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Save the Term “Surprise” for Albums That Are Actually Surprising

What happens when the most interesting thing about a record is its release?

Getty Images/Elias Stein
Getty Images/Elias Stein

In the days leading up to April 23, it seemed quite possible that Beyoncé — the grand empress of the surprise album — had finally run out of ways to surprise us. A week prior, she had posted a minute-long teaser for something called Lemonade, which would premiere in prime time on HBO that Saturday night. As mysterious as that trailer was, it seemed relatively safe to say that Beyoncé — who was about to embark on a worldwide tour, had recently dropped the single “Formation,” and, of course, had a history of dropping new records out of nowhere — would be premiering new music that night, and very likely a new album.

Somehow, Lemonade still managed to shock. We may have been prepared for an album, but we weren’t prepared for this album — an hour-long, achingly candid tone poem about a famous spouse’s alleged infidelities and the irrepressible communal spirit of black women. That Beyoncé had previously been so private about her personal life made the record’s confessional nature that much more flabbergasting. The “surprise album” release strategy was well on its way to becoming a cliché (if not an outright annoyance, as U2 found out the hard way), but, with Lemonade, Beyoncé upped the ante, daring other acts to save their greatest risks not for the particulars of the (anti) promotional campaign, but for the content of the artistry. It’s an important distinction: Lemonade was a surprise album not because of the manner in which it was released; it was a surprise album because it was, for Beyoncé, a totally unpredictable exploration of new sonic, thematic, and emotional frontiers.

And I speak from experience: The first time I watched Lemonade, I was gasping and clutching my heart like I was watching a grade-A thriller. It seemed to deliver an oh shit! moment with every cut: When Serena suddenly appeared! When Bey uttered things like “suck on my balls!” and the Warsan Shire–penned phrase “plugged my menses with pages from the holy book,” so help me god! When — WAIT IS THAT JAY KISSING HER HANDS AND FEET? DID SHE ACTUALLY FORGIVE THIS MAN AND IS THIS WHOLE THING A COMMERCIAL FOR HIS FLAILING STREAMING SERVICE? WHAT IS HAPPENING AND DID SHE REALLY JUST GET JACK WHITE OF ALL THE PEOPLE ON THIS PLANET TO INSINUATE THAT GOD IS A WOMAN?!?! The fire alarm emoji should be used sparingly for maximum impact, but throughout a first viewing of Lemonade it was warranted at least a dozen times. Right when the surprise album was on the brink of overkill, Beyoncé breathed new life into it. Which means, for better and for worse, that it’s not going anywhere anytime soon.

“Surprise album” has become such a ubiquitous term that its meaning becomes more vague with each passing tweet. (Last month the Chicago Tribune even used it to describe Drake’s Views, an album that not only had a previously announced release date, but which Drake himself had been teasing for the better part of two years.) But even when the phrase is used more precisely, it’s becoming a bit hollow; we’re living through a deluge of albums — even something as long promised as Rihanna’s Anti — that lay claim to that trendy term “surprise,” but have, like Lemonade, given us a lot of hints that they were coming.

“Let’s do a good-ass job with Chance 3,” human-shaped ray of sunshine Chance the Rapper promised on his star-making verse on Kanye West’s “Ultralight Beam.” A week after Lemonade premiered, Chance began selling promotional posters for the record via his website. And yet when the 23-year-old Chicago rapper actually dropped his third mixtape (which had been renamed Coloring Book) on May 13, it was almost universally described as a “surprise album.” Similarly (if a little more curmudgeonly), when Radiohead began deleting its internet presence in early May, what did people think they were doing? Switching their server to GoDaddy? No, it was pretty safe to say that they were laying the groundwork to promote some new music. A Moon Shaped Pool, the group’s ninth studio album, appeared shortly after.

“Surprise” is pop music’s latest fetish commodity, a new but widely accepted virtue in an industry desperately trying to adapt to the demands (and attention spans) of the digital age. The album promotional cycle used to be pretty uniform: Announce the release date a few months prior, send a single to radio, and tour once the album comes out. But these tactics have now been replaced by, say, obtuse teasers that often feel like perfume ads directed by Terrence Malick and promotional hieroglyphs graffitied onto urban sidewalks (and which often, in the case of Arcade Fire and more recently Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeroes, result in apologies).

