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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 15 December 2018

Surprise! New albums that drop unexpectedly 

Eminem is the latest artist to create a statement by releasing new music without warning

Eminem doesn’t shy away from his potential irrelevance as a 45-year-old rapper. ​​​Antonie Robertson / The National
Eminem doesn’t shy away from his potential irrelevance as a 45-year-old rapper. ​​​Antonie Robertson / The National

When Detroit-born rapper Eminem posted a 15-second teaser for new song Venom on social media last week, he was cueing-up the surprise appearance of his 10th studio album, Kamikaze. Arriving on August 31, it came just eight months after 2017’s Revival.

Typically playful, the new album’s title seems to hint at a last-gasp attempt to re-curry critical favour after Revival’s iffy reviews. Kamikaze’s artwork depicts a vengeful Eminem, AKA fighter pilot LT. Mathers III, descending from the blue at speed. He’s on a collision course, and we sense he intends to make as much impact - and garner as many column-inches - as possible.

Track four on Kamikaze is Paul (Skit), a brief spoken-word segway in which Eminem’s manager Paul Rosenberg phones his client to question the wisdom of him calling out Revival’s critics on Kamikaze. Elsewhere on the album, Eminem doesn’t shy away from his potential irrelevance as a 45-year-old rapper. Dropping Kamikaze from out of nowhere, he wants to show us that he can still surprise. It’s an act of stealth.

As a marketing tactic, the surprise album release seems to be an increasingly common ploy. But the problem, of course, is that the more surprise albums there are, the less surprising such releases will be. None the less, it's a stratagem that can pay dividends.

David Bowie’s penultimate studio record The Next Day, for example, still stands as perhaps the most effective example of a surprise release. Announced on Bowie’s 66th birthday, on January 8, 2013, its sudden, much-acclaimed impact was all the more powerful because Bowie hadn’t released an album in 10 years. He’d become a recluse, and many thought he had already gone into retirement, perhaps because of ill-health.

Crucially, the singer had insisted that the musicians who appeared on the album signed non-disclosure agreements, and when flagship single Where Are We Now? and its engrossing promo video aired online the same day as the album was announced (for release in March),media bods and fans alike marvelled that Bowie had managed to keep his new music a secret to this point.

A similar level of confidentiality surrounded the recording of the singer’s final studio album, 2016’s Blackstar. But the big secret that time, sadly, was that he was dying.

For popular music’s first couple, Beyonce and Jay-Z, catching the entertainment world off-guard has become a habit. You might say that they are the 21st Century’s biggest pop-up store, suddenly materialising in the neighbourhood of your senses with dazzling new product.

When Beyonce surprise-released her self-titled fifth solo album in 2013, she did so without the usual bread-crumb trail of hints or interviews that the record industry has traditionally favoured. She was also moving towards her current, somewhat unprecedented level of artistic control and independence.

It was with Everything Is Love, though, Beyonce and Jay-Z’s recent husband and wife collaboration, that the couple took the impactful art of the surprise album release to a new level.

At the close of their second co-headlining show at London Stadium on June 16, 2018, Beyonce told the ecstatic crowd that she and her husband had a surprise for them. After a screening of the couple’s new single, giant LED screens around the arena announced “ALBUM OUT NOW!”

Naturally, this made headlines around the world, ensuring the rocket launch of Everything Is Love, and Top Five album-chart-placings in many territories.

Other major artists who have opted for the surprise or near-surprise album launch include Radiohead, who announced the October 10, 2007 the release of In Rainbows just nine days earlier. The band adopted a similar approach for May 8, 2016’s A Moon Shaped Pool, signalling its imminent arrival by deleting all content from their social media outlets one week earlier.

In Radiohead’s case, the reasoning behind the surprise release approach was particularly interesting. In an interview with fellow musician David Byrne for Wire magazine, Thom Yorke explained that they were trying to avoid a scenario in which one publication manages to review a new album far in advance of all the others, thus establishing an opinion that other journalists / publications might be tempted to replicate without independent critical evaluation.

Thom Yorke of Radiohead AFP 
Thom Yorke of Radiohead AFP 

Surprises can be unpleasant as well as pleasant, of course, and when U2 gifted / force-fed their 2014 album Songs Of Innocence to up to 500 million people via Apple’s iTunes platform, Apple and the band neglected to anticipate that many of those people wouldn’t be U2 fans.

Though billed as an act of generosity and largesse, the move backfired spectacularly. U2 naysayers hated the fact that the album had infiltrated their music collection without permission or warning. The lesson was clear: tamper with other people’s personal music collections at your peril.

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