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Surprise! How Unannounced Album Drops Lead to Hits

For being thrown together at the last minute, A$AP Rocky’s listening party for his latest album A.L.L.A. sure looked like a good time.

The festivities, which were held in New York City on Monday, came a week earlier than planned. The rapper tweeted that his second album, whose title is an abbreviation for At. Long. Last. A$AP, would be commercially available on May 26, not the expected date of June 2. Tracks from the record, which features contributions from Kanye West, Rod Stewart, and M.I.A., had already leaked earlier that day, so the rapper played several of the record’s 18 songs, turning the room into a dance party and a tribute to his former manager A$AP Yams, who tragically died in January of accidental drug intoxication.

This is the latest incident in what has become the era of the surprise release. David Bowie's 2013 release The Next Day came as a bolt from the blue from the legendary glam rocker who had been thought to be retired. It was a decade since his last album and stories about his health led the public to believe that artist’s output would now consist of greatest hits compilations. The strategy worked. The Next Day topped the charts, and Bowie moved more albums in that first week than he had with any of his previous releases.
The trend gained traction in December 2013 when Shawn Carter’s better half, Beyoncé, released her eponymous fifth album to the iTunes Music Store without any warning or promotion. The 14-track album (with a music video to accompany each song) sold a million copies in only six days and was nominated for the Album of the Year Grammy award. The man who defended Bey’s honor after she lost the award to Beck, Kanye West, released Yeezus with no radio airplay and a cryptic tweet announcing the release date. While it could be argued that every time West opens his mouth it’s free publicity, once television audiences had a taste of the album through his powerful performances of the songs “New Slaves” and “Black Skinhead” on Saturday Night Live, the album, with a clear CD case as it’s cover art, practically sold itself. 

Before A$AP Rocky dropped his latest, Kendrick Lamar’s album To Pimp A Butterfly also came out one week before its expected release date (as the result of some mishap at his label Interscope, if Lamar’s Twitter feed is to be believed). It really didn’t matter. The album garnered a load of buzz and won instant acclaim from critics and fans. Music websites were scrambling to voice their opinion, but the public had spoken. Lamar had another hit on his hands.

This tactic doesn’t always work and can blow up in a band’s face. A little group from Ireland known as U2 not only surprised the public with the release of their long-awaited Songs of Innocence, for a month they gave the album away to anyone with an iTunes account. Some were excited that Bono, the world’s most musically inclined humanitarian, and his talented partners were finally putting their new music out there. Others were freaked out that Apple, who was promoting the record in partnership with the band, was able to put an album onto their iPhones and iPods without their permission. The rest of us were wondering what the catch was. It was all a way for the quartet to promote their tour, which recently stopped in Phoenix for two days.

These surprise releases are the antithesis to what indie labels are doing to promote their latest product. Most bands release singles months in advance to garner some buzz, with performances on late night television to follow soon after. Next thing you know, the album is streaming in its entirety on NPR a week before the official release. Jaime Smith, better known as Jamie xx of the indie band The xx, is counting on this approach to move copies of his upcoming solo release In Colour. iTunes is even providing the visuals for the 11 tracks. Maybe the thought is that instead of surprising the ears of the world with his latest work, Smith would be able to gain attention from an audience that is prepared and willing to receive his gifts.
Smith has produced tracks from megastars like Drake and Rhianna, but the music he’s making for himself is something that music fans delight in discovering on their own. If he were to give In Colour a surprise release, it wouldn’t become a social media event. When Lamar and Beyonce take to their Twitter profiles, people listen (In Lamar's case, it helps when you're friends with Taylor Swift.). Recently, the former frontman of the band Girls, Christopher Owens, released a 16-track album titled Chrissybaby Forever with little warning. While it’s too soon to tell how successful his surprise release will be, the announcement was the equivalent of that clickbait article your crazy aunt on Facebook posts. You give it a glance and move on.

Artists like Rocky, Lamar, Beyonce, Bowie, and West probably release surprise albums because they feel that the promotion behind a typical release taints the personal messages they are trying to get across to the listener. It also allows their eager public to listen to their latest work at the same time as the critics, which leaves music magazines and blogs scrambling to form an opinion. Those who are sitting behind their byline don’t want to upset their readership so objectivity becomes compromised. They can’t help but become swept up in the optimism and not give a truly critical ear to what they’re listening to.

These records also share a common thread, with messages that are deeply intense, introspective, and provocative. The album A.L.L.A.’s artwork is a tribute to Rocky’s dearly departed friend Yams, and the other albums deal with subject matter that isn’t Top 40 radio friendly (not that anyone really listens to the radio anyway). By letting the music do the talking instead of the critics and the media, the artist is able to speak to his or her fan base without a filter from the E! Network and Pitchfork. It’s that element of surprise and keeping audiences guessing that made these musicians such a success anyways.
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Jason Keil was the Phoenix New Times culture editor from August 2019 to May 2020.
Contact: Jason Keil