Nicki Minaj has spent the greater portion of 2014 tirelessly promoting her third studio album, The Pink Print. There were grandiose award show performances, provocative music videos, a hilarious Saturday Night Live appearance. Each promo spot programmed her pop and rap fanbases with that magical release date: December 15. You iCal’d it. Set a phone alert. But when the clock struck 12 a.m. today, on Minaj Monday, the spanking-new music project that trended on Twitter wasn’t Barbie’s baby. It was D’Angelo’s mysterious, long-craved Black Messiah album. Its release date was officially announced less than six hours earlier.
The element of surprise is good for more than just sweet 16s and marriage proposals. It’s become an increasingly effective, efficient record industry hack for selling music. Radiohead pioneered the digital age sneak album drop back in 2007, ending a four-year drought by releasing In Rainbows a mere 10 days after announcing it. But Beyoncé’s eponymous album release, with no prior warning, effectively broke the Internet last December. Initially a digital-only opus, Beyoncé maxed out with 828,773 units sold in three days, setting an iTunes record and cementing a radical model for drumming up hype for an album release.
Since Bey’s boss move, several artists have reevaluated the conventional album rollout method. J. Cole’s 2014 Forest Hills Drive touted exactly zero singles when it was released last Tuesday (December 9), 23 days after its existence became known to fans. Satellite Flight: The Journey to Mother Moon, Kid Cudi’s spacey fourth studio album, arrived in February with only a few hours notice. And many forgot that Twitter troublemaker Azealia Banks was an actual recording artist by the time her eclectic debut, Broke With Expensive Taste—already four singles deep—crash landed on iTunes last month out of nowhere after countless delays.
But why were these albums best kept secret?
For D and his exceptional Black Messiah, it’s a classic case of less is more. It’s unlikely the notoriously reclusive soul god would either be willing or able to match the promotional exposure of a Nicki Minaj. But at this point, D’Angelo’s legend is bigger than any teaser record he could put out or interview he could give. (He made Brown Sugar!) Plus, after years of false starts and disappointing delays, some skeptics were looking for early indications of a letdown. Dropping an album out of the midnight blue uses that curiosity to his advantage. The news of the release is as exciting as the music, regardless of whether it’s phenomenal or underwhelming. No one wants to be left out of the water cooler convo come Monday morning.
There’s a quiet confidence that comes with an artist keeping his or her cards close. Rather than selling a project based on one or two singles, it’s the artist’s rep that vouches for the body of work. In addition, without the typical marketing ploys and contrived promo, a surprise album feels more like a direct delivery from artist to listener rather than a product being peddled for record label profits. You, the listener, feel more connected.
But of course, there’s levels to the success surprise albums will achieve. While Cole’s latest is expected to be the year’s quickest-selling hip-hop album, Kid Cudi’s Satellite Flight sold the fewest first-week copies in his career with 87,000 units (his 2013 LP Indicud sold 136,000 in its first week). Meanwhile, Azealia Banks’s debut scored lots of critical love, but sold 11,165 copies in its first week—a modest victory for an indie artist, but no game changer.
Numbers aside, people are listening. While surprise releases aren’t surefire sellers, stars with mystiques bigger than their music should try their luck. Lil Wayne’s Tha Carter V is already part of a legendary series; Cash Money could do numbers with a sudden release of that closing chapter. There’s probably no conventional way the mythical Detox could drop; Dr. Dre should floor hip-hop by letting that go on a random Thursday. Same for Jay Electronica’s forever-gestating debut, Act II: Patents of Nobility (The Turn). The two years between Rihanna and Kendrick Lamar’s last albums have felt like an eternity; either of them could A-bomb your Twitter feed with a fresh, full project.
Regardless of the final sales tally, D’Angelo has already shaken up the music world more than any of Nicki Minaj’s “Anaconda” twerks. Maybe next time Nicki will make like her hit song title suggests and strike when we least expect.
John Kennedy is a writer, editor and tortured Knicks fan who represents Queens, but stays out in Brooklyn. He’s written for Vibe, Billboard and XXL. Tweet him at @youngJFK. (Nas slander will get you blocked.)