After releasing her genre-traversing fourth album, Sweetener, in August 2018, Ariana Grande told Billboard she wanted “to put out music in the way that a rapper does.” By the time the interview came out in December, she’d already dropped a follow-up single, “thank u, next,” without warning. It debuted on top of the Billboard Hot 100 to become her first No. 1. “It’s just like, ‘Bruh, I just want to fucking talk to my fans and sing and write music and drop it the way these boys do,’” she continued. “Why do they get to make records like that and I don’t?” She was already hinting at her next album in that interview too, then dropped thank u, next in February 2019 with less than three weeks of warning and less than six months after Sweetener. Now, in the year and a half since that impromptu release, Grande has emerged as one of the Hot 100’s best bets, with five No. 1s — and all of them debuts.
Grande articulated in that interview what had become a hard truth as the 2010s came to a close: Pop stars were still playing the release game with an old set of rules, and they were losing because of it. 2020 only widened the gap, both in the changing landscape of musical trends and the ways the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent social distancing stunted album rollouts. When Taylor Swift announced her ninth album and second surprise drop of the year, evermore, hours before its release, even she acknowledged that the decision to forgo her typical promotional high jinks represented a new step. “I’ve never done this before,” she wrote on Instagram. “In the past I’ve always treated albums as one-off eras and moved onto planning the next one after an album was released.”
Swift isn’t just referring to shunning a months-long rollout to drop an album on less than a day’s notice — she had done that before, with July’s folklore. That news came as a major shock: Swift had previously been the industry’s most prominent loyalist to the pop-album rollout, turning her meticulously planned releases into an art of their own. But the surprise release paid off at the time, with record-setting sales that made folklore one of the biggest albums of the year. All signs afterward pointed toward Swift riding that album’s success while she turned her sights toward rerecording her old music. Instead, she didn’t just release a second surprise album — she did it within less than six months, ridding herself of whatever leftover conventional pop wisdom she (and both the new and former teams around her) may have been holding on to.
In doing so, Swift has only given the pop industry a stronger case that the traditional rollout could justifiably be retired in the 2020s: Swift just logged the second-best streaming week of the year for a pop album with evermore (behind only herself) along with the fifth-best week for any album. She got yet another No. 1 song, with “willow,” along with doubling her already impressive feat of debuting an album and a song at No. 1 (first accomplished with folklore). But unlike folklore, she did it all without merch bundles (due to a change in Billboard chart rules) or even physical album sales (they arrived December 18).
Albums became the dominant format for pop music in the mid-1960s, with cohesive projects like the Beatles’ Rubber Soul and the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds, but the modern album rollout as we know it may be more indebted to the 1980s, when stars like Madonna or Michael Jackson could drum up support for an album with a music video for a lead single on MTV. Over time, there became an unspoken (and, eventually, baked into the budget) checklist to releasing a major-label pop album: an upbeat lead single, a grabby music video, some press, a tour announcement, new merch, and the album itself. Even in the so-called post-album era of the 2010s, when listeners didn’t have to purchase an album to hear it, the industry still hadn’t moved on from albums, in large part because those extraneous elements of the rollout — the merch, the tour, the attention — still make record labels and other middlemen money. “Artists have preemptively shifted their vocabulary, with eras representing something solid while traditional albums become ever more nebulous,” noted a 2017 Guardian column on “the rise of the ‘era.’” That sort of distinct aesthetic period conceptualizing an album only strengthens the tour, merch, and the like — and artists have long used their rollouts to establish those eras, like when Swift leaned into nostalgia for 1989 or turned reputation into a treatise on the media. Swift didn’t abandon her beloved eras on folklore and evermore, though; she instead took it a step further by proving that one could just as easily be built in a day, as she inspired her army of fans to pivot to cottagecore on a dime.
Beyoncé recognized the flaws in the whole machine back in 2013 and nearly put a stop to it. She wasn’t the first musician to ever pull a surprise release, but by doing so as a pop star of the highest echelon, she boldly disrupted a formula everyone thought worked and swore was the only way — then later decided it was such a success that she did it again with Lemonade in 2016. (And it was: Beyoncé was, at that point, the best-selling album in the iTunes Store’s history.) Rollouts were supposed to turn big pop albums into events that drive momentum over weeks and months, sometimes more than a year; Beyoncé showed that the Zeitgeist could be captured and held in just one night, zero to 100.
More artists began testing the waters of surprise releases after Beyoncé, including two more pop stars: Drake and Rihanna. Their no-frills drops for If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late and ANTI, though, bore less resemblance to Beyoncé’s highly orchestrated, airtight release and more to casually dropping a mixtape on a space like SoundCloud. (Yes, Drake was literally a rapper releasing a mixtape loosely branded as a “project,” but from a pop star’s perch — mixtapes don’t usually debut at No. 1 on the Billboard 200.) Even without the pomp of a visual album, like Beyoncé, they both still broke records on their way to No. 1. Other heavy hitters who tried to do the same proved it still takes a bit of finesse: Kanye West, for instance, teased The Life of Pablo for months (albeit under different titles) after a series of G.O.O.D. Fridays releases, only to pull the trigger too early and continue tinkering for weeks after his release. Still, some saw the rollout as a pop rite of passage, like Chance the Rapper, who made his name on casual drops and had his most successful yet with 2016’s Coloring Book, only to turn to a proper rollout for his so-called debut album, The Big Day, last year that later got him lampooned online.