You can’t blame these artists for trying to kick up some mystique; in a way they have to play into this culture of event and novelty in order to stay trending. It’s also a response to modern life’s so-called attention economy, in which time, focus, and — god willing — contemplation are the scarcest commodities. In a recent NPR podcast, editor Jacob Ganz said of the surprise release, “It’s maybe the only way to get the kind of attention that you used to be able to package together in the days of the record label at its peak … maybe [this] is the only way to make it feel like something is an event anymore.”

Smaller, quieter artists are dabbling in this release strategy too. On May 5, the brooding Brit James Blake released The Colour in Anything, an album that had been teased with billboards but hadn’t been explicitly announced. Like Chance’s Coloring Book, it conveniently came on the heels of a high-profile guest appearance — Blake’s turn on Lemonade’s wispy, forlorn “Forward.” The Colour in Anything is a haunting, pretty, rainy-day drizzle of a record, and perhaps because of that, calling it a “surprise album” feels a tad dramatic — like calling a lightning bug a firework. And aside from its unannounced release, very little about The Colour in Anything is surprising; it sounds … exactly how I’d expect a new James Blake album to sound, almost to the point of self-parody: Not only is there a song that features fellow indie crooner Bon Iver, but that song is called “I Need a Forest Fire,” and it sounds like a song from an SNL skit about James Blake and Bon Iver making a song together (in which Justin Vernon, naturally, is played by Desi from Girls).

Getty Images
Getty Images

The Colour in Anything isn’t an exception, though; artistically speaking, very little has been startling about 2016’s non-Lemonade “surprise albums.” Coloring Book sounds, as expected, like the mathematical sum of his previous two releases — a kaleidoscopic swirl of Acid Rap’s Chicago reportage and Surf’s defiant euphoria. And, while lovely, Radiohead’s A Moon Shaped Pool sounds pretty close to what I’d envision a Radiohead album to sound like in 2016: a logical progression from the slightly dour The King of Limbs, enlivened by the outre experimentations that guitarist Jonny Greenwood has been exploring in the years since.

Musical novelty, of course, is not inherently better than predictability, and wild artistic risks don’t work for everybody. (I liked the records that Beach House put out last year precisely because they sounded like Beach House records — both the one that was announced and the one that came out “by surprise.”) And there’s a certain time and place in their career for artists to do 180s. Now that, after the Kanye bump, a lot more people are paying attention to Chance, this wasn’t exactly the moment for him to put out his Yeezus. But what we risk, in fetishizing the surprise album, is mistaking promotional innovation for artistic innovation, making the particulars of the album rollout seem more important than the songs. And what’s worse, when we start to expect surprises around every corner, we risk becoming desensitized to that Lemonade feeling — when an artist manages to find the one place we weren’t expecting her to go and, jarringly, jumps out from her hiding place.

In a dark twist of fate, the era of the surprise album has coincided with two shocking deaths, those of David Bowie and Prince. Both of these losses were sudden, cataclysmic, and perspective-shifting: For a few days at least, after their respective passings, the contemporary machinations of the music world seemed a little frivolous.

Bowie, in January, injected an elegant bit of the macabre into the music industry’s fetishization of surprise: He died two days after the release of his album Blackstar, an enigmatic collection of songs that only after his passing revealed itself to be a kind of sonic goodbye. In a way that was startling, tasteful, and thus oh-so-Bowie, the surprise of his death completed the record’s narrative arc. Maybe no other artist should have attempted a surprise release after Bowie had so bleakly perfected the form, but there we were, preparing for Lemonade that afternoon in April when the world stopped for a few moments because we’d lost Prince.

These two artists have dominated the musical conversation this year not because of the shock of their deaths, but because of the many, many shocks of their lives. This had nothing to do with the gimmickry of their promotional strategies (not that they were above such things), but with the restless and continuously exploratory nature of their work. Think of Bowie’s unpredictable transformations from folksy space alien to glammy meta-rock star to Philly-soul crooner to ambient music pioneer to suave mainstream pop icon (and that’s only one decade of his career!). Prince could often pack that many jolts and stylistic metamorphoses into a single record. Both of their catalogs are master classes in how to artfully astonish, how to conjure the truly unexpected. They made us gasp in the best way.