At this time five years ago, Beyoncé had the world in shock after the surprise release of her eponymous self-titled album. The visual work, which featured 14 tracks and 17 videos, came at a time when there was some stagnancy in the industry. Album rollouts were practically the same — a lead single, followed by a video and possibly another single before dropping the project. Music videos didn’t hold much excitement as they once did either. And for the first time in Beyoncé’s career, she “didn’t want anybody to give the message when [her] record is coming out.”
Honestly speaking, not many artists have the capability or gravitational pull to release an album with no promotion, no marketing or no notice at all. We’re in a world where curating content and planning when to release said material plays a crucial role and is key to an artist’s success. Beyoncé brought something refreshing to table when she released her fifth album and she is one of the few people that successfully released a surprise album. Her formula? Add being a global superstar to secretly creating some amazing music and visuals for an amazing sensory experience while on tour; sprinkle a bit of suspense by dropping a few loose tracks here and there and post of a video montage on your Instagram for your millions of followers. The result? The number one album in the world and the fastest selling album on iTunes at that point.
Known to produce high-budget and pristine videos, Beyoncé went against her norm of being planned and calculated and took a more spontaneous, free approach to the frames for this LP. The 17 videos, which varied and bared no type of resemblance to each other, were a lot more down to each, authentic and humanizing.
If introducing the new approach in how to release an album visually wasn’t ingenious enough, the superstar went against the standard Tuesday release day by making her album available on a Friday. Two years later, the music industry set Friday as the global release date to minimize piracy, as well as to keep up with the current digital age. They believed this change would assist in increasing album sales as research suggested consumers were more likely to buy and listen to music during the latter part of the week. It can be said that the release of Beyoncé’s self-titled album served as a variable and was one of the reasons the day to release albums shifted from Tuesday to Friday. That major change speaks to how much power an artist possess, enough to adjust a 24-year precedent in the industry.
With the bar to this original, alternative way of releasing music set high, no one has dropped a surprise album quite as impressive as Beyoncé has. This avenue has been so successful and conducive for her, she also followed suit with her last solo album, Lemonade, as well as this year’s joint album with her husband Jay-Z, Everything is Love.
But artists like D’Angelo and Rihanna have taken advantage of Beyoncé’s album release blueprint and have incorporate key points for their own album rollouts. In 2014, D’Angelo unleashed his Grammy-winning comeback album, Black Messiah with his band The Vanguard, after a 14-year hiatus. Months leading up to this release, his manager, Kevin Lies, mentioned the neo-soul groundbreaker was working on a new album and that it was coming later in the year. Just days ahead to deciding to debut this body of work, a mysterious album trailer hit the Internet and promo posters were seen throughout the streets of New York City. One day before the release date, D’Angelo partnered with Red Bull to premiere a new song titled “Sugah Daddy,” where free downloads were available for the first 1,000 fans then available for streaming. The following day, he had an album listening party where Black Messiah was available digitally hours later at midnight.
Rihanna didn’t exactly intend to release ANTI, her eighth album, as a surprise but it ended up being that way. The Bajan beauty was steadily working on the album as soon as two weeks before the release date, even releasing her hit single “Work” the same day the album was imminently out. On the album release date, 30-second snippets of the album were briefly leaked and uploaded to TIDAL. The music was quickly taken down but eventually released exclusively on the streaming service later that day. Rihanna and Samsung paired up to provide a limited amount of free download links for the album and was later available for purchase after the codes were used. Even though the code garnered over a million downloads globally within 14 hours and was certified platinum by the RIAA, they weren’t included in the Billboard charts or Nielsen sales. The album still charted No. 1 and is her longest charting album, currently spending 148 weeks on the Billboard 200 chart.
One of the things these three artists have in common is an unwavering and loyal fan base. Their fans yearn their music, whether it has been four or 14 years since their last project and wait, sometimes impatiently, for any type of content they produce. Even though it had only been two years since her last album, Beyoncé was in full swing with the Mrs.Carter Show World Tour. Fans were hoping and speculating if they would be getting to experience new material while she was on the road and being elusive as she’s known to be, the public wouldn’t know until she was ready.
The world isn’t used to Beyoncé freely opening herself up to society and to her fans. The topics that she discussed on this album were foreign but amazingly refreshing to hear from the private public figure. She discussed womanhood, feminism, infidelity, sexuality, love, motherhood, self-esteem; all sides of her that people never thought they would get to see but sides that she was willing to show. Honesty flowed throughout this entire album and for that to be the case, she had to be open with parts of her life and discuss them candidly.
On “Rocket,” she confidently talks highly of herself in a flirty and forward manner to her partner, telling him all the suggestive things she wants him to do to her. Beyoncé floats and effortlessly soars on this slow jam, taking you on a climactic vocal journey.
The juxtaposition between the speech on feminism by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and the aggression and attitude in production and lyrics of “***Flawless” don’t seem to make sense at first. Upon further listening, the first half of the song is the frustration of not recognizing all of who she is as a person and the years of hard work that has been put in. On the other half of the song, she is realizing who she is as a woman and as a person. As a whole, the song is about embracing the things that happen in life and coming out assured and confident.
Behind the melancholy beat of “Haunted,” she says in a monotone rhythmic voice, “I’m climbing up the walls because all the shit I hear is boring / All the shit I do is boring / All these record labels boring / I don’t trust these record labels, I’m torn.” Her stance on the industry is evident: “I didn’t want to release my music the way I’ve done it. I am bored with that. I feel like I am able to speak directly to my fans.” Being able to immediately reach her fans certainly assisted in the album’s success.
This album heavily experimented with sounds that aren’t synonymous to Beyoncé’s brand and image. Straying away from a more polished and pop sound, the album stayed in an R&B pocket, with a few tracks like “No Angel“ and “Partition” that were infused with some electronic sounds. There were some elements of trap, with bass, drums and synthesizers to match, in addition to some current rap, old-school ‘70s funk and futuristic contemporary sounds as well.
The visuals were just as captivating as well: sharp, colorful, jarring and realistic. From the streets of her hometown Houston and the beach side of Brooklyn to the favelas of Brazil, there was beauty in capturing people in their essence. On the other side of the coin, it wouldn’t be a Beyoncé visual if there wasn’t any type of choreography or a performance in the mix. Even though these videos were shot on short notice, her team provided a multitude of varying looks, some theatrics and kept the creativity and vision intact.
In hindsight, Beyoncé created an experience with this visual album that filled a void that was missing. In the age where content comes out every single day, she produced something that most people wouldn’t be able to pull off — an innovative art form that people still discuss to this day. She wanted to be the direct conduit to provide this album to her fans and to give them something that is personal that truly means something to her as an artist. This album stands in time as an invigorating body of work that can’t be duplicated, solidifying herself as an entertainer and creator.
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Words by Danielle Brissett