Once upon a time, in an epoch far, far away, Beyoncé released an album without telling anyone. It was a Thursday night in December 2013. Everyone was worried about the impact of social media and information overload and North Korea and terrorism. Then the next day there was a new Beyoncé album out.
It changed everything. People still write about the Beyoncé drop to this day, the way "the rules for how to release a record were rewritten literally overnight," ushering in the "surprise-album era." It was a statement, a reaction to overblown PR cycles and unnecessary pre-album blather. Loads of artists took inspiration from it, with JAY-Z, Frank Ocean, J. Cole, and Taylor Swift all doing similar things at one time or another since then.
In 2021, the surprise album era is over. We’ve now gone back the other way. We’re still worried about social media and information overload and North Korea and terrorism, as well as a million other things, but on top of that, the release of a record has now become such a big deal that it’s totally eclipsed the importance of the music itself.
As early as August 2020 we were offered the name of Drake’s next studio album. Of course, "studio album" doesn’t mean anything at this point. Even Drake isn’t expecting us to believe that he recorded his previous album-length release, Dark Lane Demo Tapes, in anything other than a studio.
But it’s important not to get caught up in semantics. We could be here all day.
Following more than a year of hype, Drake delivers Certified Lover Boy after announcing the album’s guests and track titles on a series of "cryptic" billboards around North America. As there’s been a pandemic on, and because he’s given us lots of guest verses and singles, and because he’s Drake, we can just about forgive him for missing his original deadline (which was in January).
But some things are more difficult to forgive.
Kanye West first announced his latest album in May 2020, calling it God’s Country. Two months later he settled on the title DONDA, named for his late mother. 12 months after that, he began hosting DONDA launch events that will be remembered for generations to come as the absolute epitome of album release hype, the worst of the worst, the nadir of the pomp, ceremony and non-musical fanfare that has come to define the present era in pop.
Over three separate dates in two sports arenas, Kanye played three different, unfinished versions of DONDA to crowds varying in levels of capacity. He wore a facemask with no eyeholes, a red puffer jacket, some massive boots and a black leather jacket covered in spikes.
He slept inside the stadium between events. He brought his ex-wife onstage in a wedding dress. He floated up to the sky like Jesus. He recreated his childhood home in the middle of the arena. He made a phone call during one of the events. At one point he found time to file for a legal name change.
At the third event, he invited two of contemporary pop culture’s least likeable people to join him at center stage. Presumably showing solidarity with "victims" of cancel culture, Kanye stood beside DaBaby, who recently made daft, homophobic remarks during a festival performance, and Marilyn Manson, who is facing numerous accusations of rape and sexual abuse.
Why? No matter how much DaBaby might rap about food being taken out of his daughters’ mouths, the DONDA events expose cancel culture for the fallacy it is: look at DaBaby’s and Manson’s monthly streaming figures and you’ll see that neither of their careers have really been cancelled at all.
Compared to rape survivors and sufferers of homophobic abuse, the idea that DaBaby and Manson are in any way "victims" is laughable.
Kanye's alignment with Manson, in particular, has overshadowed the music on DONDA so much that some have even criticized writers simply for reviewing the album, effectively arguing that we should pretend the music doesn’t exist.
Kanye has further undermined the music’s importance by publicly stating that it shouldn’t exist, because his record label, Universal, put the album out without his permission.
But the fact is that every decision Kanye makes, every outfit he wears, every artist he works with, every event he announces, and every time he changes his or his album’s name, it makes news. In an attention economy, the professional attention seeker is king.
It’s not just Drake and Kanye, by the way.
Playboi Carti released his last album Whole Lotta Red after a full two years of hype, then when it finally arrived, everyone hated it (it didn’t even matter that it was actually quite good). When Daft Punk released Random Access Memories in 2013, reviewers hailed a genius promo campaign involving stylish billboards and 15-second TV ads while failing to notice that it was by far the worst music the band had ever made.
"I spend most of my days with fleeting thoughts," he said. "Writing. Listening ... I go months without a phone." It was a statement of understatement that actually began in March 2020, when he and his nondescript "company," pgLang, started publishing videos about quietness, space, and staring at the sun.
Which is still hype, however un-hyped it's trying to be.
And you, reader, are not exactly guilt-free yourself. If you’ve clicked on this article, it’s probably because you’re caught up in the Drake-Kanye-Kendrick hype machine. The only person worse than you is me. Articles like this only add to the fluff surrounding album releases. But if you can’t beat ’em...