On a recent Wednesday evening, while I was idly flicking through Instagram, my heart skipped a beat for a distinctly modern reason: A pop star was about to release a new album out of nowhere. Or at least that’s how I and many others first interpreted a cryptic image posted by Rihanna, which depicted the Barbados-born singer sporting chandelier earrings, greaser-slick hair, and haute-couture eyebrows that made her look like a portrait of Cara Delevingne painted by Frida Kahlo. It certainly looked like cover art, and she’d included the hashtags #R8 (the code name for her mysterious but definitely forthcoming eighth album) and #March26, the following day’s date. For about 15 minutes on Twitter, the prayer-hand emoji were flying. But soon digital sleuths set the record straight: The actual URL of the image contained the phrase “BBHMM-Single-Art.” Which meant all we were getting was a new Rihanna single. Sure enough, the sputtering trap-pop song “Bitch Better Have My Money” arrived the next day, to the kind of mixed reviews that are born of impossibly heightened hopes. The single had fallen victim to a very of-the-moment paradox: We have become so used to pop musicians surprising us with new albums that we now expect the unexpected.
Surprise, mystery, and minimalism are the rage right now when it comes to marketing pop albums, but until quite recently the pendulum was swinging in the opposite direction. There was a period a few years ago when labels and artists were focusing so heavily on the “album rollout” that they seemed to consider it a kind of performance art. The whole thing reached a nadir in the summer of 2013: Lady Gaga’s comically excessive ARTPOP campaign featured a Jeff Koons sculpture and a press conference in which she unveiled “VOLANTIS, the world’s first flying dress”; Daft Punk recorded endless VH1 Classic Albums–esque promotional spots that memorialized Random Access Memories before anybody had even heard it; Kanye West and Arcade Fire tried elaborate, street-art-inspired approaches that mostly backfired; and then who could forget Katy Perry driving through the streets of L.A. in a gilded 18-wheeler that screamed KATY PERRY PRISM 10-22-13 and looked, uncannily, like a ten-ton brick of Cracker Barrel cheese? From the vantage of our current surprise-album era, these rollout campaigns seem like the now-foreclosed mansions built right before the housing bubble burst.
Artists like Radiohead and David Bowie had previously toyed with secret recording sessions and unconventional release strategies, but the day the bubble truly burst was December 13, 2013 — when Beyoncé “changed the game with that digital drop” (as she later put it in her guest verse on Nicki Minaj’s “Feeling Myself”) and released her blockbuster self-titled visual album with no prior promotion and, presumably, an entire rain forest’s worth of nondisclosure agreements. Music fans did not seem to miss the familiar grind of the album-promotion cycle: Beyoncé sold 828,773 copies in three days and became the fastest-selling album in the iTunes Store’s history.
Since then, any time another artist has released music in an even vaguely surprising way, it has been dubbed “pulling a Beyoncé,” but the joke is already old and the phrase misleading — the surprise album now comes in many shapes and sizes. Some artists have surprise-released previously announced material early to stay a step ahead of leaks (Björk’s Vulnicura; six of the songs on Madonna’s Rebel Heart; and, most recently, Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly). Long-gone cult heroes have reappeared out of thin air and boosted their devil-may-care cred by releasing comeback albums without prerelease promotion (D’Angelo’s Black Messiah and My Bloody Valentine’s mbv, the latter of which, to be fair, predated Beyoncé by about a year). Others experimented with technologically novel means of distribution (Thom Yorke surprise-released a solo album through BitTorrent; U2 spammed our iPhones with Songs of Innocence and just as quickly apologized for it). But the most successful digital drop since Beyoncé happened in February, when reigning rap king Drake released his 17-song mix tape If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late without warning. It sold half a million copies in a week, broke Spotify-streaming records, and no doubt ensured that this whole phenomenon won’t be going away anytime soon.
The brilliance of the surprise album is that it abides by one of the internet’s most important edicts: Less, actually, is more. This might seem counterintuitive, given that we usually think of the internet as a place overflowing with shouting matches, overshares, and interminably twitching GIFs. But the more crowded the digital sphere gets, the more streamlining becomes a virtue — and the more we appreciate those who do not take up any more of our time or pixels than they need to. Tumblr trumps Myspace. Quiet R&B Zen master Frank Ocean is more of an internet folk hero than the rapper who incessantly posts links to his own SoundCloud. Your friend who tweets five times a week is infinitely more entertaining than the one who tweets 50 times a day.
Of course, the surprise album is also a response to a moment in which artists must maintain their brand year-round, whether or not they’re hawking a new album. Drake is exceptionally good at this. The reason If You’re Reading This sold so well is not that it’s the best music Drake’s ever released (it’s not); it’s because Drake has mastered the digital era’s desire for both instant gratification and long-term anticipation. It’s been a year and a half since he’s put out a traditional album, yet he’s been releasing one-off tracks on his SoundCloud page at a steady though thoughtfully curated clip, keeping us interested (and keeping his name trending) while we await the next full album.
And yet Rihanna’s “Bitch Better Have My Money” helped me realize that I have come down with a bad case of 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; you walk into every room half-expecting to be bombarded with balloons. It’s exhausting. I do, however, know I am biased. On a recent panel about music criticism, I was asked what I thought would be the biggest change in my job over the next five years. I answered without hesitation: “The whole rise of the surprise album is the biggest challenge to pop criticism right now.” Afterward, a critic I admire precisely because he seems to stay above the internet fray came up to me and admitted that he still cannot listen to certain songs on Beyoncé without recalling the stress of having to write about it. I nodded solemnly.
But when I recently asked some of my friends with healthier, nonprofessional relationships to pop music, most of them copped to some degree of surprise-album fatigue, too. “I feel like the press and the public tend to make a bigger deal out of surprise albums. That makes me feel like I should listen to them because everyone is talking about them,” my friend Mia said. “On the other hand, I feel like everyone is rushing to hop on the bandwagon and get in their two cents before the news cycle has passed, so I can’t be sure if the hype is justified.”
Does our collective fatigue mean the surprise album will eventually die? In some sense, I wonder if it’s already dead — killed as soon as we gave it a name, came to expect too much from every cryptic tweet, and started generating anticipatory listicles like “Four Artists Most Likely to Release a Surprise Album This Year.” (As a wise man once said: If you’re reading this, it’s too late.) Now that we’re primed to expect the unexpected, the least surprising thing a major pop artist could do tomorrow is release a new album.
The artists with the most eyes on them seem aware of this double bind. Earlier this year, in an interview with the Breakfast Club on Power 105.1, DJ Envy asked Kanye West if he had a release date set for his new album. Co-host Charlamagne Tha God broke in: “You can’t have a release date,” he said. “It’s played out. It’s last year’s fashion.” West — a man perpetually wary of last year’s fashion — agreed. “One hundred percent. Release dates is played out. So the surprise is going to be a surprise.” He chuckled a little nervously. “There goes the surprise.”
*This article appears in the April 6, 2015 issue of New York Magazine.