Why The Surprise Release Is A Perfect Storm That Only Beyoncé Can Pull Off
The immersive experience that is Beyoncé’s Lemonade visual album may have eclipsed even her 2013 surprise self-titled drop. It deadened the noise of anything else in pop culture for an entire weekend, if not more. This time, rather than release it completely out of nowhere, she only warned us that something was coming, but didn’t specify what. Was it a video? A movie? Dare we say (gasp) the premiere of B6? The answer: It was all of the above. Like her s/t release, she unleashed a new catalogue of songs with visuals encompassing them all. Only this time, the songs were weaved together with popping vignettes, spoken word narration and relatable storytelling; rather than a series of music videos it was an abstract film soundtracked by the album.
Beyoncé wasn’t the first to do a surprise album drop (hell, just a few months before Beyoncé, My Bloody Valentine did it), but she was the first of her stature to do it, and pair it with album-length visuals. Twice. Without leaks. Many artists have tried to replicate this but missed the mark. So why is Beyoncé really the only artist we’ve seen pull it off? Stardom alone can’t account for it. Vigilance against leaks and loyal inner circles, plenty of other artists share those qualities. Queen B can execute the surprise release on such a successful scale because she has a very special set of cards that other acts simply don’t have in their deck.
Below, we look at the perfect storm of factors that explain why the surprise release works best for Beyoncé.
She Was This Era’s Album Release Innovator
When Beyoncé dropped out of the sky in December 2013, it was the first time we’d seen a pop star of her magnitude release a project without fanfare and without some sort of social media gimmick. Sure, there had been whispers and tabloid sightings at video shoots, but nobody was expecting a fully formed album and accompanying visuals to appear with zero promo out of the ether. That just wasn’t in the realm of possibility at the time. By releasing the album completely on her own terms, she shattered the music marketing model as we knew it. If one of our biggest stars could forgo the traditional album rollout, then what did it mean for everyone else?
It’s pretty much been chaos ever since. Pop fans are constantly on edge waiting for a big star to “pull a Beyoncé.” What a misnomer. Everyone from U2 to Skrillex to Kid Cudi followed the pop-up recipe and it didn’t pan out quite as well. Only Drake has gotten close when he surprise-dropped If You’re Reading This…, but he hedged his bets by calling it a “mixtape.” And, of course, it was missing the videos. Then you had ANTI and The Life Of Pablo, two massive rollouts trying to engender a similar sense of unpredictability without actually being surprises, resulting in the polar opposite of Bey’s laser-precision campaign.
The Beyhive Is Unrivaled
The psychology behind a surprise album release is built on the notion that a large subset of people of will care enough about the subject being unveiled. A lot of people care about Beyoncé. A lot of people care about other big stars, too. What separates Beyoncé is the Beyhive. Their level of engagement set the template for and eclipses that of Rihanna‘s Navy or Lady Gaga‘s Monsters and the like — these are the people who managed to sniff out “Project Lemonade” clues weeks before a teaser arrived.
One slanderous word about Queen Bey and your social media will be flooded with bee emoji for the foreseeable future – just ask Rachel Roy, Rachel Ray (if spelling isn’t really your jam) and Kid Rock. Their unwavering loyalty means they will catch a surprise album with open arms immediately after it drops, rather than waiting for it to trickle down to streaming channels or pirate sites, the way countless Kanye stans torrented or waited around for TLOP. And their FOMO is so intense that it infects casual Beyoncé fans, lest they feel out of touch with the zeitgeist.
Her Visual Content Heightens The Stakes
Beyoncé, perhaps more than any of her pop peers, understands how much visual content informs the way in which we consume her work. It’s become her mode of communication with the public (note the happy family photo she posted after the Solange elevator brawl to imply everything was all good.) Bey and her bench of geniuses over at Parkwood Entertainment (more on that in a sec) had the forethought in 2013 to know that plopping an unexpected album onto iTunes alone wouldn’t change the game. “I see music,” she said in a video announcing that first surprise album. “It’s more than just what I hear. When I’m connected to something, I immediately see a visual or a series of images that are tied to a feeling or an emotion, a memory from my childhood, thoughts about life, my dreams or my fantasies. And they’re all connected to the music.” Tiresome as it can be for an artist to shoot 12-15 music videos (and on the DL no less), the visual quality managed to be stunning; a different look, narrative and setting with each video more captivating than the last. She changed the game because (twice) she gave us a visual story to accompany, not compensate for, the music. It was transformative both times.
Her Guarded Persona Keeps Us Guessing
Within that proverbial deck of cards that Beyoncé holds so close to the vest is the wild card: mystery. Her personal life, save what is conjured up by gossip rags, is guarded with Fort Knox-level security. She rarely does press, has undoubtedly surpassed the talk show circuit and does not muddy herself in addressing rumors — unless it’s in service of a song (“a billion dollars on an elevator,” anyone?). Simply put, we know about Beyoncé what she wants us to know, and we see her when she wants to be seen. And that invaluable shroud of secrecy has distinguished her in this culture of overexposure, without her resorting to overwrought “mystery” tactics like Radiohead‘s recent erasure of its online presence. She creates a demand. The rare moments when Beyoncé has something to say or share are more cherished and newsworthy.
Parkwood Is A Make-Shit-Happen Factory
After parting ways with father and former manager Matthew Knowles, Beyoncé established Parkwood Entertainment – an in-house team of creatives spanning music production, motion pictures and even fashion. That roster of creatives and execs includes some of the best in business including former JP Morgan Chase Sports & Entertainment Marketing exec Steve Pamon, former Def Jam Executive Peter Thea and digital marketing guru Dan Ghosh-Roy.
The most difficult part of orchestrating a high-profile surprise release is preventing leaks (of information and music). With essentially her own built-in media apparatus, she has a fully integrated, handpicked staff working visually, digitally and sonically, presumably serving as a buffer to minimize label interference and thus results in fewer competing interests. Besides, no one wants to be blacklisted by Queen B for springing any leaks, if for no other reason than to avoid the wrath of the Hive.