From Beyoncé to Kendrick Lamar, artists are increasingly forgoing release dates for surprise album drops. Here’s how calendars became irrelevant.
I can't think of September 11, 2001 without thinking of Jay Z. For reasons so obvious it's embarrassing to list them, history will remember that date for two crumbling towers, thousands of lives lost, and a world forever changed. But before the flames and the rubble, 09/11/01 was the release date of The Blueprint, Jay Z's sixth album, the one designed to have once and for all sealed his status as the self-proclaimed king of New York and, by cultural extension, the greatest rapper alive.
The Blueprint's release date, originally slated for the following Tuesday, was bumped up a week over fears of bootlegging—piracy is not a problem exclusive to the digital age. Demand for the product was high, Jay Z would likely tell you himself, especially after "Izzo (H.O.V.A.)" was released as the first single earlier that summer. In those days, if you were a big enough act, you had metaphorical control over a date simply by claiming it as your release. For me, there are other albums that will forever be inseparable from their release dates: Redman and Method Man's Blackout! on September 27, 1999; 50 Cent's Get Rich or Die Tryin' on February 4, 2003; Kanye's My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy on November 22, 2010. ASAP Ferg's zealous promotion of the August 20, 2013 release of Trap Lord, his debut album, harkened back to the era of release dates so strongly it quickly became treated as a meme.
Nowadays, though, as the music industry continues to experiment with new ways to address changing economic, cultural, and technological realities, the rollout and release of albums looks very different than it did a decade ago. For instance, the long-standing Tuesday release date is shifting to Fridays this summer, thanks to industry research suggesting Fridays and Saturdays are more appealing days for consumers to hear new music. Some of the reasoning is mundane: labels have to preemptively combat leaks, avoid the administrative inconvenience of pushing back releases that aren't ready on time, and manage relatively meager marketing budgets that have to stretch further.
When Beyoncé dropped her self-titled album out of thin air and glitter that Thursday night two Decembers ago, it was immediately identifiable as a game-changer. It's not that others hadn't released albums with no warning or with unconventional release plans: Radiohead's 2011 record King of Limbs was dropped as a surprise; back in 2012, Frank Ocean put Channel Orange on iTunes a week earlier than it was expected; My Bloody Valentine released a surprise reunion album out of seemingly nowhere early in 2013; Death Grips did the same just a couple of weeks before Beyoncé.
But Beyoncé, whose career is an economy in itself, was a greater signifier of the shift that is afoot. In the year since BEYONCE, dropping an album with no release date has become known as "pulling a Beyoncé." Since her, others have done it: Skrillex, D'Angelo, Björk, and Drake, all mainstream artists in their own right, have released albums without first promoting a release date months or even weeks away. And more have said that they intend to do the same.
"Release dates is played out. So the surprise is going to be a surprise. There go the surprise," said Kanye West during a radio appearance last month, speaking about his next album, which is expected any day now. When The FADER recently spoke to Miami rapper Trina about her own upcoming album, she echoed Kanye's feelings: "I'm not tripping on release dates anymore. I could drop it in the middle of the night. Like at 12 o'clock, just for no reason. It's more spontaneous, it's more fun to just drop it out of nowhere. And then everyone will be like, 'Oh my god, you just dropped a record.'"
Given the fact that it takes considerably less time to get something to the public, and because releasing an album to iTunes before manufacturing CDs and vinyls no longer cannibalizes physical sales, the importance of the release date has waned. The thought that an album could drop at any moment and sell as many, if not more, copies than it would have with a traditional release date further confirms the value of the strategy. If a record could do numbers like Beyoncé's, which sold more than 800,000 in just three days, or Drake's, which sold 500,000 in its first week, then why even bother announcing a date months in advance?
It's worth noting, too, that surprise albums are not the same thing as surprise release dates. Kendrick Lamar, Kanye, and Rihanna, for instance, have for months been confirming that they each have new music on the way—just that we'll have to wait to find out whether it's days, weeks, or months away. They've each been participating in extensive promotional runs, too, appearing on magazine covers and performing singles on television. But without the overt shilling a release date involves, the endless promo feels more natural, integrated, and easier to tolerate.
Last night, Kendrick surprise-released his second album, To Pimp A Butterfly, a week early, after having revealed just days ago that it would drop on March 23. By contrast, his first album, 2012's good kid, m.A.A.d city, was announced a whole four months earlier. The surprise release is being interpreted as some sort of bungle on the label's part, but the move is further proof that release dates are on their way out. When the initial date was announced last week, following months of feverish anticipation, a common and immediate reaction was that it was somehow a lesser move to have identified a specific date at all. "Anyone else think Kendrick is kind of a chump for announcing a release date and not just dropping it outta the blue? Just me?" tweeted Complex editor Aaron Zorgel. "Only NERDS announce release dates," he added. It was a joke in tone, but the observation stands: we want the music and we expect it now.
Lead photo: Mike Coppola / Getty Images.