Surprise Album Releases
2016 provided a phenomenal year for music. Between video albums, surprise album announcements, and last-minute changes, every major publication experienced minor heart attacks trying to tackle the scatterbrain mentality of the music industry. The growing trend in surprise album releases or last minute announcements began in the early part of the decade. Radiohead released their 2013 album with less than two weeks notice. This caused everyone to tilt their heads. However, when mega-popular Beyoncé dropped Beyoncé in 2013 with no warning, it began the evolution of music release execution.

2013


Kanye West is the master at unpredictability so much so that it’s predictable for Yeezy to be unpredictable. However, before West’s erratic behavior became normalized, Yeezus happened. Yeezus dropped during the time of his wife Kim Kardashian’s first pregnancy in anticipation of North West. In interviews, West states that he realized Yeezus is almost the anti-College Dropout. The album traded jazzy smoothness for acidic grind. What is first passed off as a “better-than-thou” is a mash of ego and paranoia over his current status. There is a toil with women, a hatred and love to struggle. He shows the listener his insecurities rather than self obsession. Yeezus’ original release date was May 2013, and it finally arrived late June. Therefore, the intent behind the sudden release was not direct, but West began a continuing issue with messy releases. Delays, fixes, and bumps demonstrated the madness behind the genius.
When Beyoncé dropped, the reaction was stupendous. The attempt to sneak attack an album had been attempted before Beyoncé. It wasn’t that they weren’t successful. It was that, well, they weren’t Beyoncé. When hers hit the airwaves, the caustic vibrations were felt throughout every crevice of the industry. This is not merely because it was a surprise album. Beyoncé was effective because it was damn good on top of shocking every fan and music critic. Her previous album, 2011’s 4, dropped two years earlier. Therefore, fans knew Beyoncé was working on new material, but the lack of marketing ironically worked with her success instead of against. When her new album suddenly appeared on iTunes, the only promotion was an Instagram post. Beyoncé went No. 1 in ninety countries.

2014


J. Cole dropped 2014 Forest Hills Drive with only about a three-weeks notice. He released a video trailer announcing the release of Forest Hills, featuring footage of the album creation. He repeated the approach with a December release date for 4 Your Eyez Only in 2016. J. Cole holds a fixation for true hip-hop and the correct way to represent the genre. He nods to the greats, much like he did on both of these albums, but he also adds a sense of machismo that Forest Hills seemed to early for.
The counter side of his ingenuity and genuineness is that he doesn’t feed into the marketing hype before album releases. It has become a J. Cole trend to quietly announce a few weeks leading up to the drop. Whether or not the lack of bells and whistles comes across as forced realness is for the listener to decide.
U2 began their huge musical project, Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience, with a surprise album Songs of Innocence. They are one of the biggest bands of all time, sparking a huge career in the 80’s and continuing their relativity into the second decade of the 2000’s. Bono and the band include a liberal rhetoric in their stardom that heavily seeps into their music. It is one reason U2 continues to be relevant. The same equality issues they supported in the beginning of their careers are still issues now.
Songs of Innocence was a bumpy spot for them, however. It automatically downloaded on peoples’ iPhones in the beginning wave of Apple Music. Yay for free music, but for the many who may not want U2 filling up their storage space, it was a spot of tension. The band is successful enough to gloss over this rough spot, but it unfortunately hindered the album’s success. In Pitchfork‘s review, the reviewer referenced Beyoncé‘s successful surprise release, countering Songs of Innocence‘s vapidity:

Where Beyoncé used her iTunes sneak attack late last year to make a bold pop proclamation of sexuality and feminism, U2 have used an even more audacious release platform to wave their arms and simply say, ‘Hey! Everybody! We’re still here!’ Bono may have self-deprecatingly described Songs of Innocence as ‘the blood, sweat and tears of some Irish guys…in your junk mail,’ but it’s not even that interesting—it’s just a blank message.”

2015


Birdman, Lil Wayne, Cash Money. Similar to hearing Suge Knight’s name, those three names strung together scream some of the testiest hip-hop label controversy in recent years. I think we’ll be waiting on our death beds for Carter V, the long anticipated, long overdue album of Lil Wayne. After accusations that Birdman owes his rappers money, after public attacks from Wayne, Nicki Minaj and Drake kept pretty silent throughout the thick of it. However, then Drake released If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late. It is a mixtape that could’ve just been a hold over until Views from the 6 that dropped in 2016. Yet some of the lyrics make listeners wonder if its his final speech to the Cash Money dilemma. In “No Tellin’,” he raps, “Brand new Beretta, can’t wait to let it go / Walk up in my label like ‘Where the check, though?'”
Therefore, the timing of the mixtape is questionable and could easily point to a focus on closing out his Cash Money contract. Drake again attacks other rappers who spoke poorly on his name (Diddy, Tyga, Lamar), always seeming to get in the last word over a beat and not a tweet. You wonder, though, what Drake’s music would be without the reactive defense mechanism to call out those who’ve wronged him. Either way, it was a solid release. If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late dropped at a time when both new music and a message were needed.

