In 2013, Beyoncé released her self-titled album with no prior announcement, no singles, no product tie-ins, no hype whatsoever. It was a strategy that shattered expectations. How could she and her label expect to make a return on an album that no one knew was coming? There were no pre-orders, no indication of what the demand would be, no focus groups to tell them if the sound was something people wanted to hear in the first place. But it worked. It worked so well, in fact, that in the following years, everyone from Kanye West to Avenged Sevenfold has been trying to recreate the energy that Beyoncé created.
Fast forward to 2016, and we have hit the surprise-album ceiling. We broke it. It was fun for a while, but it’s getting truly ridiculous. 2016 started with the infamous and multi-titled Kanye West album which was planned for release in mid-2015 under the name Good Ass Job and then in late 2015 as Waves. Instead, Tidal subscribers woke up one February morning to The Life of Pablo and the rest of us heard it a month later. Other albums also went from highly-anticipated to heavily-delayed and then suddenly appeared out of the blue like Drake’s Views and Frank Ocean’s Blonde. Those albums had some hype in the form of word-of-mouth, singles, teasers, or vague and confusing visual companion videos, but others had a day or two of curiosity or no lead-up at all.
Radiohead, no strangers to the unconventional release strategy, famously blacked out all of their social media and then suddenly dropped a handful of Instagram posts and a video single amounting to about three days of public hysteria before the world heard A Moon Shaped Pool. And Chance the Rapper debuted a single on The Tonight Show giving fans a week to freak out about Coloring Book. With the list of surprise releases growing to include Travis Scott, Rihanna, James Black, the Avalanches, Kendrick Lamar, Gucci Mane, and on and on, the trend is quickly losing its novelty. When everyone’s album is a surprise, it isn’t surprising anymore.
In a radio interview, Kanye West said that “release dates is played out. So the surprise is gonna be a surprise.” And speaking of their new album, M. Shadows of Avenged Sevenfold told Rolling Stone that the standard three-to-four month teaser period for new albums “completely takes away the mystique of the record”. And to some extent, the surprise release can function as an act that flies in the face of standard industry practice. But it can just as easily serve as a purely self-aggrandizing exercise. Artists can circumvent months of lead up and get a ton of press from media outlets trying to scramble for hot takes. It’s a solid publicity move, but it is quickly putting the music industry on edge.
Vulture’s Lindsay Zoladz notes that “Now that we’re primed to expect the unexpected, the least surprising thing a major pop artist could do tomorrow is release a new album.” The idea that artists need to continue coming up with new ways to shock and surprise just to keep up and stay relevant is exhausting and only hurts music fans. Sure, maybe we don’t need a whole quarter of the year dedicated to promotion and hype, but the biggest surprises should come from unique and innovative artistry in the sound of the album and not from the mere fact that the album suddenly exists.
Perhaps 2016 will be remembered as the final year in this trend’s momentum. It reached its peak saturation point when Beyoncé pulled yet another “Beyoncé” with the release of Lemonade. She did it twice in three years, and it worked out for her, but it is time to move past it and innovate in different ways. Obviously not every surprise album is full of bad music, but if artists stopped trying to catch us all sleeping, they could make the final product even better and then more people might know about it.