The Year In Surprise Rollouts: How Beyonce, Frank Ocean & Kanye West Remixed Album Releases In 2016

Surprise releases are about as shocking as a Kanye West rant at this point. Since Beyoncé sneakily stopped the world with her eponymous album in 2013, the onslaught of covert rollouts has made music fans accustomed to blind-siding LP drops.

Pre-Beyoncé, artists relied on traditional marketing for new music: lead single, radio spins, TV appearances and the announcement of a set release date. For years, that working model gave musicians the best chance to dominate charts or at least keep their buzz revving for their die-hard fans. But now with digital evolutions in the music marketplace, including streaming (we all know selling a needle-moving amount of physical albums is rare unless you’re Adele) and artists carefully avoiding online leaks, the pantheon of established musicians are now generating a craftier, more dynamic build-up to capture the attention of the nose-deep-in-Twitter generation.

This year proved that every aspect of the album can get special treatment, down to the cover art. It isn’t merely posted to Instagram or Facebook. Instead, it’s unveiled art gallery-style for a more dramatic effect like Rihanna did with Anti, which dropped at the top of the year. The "Work" singer revealed Anti’s braille-adorned artwork at Los Angeles' MAMA gallery alongside floor-to-ceiling canvases. This launch operated in tandem with her $25 million Samsung partnership that powered ANTIdiaRy.com, a mobile site that offered cryptic clues to the album’s imminent release. By the time, the LP hit e-shelves (via a Tidal “leak”), anticipation for Rih's eighth musical effort was downright palpable, earning her a second No. 1 album.

Frank Ocean and Kanye West also amplified their album releases into multi-dimensional offerings. Both artists employed livestreams to accentuate the listening experience, with West debuting the enigmatic The Life of Pablo during his A-list-only Yeezy Season 3 fashion show held at Madison Square Garden and Frank Ocean spinning Endless as he built a staircase. The Odd Future affiliate then released his proper Channel Orange follow-up, Blond, under his own Boys Don't Cry label. Along with that, he launched Boys Don’t Cry pop-up shops in in New York, London, Chicago, and L.A. that offered limited-edition Boys Don’t Cry magazines.

Whether fans receive no heads-up or devour breadcrumbs delivered from their musical favorites, cryptic rollouts empower artists and boost enjoyment for their latest sonic fare. Drake controlled Views promo with every mysteriously erected billboard that popped up in Toronto teasing the release date long before its April drop. Although the wait left fans writhing with impatience, the desperate need to watch the rollout unfold compelled fans to stream Drake’s fourth LP over a billion times in the U.S. just one month after it finally arrived.

Even the spontaneity and skill of Chance The Rapper’s rule-breaking project, Coloring Book, garnered so much attention, it arguably helped earn him seven 2017 Grammy nominations, including Best Rap Album.

For notoriously private stars like J. Cole and Kendrick Lamar, stealth reveals also allowed those artists to perfect their work without the added pressure from the public. In March, Compton’s mad kid tweeted the link to his out-of-the-blue compilation album, which was only lightly teased by LeBron James, and his Dreamville brethren recently followed his undercover lead and released his fourth studio album, 4 Your Eyez Only. The promotion? A snapshot of an iTunes pre-order page and a 40-minute documentary titled Eyez, apparently enough to help the reflective LP potentially move over 500,000 projected units and seal the No. 1 spot on the Billboard 200 next week. 

Arguably, no artists weathered the changing music marketing climate better than the woman who mastered the art. At every turn, Bey was creating time-arresting events for every music drop. In February, she unexpectedly released "Formation" and caused a windstorm of conversation about race and culture. Later, she parlayed the explosive tune into a Super Bowl 50 halftime performance alongside Bruno Mars and Coldplay. Then in April, the pop culture queen shattered expectations of the new music strategy altogether by presenting an hour-long HBO feature film to accompany her 12-track, multi-genre opus titled Lemonade, which premiered exclusively on her husband Jay Z's streaming service Tidal. Almost immediately, the dual event was heralded as her greatest work, moving 653,000 equivalent album units in its first week of release and pulling in 787,000 viewers in the 18-49 demographic. And if her nine 2017 Grammy nominations are any indication, that astonishment-meets-talent marketing formula can be outstandingly impactful.

Between partnering with massive brands, creating interactive content and expanding the creative vision across different mediums, artists did more than drop albums "out of nowhere" -- they created moments. Though it remains to be seen what new wave of this industry trend will be, Kanye West's “living” album idea could be a hint (he constantly revised his tracks even after the album's February release). But no matter how exciting or perhaps torturous for listeners, these over-the-top music releases will ultimately leave the generation of instant-gratification seekers asking one question in the new year: What’s next?

Billboard Year in Music 2016