to an industry wide fatigue. Yeah, artists could spend thousands and craft compelling campaigns to accentuate their already impactful artistry, but what does that solve in the end?

To shake the table, someone with the right amount of eminence had to bring a way of thinking that's seldom utilized. BEYONCE received widespread acclaim largely because of the music, but also because of the way that it was presented. Beyoncé's latest was an indicator of an exciting and anxious format that shocked the world, largely because her status indicated that she was above shifting the culture in a way that could have had disastrous implications about her contemporary popularity. She brushed off any doubts and proved, once again, that she was one of the biggest, most important, artists of the decade. The album sold 617,000 copies within its first three days through the U.S. iTunes store.

A little over two years later, Beyoncé released a second surprise album, Lemonade. The circumstances of this shocker were a tad bit different; shortly before the album's release, she teased Lemonade to be premiering on HBO on April 23, 2016, but she just didn't reveal what it was. There was also the fact that rumors of infidelity had infected her marriage to JAY-Z, compounded by the fact that her sister, Solange, viciously attacked JAY in an elevator in 2014 in what looked like it could only be in defense of her sister's honor. Knowing Beyoncé's commitment to tabloid secrecy, fans knew that there would be some kind of response that they would receive in song form; they just didn't know when. When Lemonade released, it received near instantaneous praise; it just didn't evoke the same true sense of astonishment that BEYONCE had a few years before. It was due to the fact that others had pushed farther strides with the surprise release and made it into a very real "thing," instead of a bewildering once-in-a lifetime event.

By the time that Beyoncé and JAY-Z, now newly whole after dealing with infidelity on Lemonade and then JAY-Z's 4:44, released their surprise album Everything Is Love earlier this year, there was no sting left in the surprise release. On what would have, half a decade ago, been one of the most jaw-dropping albums of the year, the long-awaited collaboration project felt like an organic evolution of the changing music game that passed by without generating too much steam. Surprises in the streaming age were no longer causes of incredulity. There was no venom left in the snake. All the cards were finally on the table.

Between each of these three releases tied to Beyoncé, varying degrees of surprise bodies of work have been disseminated. D'Angelo's Black Messiah came out in December of 2014 way ahead of schedule out of impulse. Adele surprised released her single "Hello" from her album 25 in 2015. Future _surprised released his album EVOL in 2016. Each of these works owes some degree of inspiration to Beyoncé's pioneering run that began in 2013.

While the obvious imitation of Beyoncé's tactics is flattering, it's still changed our culture for, perhaps, the worst. Everyone's constantly on edge for the prospect of yet another surprise album coming out. When an artist hasn't been heard from for some time, the general assumption is that they're working on a secret project that will explain their absence. But often times that's not the case. We're stuck in a perpetual state of expectation, believing that something new is always headed our way because of the plethora of surprise albums we've received. We've been spoiled by this release type, and there may be no going back. Just a never-ending string of surprise releases that don't actually sting or flabbergast, instead just dwindling our expectations of our stars to do something groundbreaking. If the iconoclasts are doing it, it'll eventually bleed into regular industry speak, with no calendars being able to predict when things will come out. Imagine a state of music journalism where everything's impulsive since no one knows when anything is hitting shelves.

It's a bleak landscape that can be read as innovative, lazy, cheap, or possibly any combination of the three. Beyoncé did it out of boredom and a wish for change. How many others could say that? The surprise album has lost its spark in 2018. Its frequent inclusion is due to a settling normalcy that's scary to think about. Pretty soon, every artist will take turns trying to surprise their fanbase, leading to more boos than cheers. Yeech. This is the one trend I can't thank you for, Beyoncé.


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