Are "Surprise Albums" the New Normal?

Feb 23, 2015 at 3:15 am

Photo by Marco Torres
Kendrick Lamar has also been the subject of recent surprise-album rumors.
By Alyssa Dupree

If you're reading this and are just now finding out about Drake's new album, you're a little late.

In your defense, the Canada-based rapper just dropped his new mixtape, If You're Reading This It's Too Late, via Twitter in the late hours of February 12, creating a bit of a shock to fans who had been anxiously awaiting his purported album Views from the Six.

Because it's not your run-of-the-mill album, If You're Reading This It's Too Late is tougher to dive into when compared to prior Drake releases. With biting lyrics that are more aimed and specific, it doesn't pan out as smoothly and cohesively as his most recent effort, 2013's Nothing Was the Same. Even so, certain moments within the seventeen-song Too Late give the impression that this could contain some of the most important work in Drake's career thus far.

It's still not entirely clear if these songs consist of a collection of one-off tracks, songs that didn't fit on prior releases or a combination of both. That said, it's interesting to look at the release tactics used for them.

For any other artist, it might be easy to ingest the album and brush it off as what it is -- a mixtape. However, with recent reports of label issues, public altercations with Diddy and a list of other artists Drake is reportedly at odds with (Tyga, etc.), it's hard to play a song off of Too Late without feeling that the sudden release is anything other than intentional.

Much as Beyoncé did with her self-titled monster of a visual album, it seems that Drake's entire motive with this release was to catch everyone by surprise. And with no media or marketing prior to its release, it'd be hard to find a fan who believes this mixtape was put out simply because he could.

Instead, the release is a punch to the gut when you weren't expecting to get hit, and it seems very clear that Drake's intentions were premeditated. It's certainly understandable why this course of action felt the most impactful.

And it appears he's not the only one who feels this way.

With speculation circulating that Kendrick Lamar might be releasing his own secret album soon (a release calendar photographed at Walmart with a January 27, 2015 release date had the Internet in a panic for a minute there), it's questionable if this could be a new industry standard, especially following the aforementioned self-titled album from Beyoncé.

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Of course, she isn't the first artist to release a secret album. David Bowie and Death Grips both released secret albums before Beyoncé, and those are just two examples from 2013 alone. Still, neither one had the cultural impact that Beyoncé's did, which leads us to wonder -- are secret albums a new industry standard?

Instinctively, "no" would be the answer one might hope for. Because Beyoncé was a monstrous feat -- seventeen songs with accompanying music videos for each track -- it's hard to imagine anyone else would be able to release a secret album and have the same kind of impact.

Then again, it's hard to argue against it.

Much like Radiohead's "pay what you want" model, introduced when the group announced In Rainbows, the idea doesn't seem to be one that could be easily duplicated, lest an artist come across as unoriginal, or worse, attention-seeking.

Yet the pay-what-you-want model introduced by Radiohead eventually turned into a practice that is now used industry-wide. Bands and artists who once called Radiohead "crazy" can sometimes be seen selling their albums to fans with a blank price tag, while sites like Bandcamp have made a killing by doing the same.

See, it's hard to spot a shift in the music industry as it's happening. But when artists such as Skrillex are creating specialized smartphone apps as a means of putting out new music, it seems they're doing all they can to utilize technology, stray from the norm and find new ways to surprise their fans once again.

It's not an easy feat. But if done correctly and with genuine intention, this practice could be used more than the music industry anticipates in the coming years.

So maybe Kanye was right and Beyoncé did deserve that Grammy. But whether you agree or not isn't the point when a ripple effect seems to have caught on, which can arguably be traced back to the pop goddess herself.

For now, it's safe to say that we won't know the full impact that Beyoncé has had on the music industry for another few years, but it will be interesting to see whether or not Drake's latest is the end of the line for "secret albums," or simply another superstar jumping on the trend.


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