Beyoncé, Drake, and Rihanna’s releases reverberated through hip-hop even more than pop, with the new expectation for rap releases to err low-key. In the second half of the decade, a new era began where it increasingly seemed all an album announcement required was cover artwork, a track list, or date posted to social media a few weeks (if that) before the drop. In a 2017 report on rap rollouts, NPR declared, “This new level of sovereignty today’s marquee rappers wield over their careers is a by-product of the digital age and the on-demand culture resulting from it.” Three years later, those same rap albums tend to be the ones going to No. 1, on the strength of both hungry rap listeners and the perceived intimacy of receiving an album without the dog and pony show (see in 2020: Bad Bunny, Lil Uzi Vert, Future, DaBaby, and NBA YoungBoy, among others). It became inarguable that streaming is built for this sort of cultural and consumer impact. If a rollout is about getting listeners to buy an album on release day, a casual drop is about giving them something to listen to for days afterward. Never mind the control these releases give the musicians themselves. “This new day in the business of hip-hop music has loosened major-label dictatorship and empowered the artists, creatives, entrepreneurs, and fans,” NPR added. It’s an especially apt turn for someone like Swift, who’s long stood for artistic control in the face of powerful executives.
It’s also the future Grande envisioned for herself two years ago and saw through now. She first teased her October album, Positions, just 16 days before its release; the only semblance of a rollout was dropping lead single “positions” and a music video the week before the album. It worked for her as well as it had worked for the rappers: Positions debuted at No. 1, drawing nearly 75 percent of its equivalent units from streaming. In fact, Grande logged the third-highest pop streaming week of the year by that point, only behind Swift. Meanwhile, folklore debuted with the largest week for an album in 2020, and only 21,000 fewer units than Swift’s 2019 album, Lover, which came fully loaded with a four-month rollout. Lead single “cardigan” also debuted at No. 1, her first top song since “Look What You Made Me Do” in 2017. Critics noticed Swift’s embrace of her autonomy: “Loosed from the responsibility of piquing the audience’s interest with a rollout dotted with attention-grabbing gestures, Swift is left with just her feelings and her stories,” New York music critic Craig Jenkins wrote of folklore.
Ditching the album rollout has also given Swift and Grande a staying power on the charts that their peers simply have not been able to match all year. Swift spent her first ten weeks in the top ten with folklore, seven of them nonconsecutively at No. 1; Grande’s Positions spent six weeks in the top five. Meanwhile, some of the year’s biggest proper pop rollouts — from stars like Dua Lipa, Lady Gaga, and Katy Perry — haven’t even landed at the top spot. Gaga, the only No. 1 of the group, spent just one week atop the charts with Chromatica, falling out of the top ten after four weeks; that was ultimately after the album had already been delayed seven weeks due to COVID-19, thwarting Gaga’s vision to go big for its release. (“I had so many fun things planned for us to celebrate together,” she wrote to fans when she announced the delay.) The album that knocked Chromatica off No. 1 was Lil Baby’s My Turn, returning to the top spot after its March debut. Lil Baby spent 13 weeks shifting between No. 2 through No. 6 before returning to No. 1; Gaga released Chromatica 13 weeks after lead single “Stupid Love.” (Still unconvinced of the rollout’s waning relevancy? Lil Baby only announced the release date for My Turn a month before it came out.) It perfectly illustrates the question facing nearly every major pop artist today: Is the album the beginning or the end of the release process?
In a way, Lipa and Perry’s rollouts still served them: Future Nostalgia inarguably turned Lipa into a pop star after her small-scale late-March debut, while Perry used August’s Smile to pick up the pieces of her messy rollout for 2017’s Witness. So, yes, in theory there was still purpose for a pop rollout in the 2020s — but greater reason to abandon it. Even artists like Billie Eilish and Justin Bieber, after fairly standard rollouts for 2019’s When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? and this year’s Changes, respectively, have now taken to releasing one-off singles that aren’t officially tied to a new album — another symptom of this shift toward just dropping the music. (Still, that shift might not be so radical for her in the end: On a December 22 Instagram Story, Eilish spoke about changing her hair after her upcoming documentary, telling fans, “I’m gonna give you a new era.”) The next no-rollout drop to follow evermore is already in sight: Playboi Carti announced his long-awaited, forever-rolling second album, Whole Lotta Red, on December 22, to come out on December 25.
But it’s likely evermore isn’t going to feel over after just a few weeks. In a BuzzFeed News essay, Katherine Miller noted how Swift’s surprises hit even harder in the pandemic — they offer “last-minute plans, something to talk about, something to enjoy, something to stay up for, something that will endure, a good surprise.” It’s that collective experience every great album rollout hopes to pull off.
Beyoncé didn’t stop surprise-releasing albums or films after Lemonade, and it’s tough to see another tedious rollout in Swift’s near future, either. When Entertainment Weekly asked her about eschewing a rollout for folklore, Swift replied, “I didn’t think about any of that for the very first time. And a lot of this album was kind of distilled down to the purest version of what the story is.” Beyoncé’s landmark surprise release cracked that ice on the music industry seven years ago; it’s about time Swift and the rest of pop took advantage of the now-open floodgates.