The Surprise Album Is Dead
This December, Rihanna will release ANTI, her highly anticipated follow-up to 2012’s Unapologetic -- unless she doesn’t.
For the past year, the pop singer has played a brilliant game of chicken with the idea of a release date -- premiering a Beatle-approved single, dropping a blood-soaked video, granting endearing interviews, teasing evocative album art, announcing tour dates, and partnering with a giant international electronics company -- all while hinting that the album could conceivably appear at any moment as a “surprise album.”
But here’s the thing: it won’t be a surprise. How can something be a surprise when you’ve been anticipating it for a whole year?
When the album eventually comes out -- and it will probably be released very soon -- many fans and media outlets will likely call it a “surprise,” linking it to recent landmark December releases like Beyoncé’s game-changing self-titled from 2013 and D’Angelo’s transcendent Black Messiah, which arrived on December 15th last year. In many ways, ANTI fits the preconceived-surprise narrative perfectly. The album itself could be great and totally fuck up your top albums of the year list! It could be terrible! But there’s one thing it won’t be: a surprise.
That’s because the “surprise album” is now dead.
Obviously, none of this is Rihanna’s fault. She didn’t kill the “surprise album.” Creating any work of art, much less a large-scale work of high-pressure creative collaboration like a modern major-label pop album, requires time, concentration, and coordination. Rihanna, as an artist and pop icon, owes the world nothing. The “surprise album” aspect of ANTI and any feelings of surprise feigned upon its release are merely casualties of a phrase that has lost all meaning. Thankfully, the era of the “surprise album” is ending.
It's not a surprise if you see it coming
The ubiquity of the “surprise album” over the last three years has rendered the entire concept obsolete. In 2013 and 2014, releases as varied as J. Cole’s Forest Hills Drive, U2’s Songs of Innocence, and David Bowie’s The Next Day all arrived with little warning and unconventional (or, in U2’s case, unwelcome) promotional fanfare. This year, Björk, Miley Cyrus, and Madonna each tore pages from the Beyoncé playbook with their respective projects, indie stalwarts Beach House released a “surprise album” only months after dropping their newest full-length in a more traditional manner, and Wilco put out an album called Star Wars that featured a cat on its cover. The tactic became so ubiquitous that The Verge created a flowchart just to separate the real surprises from the fakes.
Why do musicians keep doing this? Besides the quick hit of publicity, the surprise release also helps battle piracy, often creating a bump in album sales. Perhaps most tellingly, Rihanna's frequent collaborator Drake dominated the year by releasing not one but two “surprise” mixtapes distributed digitally in the same manner as an album. That type of format fluidity is the new normal.
For casual fans, the process of keeping tabs on all these possible “surprises” can be draining. Back in April, New York magazine music critic Lindsay Zoladz correctly identified this feeling as surprise-album fatigue. “Following pop music right now feels like having accidentally overheard a conversation about your surprise party but not knowing when or where it will take place,” she writes. “You walk into every room half-expecting to be bombarded with balloons.”
The thrill is gone
Let’s not get confused: it will always be fun to discover that your favorite artist has released new music. No social media strategy, misguided tech innovation, or questionable partnership with a shitty pizza company will ever ruin that special relationship you create with your favorite artists. But it’s hard not to feel that the joyful, dizzying, communal bonfire of Beyoncé's surprise release has fizzled into a burn barrel of perfunctory “trash or classic” debates. The routine is familiar: hear about “surprise album,” download, listen, offer up opinion on social media, and move on to the next one.
Last week, many observers piled on the website Mic after an incomplete news item on Rihanna's new album was accidentally published complete with blanks to fill in when the album dropped. As the writer of the piece acknowledged in a series of tweets, there’s nothing wrong with news outlets having copy prepared for big events -- it’s pretty common -- but there was something stark (and hilarious) about seeing the mechanics of the “surprise album” revealed. When the script is already written, does ANTI even have a chance of filling that lingering TK in your heart?
Rihanna isn’t even the only artist with a possible December surprise on the horizon. Hypothetically, we could be headed for a “surprise album” showdown where Rihanna's ANTI, Frank Ocean’s Boys Don’t Cry, Kanye West’s Swish, and Drake’s Views From the 6 all arrive on the same confusing day. Tumblr would explode! If Dr. Dre can release an album in 2015, anything is possible. And when anything is possible, nothing is surprising.
But the album is still relevant
This week Spotify announced that Rihanna is the streaming platform’s number one female artist even though she didn’t release a new album this year. Some might suggest this means a star of Rihanna’s caliber doesn’t even need to release an album. Magazines and websites have been charting the slow death of the album as a form for a long time. (Remember this?) The arrival of streaming platforms like Spotify, Apple Music, and Tidal has only increased the frequency of the eulogies, but the format has endured.
And, at the popularity level of a star like Rihanna, there’s still money to be made from album sales. Adele’s 25, which followed a traditional promotional roll-out plan, recently sold more than 3.4 million copies in its first week, breaking a world record previously held by *NSYNC’s No Strings Attached. In refusing to distribute the album on any of the marquee streaming platforms, Adele forced her fans to reach for their wallets en masse. Though it’s unlikely Rihanna's album will lock out streaming services -- she has deep ties to Tidal -- it’s easy to see why she still believes in the album as a viable commercial and artistic product.
So then what's next?
The end of the “surprise album” era doesn’t mean that albums won’t arrive in bizarre, inventive ways; artists and record labels will always be testing methods to get fans excited about music. Earlier this November, country bad boy Eric Church sent physical copies of his latest album Mr. Misunderstood to select fans before the record was even announced. In 2011, The Flaming Lips released a 24-hour song on a real human skull. Mos Def once put his album on a T-shirt. Musicians will always find ways to shock, awe, and bewilder. But releasing an album without telling us about it? Sorry, it’s just not surprising anymore.
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Dan Jackson is a staff writer at Thrillist Entertainment and he's not wild about surprises. He's on Twitter: @danielvjackson.