Frank Ocean is an elusive figure in the music industry. Preceding Channel Orange, Ocean publicly announced that he has been in love with a man. After a murky release of Channel Orange, Ocean left no room for disappointment. His singer-songwriter ability is unmatched. From forcing the unanswerable questions to deciphering his own falseness, Ocean marries wit and talent without resuming a Kanye-like “I am God.” The shifts in Channel Orange are populous. He swings from a myriad of tempos and styles, but none of it seems distracted or unnatural. Ocean’s album release was not a surprise, but the exact details remained unset because Ocean pushed forward the release last minute. This struck tension with Target but did not hinder its success. Ocean’s lack in the public spotlight and elusiveness only adds to the complex genius. He is truly one of the R&B and songwriter greats.

2016


To Pimp a Butterfly rocked 2015, as Kendrick Lamar took a firm hold as a rap tycoon. His unique sound, razor-sharp lyrics, and socially relevant messages placed Lamar in the recent greats of hip-hop. Lamar also was the newest prodigy of Dr. Dre’s Aftermath Records. It had been only a year since that album hit airwaves. Then, without comment, Lamar dropped untitled unmastered into the hemisphere. It was a collection of “leftovers” from To Pimp a Butterfly. Purposefully scattered, an elementary-school-art-project creation of what was left to say.
Not only was it also good. It also eluded to that sharp execution of To Pimp a Butterfly, so much so that he had enough excess cut from its final package that it needed its own vehicle. It was a release that made a quiet statement closely following an album good enough to tide him over for years. untitled unmastered proved that Lamar is in hip-hop for his truth and purpose, and appealing to the masses is not his aim.
By juggling social issues, religion, and his own demons, Lamar leaves the clubbing tracks behind from something deeper. (Though, “King Kunta” and “Alright” have surely found themselves on party playlists.) Even those songs contain heavy meaning. Though untitled unmastered is a thrown-together “bonus” to TPAB, it doesn’t lack in Lamar’s talent and execution. It was the Compton native’s way of a second serving. Anyone with an ear for hip-hop’s evolution licked the plate clean.
Beyoncé somehow ensnared the entire industry by one-upping her own move. She yet again dropped an album, hitting iTunes with cosmic-size waves, and it included an hour-long HBO film. Lemonade‘s visual album is one of the great pieces of musical art to date. The historical costumes, special effects, combination of music and poetry, and nods to social events collide. The result is a weaving of Beyoncé’s most personal struggles with a macro vantage point of her identity’s social status: an underappreciated African American woman. She dropped the album a few months after her Super Bowl Halftime Show performance, where she announced her “Formation World Tour” in 2016.
Lemonade rocked most major music publications. It was a 2016 album that held a unanimous agreement of its excellence. Partially because Beyoncé’s tender, marital dilemmas are not typical public knowledge. The depth and voraciousness of Lemonade‘s infidelity dissection is indisputable. Slathered on top of a recovering marriage is the inequality of black lives. She references the Trayvon Martin shooting, Malcolm X speech, Hurricane Katrina aftermath, and more through Lemonade‘s tracks. A surprise Beyoncé release was not the highlight of her work. Rather, she crashed through artistic doors that gave a woman with sex appeal, a feminist standpoint, and wealthy black status a further depth to her music. At a time when political controversy and equal rights are threatened more than ever in recent years, Lemonade served as a dialogue similar to her sister Solange‘s A Seat at the Table.

2017


Ed Sheeran will not join the forces of those who drop overnight. However, after a year-long social media stagnancy, Sheeran popped back up January 1st to announce new music. After releasing “Shape of You” and “Castle on the Hill,” he finally announced a March 3rd release date of ÷. It is his third album after + and X. Therefore, Sheeran gave fans a solid six-week notice. Yet, his ability to rejoin social media and suddenly announce new music hints at the new marketing strategies in the digital age. Would his singles be as successful if he never took a social media hiatus? Though his fame guarantees a level of success, Sheeran’s withdrawal and return surely made a greater impact. His New Year announcement demonstrates the power of timing in progressing album marketing strategy.

@TaylorSwift… are we ever, ever getting back together? Three years later, everyone is wondering the same thing. When is Taylor Swift stepping out of her own silence to reveal her next album? Her classic biannual release date came and went. Recent friendships with Drake and others make fans wonder what directions she’s moving towards. The fascinating quality of T-Swift is her ability to reinvent her artistry and move forward. It’s time that she advances.
The pop star has a lot of questions to answer, even from fans. After #KimExposingTaylor with West’s “Famous” drama, the Calvin Harris split, the Tom Hiddleston relationship then split, Swift kept very silent. Eerily. Silent. She even Instagrams infrequently, and when she does, it is normally for a friend’s birthday. She might be pulling an ‘Ed Sheeran’ and waiting for the right moment to reappear. Whatever Swift is waiting for, if history repeats itself, it will be influential and unexpected. However, expectations’s walls are also the highest they have ever been.

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