January 18, 2023
Illustration by Roche
Welcome to New Retro Week, a celebration of the biggest artists, hits, and cultural moments that made 2013 a seminal year in pop. MTV News is looking back to see what lies ahead: These essays showcase how today’s blueprint was laid a decade ago. Step into our time machine.
In her 2013 HBO documentary, Life Is But a Dream, Beyoncé lamented the state of the music industry. At the time, she was frustrated that artists weren’t making full, cohesive bodies of work, opting to churn out quick-hit singles for the sake of maintaining relevance.
“People don’t make albums anymore,” she said. “They just try to sell a bunch of little quick singles. And they burn out, and they put out a new one, and they burn out, and they put out a new one.”
Only 11 months later, she flipped the industry on its head. December 13, 2013, is a day every member of the Beyhive will remember forever: when Beyoncé released her self-titled fifth studio album without any advance notice. But it also marks a day that changed the way we think about albums, in terms of their promotion, marketing, and visual elements.
Each of the songs on Beyoncé was accompanied by a music video. There were no prior singles released, as Bey wanted fans to experience the album in full, both sonically and visually. “I wanted people to hear the songs with the story that’s in my head,” she said in a YouTube video that dropped shortly after, “because that’s what makes it mine. That vision in my brain is what I wanted people to experience the first time.”
Over the past decade, many artists have tried to replicate the surprise-release format — Drake, Frank Ocean, Taylor Swift — and while some have seen similar success, no one has been able to replicate the impact of Beyoncé, which quickly debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 and became a cultural phenomenon. Bey used the songs to display herself as a sexual being after becoming a mother and delve into postpartum depression and the state of her marriage, resonating with fans.
Beyoncé was also impactful to other artists. Nearly a year after its release, J. Cole pulled a similar move with his third studio album, 2014 Forest Hills Drive. Though he had announced the album a few weeks prior, he did not release a single beforehand, as he wanted fans to listen to the album in full. Like Beyoncé, 2014 Forest Hills Drive reached No. 1, selling 371,000 copies in the first week of release.
“The #’s are humbling,” Cole tweeted after the album’s release. “It’s a win for all artists and fans and a clear message to the industry. No singles no features. Stop serving trash.”
Months later, Drake surprise-released his 2015 mixtape, If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late. Though he’s never explained why he gave no prior notice, many immediately compared the strategy to Bey’s, with several headlines stating that he “pulled a Beyoncé.”
In 2020, Taylor Swift pulled a similar move, releasing Folklore and Evermore with less than 24 hours notice. For her 2022 album Midnights, she did not release any prior singles. All of the aforementioned projects reached No. 1, which experts say can only occur in relation to how much people are anticipating the project.
“It really depends on how much people care and how excited they are,” Variety’s Senior Music Editor Jem Aswad tells MTV News. He notes that the release date of SZA’s sophomore album, SOS, was announced six days before it actually dropped. “We’d been waiting for it for so long. The fact that it finally arrived at all was a surprise in and of itself. There’s gotta be a kinda bigger narrative around [the album]. If somebody just drops an album out of nowhere, even somebody fairly well-known — the whole process has become so familiar that it almost works against you.”
As artists have replicated Bey’s strategy, the industry also made note of the effects of her intentionally using a Friday release date. Before Beyoncé, most albums were released on a Tuesday. In 2015, the industry decided to make Friday the global release date for new albums. Not only did this prove beneficial for fans to receive the music at the same time as the rest of the world, but journalist and music historian Taylor Crumpton says Friday was absolutely necessary for fans to enjoy Beyoncé’s art, and remains so to this day.
“She loves a Friday,” Crumpton says, noting the release dates of her 2020 Black Is King film and her most recent solo album, Renaissance. “She is wanting her fans to go out and dance. She wants you to be active. You cannot get into the totality of Renaissance if you are also thinking about what you have to wake up and do in the morning. Friday means ‘I can do this all by myself and I can still do all of this promotion with my full reign and autonomy.’”
Other facets of the industry have found that they needed to diversify. In 2015, Beyoncé infamously lost the Grammy Award for Album of the Year to Beck’s Morning Phase. In 2017, Bey lost again, this time with the Recording Academy awarding Adele’s 25 with the honor instead of her sixth studio album, Lemonade. Many blamed these shocking upsets on an old, out-of-touch Recording Academy, composed largely of white men. In 2022, the Recording Academy announced it had welcomed more than 2,000 new members to its new class, including 44 percent from “traditionally underrepresented communities.” With Renaissance up for Album of the Year, Aswad believes it will be interesting to see how the Grammys play out this year.
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“The Grammys have gotten much better for the most part over the years, especially since the ’90s, when you were seeing things like a Tony Bennett Unplugged album full of decades-old songs winning Album of the Year — give me a break,” Aswad says. “It’s hard to say what’s gonna happen this year, because you’ve got Beyoncé versus Adele again.”
Whatever happens on the awards-show stage, the cultural impact Beyoncé made goes beyond the Grammys and the industry as a whole. The fact that, nearly 10 years later, artists are still trying to replicate what Beyoncé has done proves that she is, in fact, the standard.
“What does it mean when even the people who do achieve those Grammy wins and those streaming records still pay homage to her at the end of the day?” Crumpton says. “It’s showing you that she is more powerful than the institution and the streaming just because she’s still doing the work. She shows a lot of people that you don’t have to be so active in sharing every single moment of your life. Why don’t you take that, put that in an album, and let it speak for itself?”
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