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Pulling a Beyoncé: how surprise albums are making release dates obsolete

Jesse Kinos-Goodin

The album release date is dead. Long live the album.

There’s been a lot of talk lately surrounding what weekday is best for releasing a new album. Currently in North America it’s Tuesday, but the music industry thinks it should be Friday — so much so that it's standardizing that day across the world this summer.

A multitude of reasons have been cited, including that research suggests Fridays are the most appealing day to buy music, and that it will help curb piracy by avoiding the current system of having albums come out in Europe before North America. But none of that really matters because artists have already come up with their own solution: no release day.

While executives have been talking and planning, artists have been acting, adopting the much more immediate solution of the surprise album drop. Without any notice, press release or promotion, big-name artists — Drake, Kendrick Lamar, Beyoncé, Radiohead — have been dropping albums on an unsuspecting world, finding not only a way to captivate an otherwise distracted audience, but also helping to elevate the album as a whole. More often than not, there won’t be an album single leading up to a release date, so our first experience ends up being the complete album.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the current trend goes back to the Queen Bey. On Thursday, Dec. 13, 2013, Beyoncé dropped her top-secret, previously unannounced, self-titled "visual album," which consisted of 14 songs paired with music videos. It debuted at number one on the U.S. Billboard 200, selling 828,773 copies in three days — the fastest-selling album in the history of the iTunes Store.

"[Fans] don’t invest in a whole album. It’s all about the single and the hype," she explained in a video that was released the same day. "I don’t want anybody to give the message when it’s coming out. I just want this to come out when it’s ready, and from me to my fans."

Beyoncé is by no means the first artist to do this: Radiohead’s 2011 album, King of Limbs, was a surprise, announced just four days before it was released, and California rap group Death Grips released their album for free, without warning, a month before Beyoncé — but the scale, effectiveness and reaction (1.2 million tweets in 12 hours) to how she did it was revolutionary. A pop artist forced people to consider the album as a whole. Other artists took note: the album mattered. It’s now become the norm, especially in hip-hop and R&B, for major artists to drop a surprise album. Or, as it’s been dubbed, to "pull a Beyoncé."

Drake dropped If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late on Feb. 12 (also a Thursday) with nothing more than a tweet to an iTunes link. Not only did it impressively sell 500,000 copies in its first week, but by March 7, every one of the 21 songs on the album charted on the Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart. With no front-running single, every song was a hit.

Kendrick Lamar was supposed to release To Pimp a Butterfly, his highly anticipated followup album to 2012’s Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City, on March 23, but instead, the album unceremoniously appeared on iTunes and Spotify on March 15, four days after it was announced. It may have been an error on the label's part, but it worked. Not only did it debut at number one on Billboard’s Hot 200 chart, selling 363,000 copies, but as Slate music critic writer Carl Wilson writes, it’s helped to reinvigorate an appetite for the concept album.

"[Five years ago,] it seemed probable that full-length recordings would be a casualty of contracted digital attention spans, supplanted by more frequent singles and EPs," he wrote. "Yet now, with the album returned to its role as top-of-the-card spectacle, it’s encouraging artists to make more audacious bets."

Kendrick’s album is dense and esoteric, heavy on concept and light on radio singles (save one, "i," which stands out most of all for sounding nothing like the rest of the album). And musically, it’s more akin to new jazz, funk and spoken word than any rap currently heard on the radio. For casual rap fans, it could even be described as inaccessible; its success a point in favour for the return of the album format.

That puts it in line, musically, thematically, with another surprise album, D’Angelo’s Black Messiah. Arguably the most anticipated R&B album of the decade, Black Messiah just appeared as a digital download on Monday, Dec. 15, 2014 — 14 years after his last album — forcing journalists to rethink their best-of lists and debuting at number five on the Billboard 200, selling 117,000 copies in the United States.

It’s true that longtime fans were eagerly awaiting this album, and producer/drummer Questlove kept teasing his Twitter followers about the album’s state of completeness, but the reaction proved that fans like nothing more than a surprise. Even if they’re expecting an album to be released at some point in the future, adding the element of surprise seems to be the thing that was missing, the thing that forces fans to re-engage with the album again. We’re forced to listen to it front to back, in sequence, sharing our picks for favourite songs on social media.

It may have started as a novel way to release an album, but it’s slowly becoming the norm. Just this week, rapper Earl Sweatshirt vented his frustration at his label, Columbia, for announcing his new album before it was released. It used to be that artists were upset when labels didn’t promote them.

And while the approach may be more prevalent with rap and R&B — where a surprise release isn’t as much of a stretch given the genre’s long history with releasing free mixtapes via social media — capital-R rock acts are also joining in. In 2013, David Bowie released his 24th album, The Next Day, on his 66th birthday, surprising even his own people. Just last year, Radiohead frontman Thom Yorke released his second solo album, Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes, the same day it was announced (Friday, Sept. 26) on the peer-to-peer sharing site BitTorrent for $6 US. It was downloaded more than a million times in its first six days. And of course, let us not forget U2, whose album Songs of Innocence was announced at an Apple product launch — the same day it automatically appeared on people's devices.

So while the industry gets ready to officially change album release dates to Fridays, the new norm is already taking place.

"Release dates is played out. So the surprise is going to be a surprise," Kanye West proclaimed in a recent radio interview about his expected album, So Help Me God, which (surprise!) does not have an official release date.

Follow Jesse Kinos-Goodin on Twitter: @JesseKG