When the surprise of a new album loses its luster

Adam Graham
The Detroit News

R&B artist Frank Ocean did something very bold and very brave this week, and the path he blazed may inspire others to follow. His gambit: he announced that he will release his long-awaited new album in, get this, July.

That’s right, July. As in three months from now. As in fans have time to digest the news, get excited about the release, experience an anticipatory build and, who knows, maybe even pre-order the album from their favorite retailer.

How very old-fashioned of him. And refreshing, too.

The Ocean announcement flies in the face of the current superstar ideology, which is to forgo any announcements and release albums with no warning whatsoever. They’re Surprise Albums, as in “surprise! Your favorite star just released an album.” Or, “surprise! While you were sleeping, the entire Internet held a listening party for this brand new album that you didn’t even know existed, and you missed it.”

The Surprise Album was born when Beyonce released her self-titled fifth album just before midnight on Dec. 12, 2013. It was seismic: one of music’s most elite megastars releasing an entire album of new material (with videos to compliment every song) out of thin air. No marketing campaign, no single, just a set of all new songs, available right this second. It was an early Christmas gift for fans, and a game changer for the music industry.

It was also a hugely successful move: “Beyonce” sold more than 617,000 copies its first three days of release, and became Queen Bey’s fastest-selling album to date. (Her previous album, “4,” sold half that many copies its first full week in stores.) The surprise release strategy — which had been tested, in various forms, by artists such as Radiohead, My Bloody Valentine and Jay Z — flew in the face of decades of music business strategy, which called for meticulously constructed slow-burn marketing campaigns that mirrored those of blockbuster movies.

Other artists followed, including EDM maven Skrillex, spacey rapper Kid Cudi and Aussie rockers Wolfmother, to varying degrees of success. The most successful artist to “pull a Beyonce” was Toronto rapper Drake, who in February released his moody mixtape “If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late” like a thief in the night and sold 495,000 copies in three days. (Like Beyonce’s album, Drake’s was released just minutes before the calendar struck Friday the 13th.)

Last month, rapper Kendrick Lamar set a traditional release date for his hugely anticipated “To Pimp a Butterfly,” and then went and surprise-released it an entire week early. By then the fatigue had set in: Albums, especially those as dense and studied as Lamar’s, require digestion, and dumping them on an unsuspecting public demeans them. It’s fun to pull a fast one on fans, but when “surprises” become the norm, it’s not really much of a surprise anymore, is it?

Surprise releases have us on high alert at all times, afraid that if we stay off of Twitter for an hour we may miss the release of the new Rihanna or Kanye West album — both of which are shaping up to be surprise releases — and frankly, that’s no way to live. Which is why Ocean’s strategy is the biggest, and most welcome, surprise of all.