Over the past decade, the way the world’s biggest musicians promote their new records has changed massively. The old-fashioned publicity trail – one peppered with appearances on TRL, talk shows, gigantic billboards, radio tours and magazine covers – has practically become a thing of the past. Back in the early-to-mid ’00s, everybody’s favorite pop stars’ careers were built that way, with artists like Britney owing their whole careers to MTV performances, tabloid newspapers, and the kind of radio push modern pop stars would dream for.
Achieving that level of cultural ubiquity was expensive back then, and it isn’t exactly a sensible risk for labels to take now. As sales turn into streams, and making money from music itself becomes even more difficult, gigantic PR stunts are becoming more and more rare. The question is: should today’s biggest musicians even bother with all that, when internet-bred hysteria is free?
Nowadays, the idea of knowing an artist’s album release date six months in advance is an alien concept. And there’s one person we owe that to: Beyoncé.
Just a few days before Christmas back in 2013, the behemoth pop icon completely switched the narrative around how artists’ music should be released. One of the most famous women in the world had created a record, complete with a music video for each of its 14 tracks, without any of us knowing. One morning, we woke up (like this) and had a whole new Beyoncé album to obsess over without any warning. The pop world was in hysterics; in some way, it felt like musical history had been made.
At the time, its method of release was an art in itself; further proof that Bey’s clout was still as powerful as it was a decade prior, when “Crazy in Love” started blaring out of nightclub speakers and refused to let up. But it also proved something different: that traditional album promotion – expensive and extensive – was now futile, and with a big enough name, artists could make a splash based on the art alone rather than the costly stunts surrounding them.
Frank Ocean proved that a couple years later, with some ‘will he, won’t he?’ rumors surrounding Blonde’s release, which was ambiguously predicted for what felt like years, before finally dropping like an atomic bomb into our hands on August 20, 2016. Unsurprisingly, despite not being preceded by a single magazine cover or TV appearance, and with a barely-promoted single, the record shot to number one around the world.
In 2018, nearly five years after Bey first destroyed our expectations of album promo, that idea of forced ubiquity is still seen as seriously out of date. Even if our favorite artists aren’t surprise dropping records left, right and center, the way their music reaches us can still be as intriguing and as remarkably cryptic. Now, we’re catching wind of some new rumors swirling: that some artists can lure in more listeners by creating beefs to set Twitter and Instagram alight, or even – in Kanye’s case – a sudden step into performance art.
The beef between Pusha-T and Drake has been going on for over a decade now, allegedly originating from Clipse producer Pharrell not getting paid for a Birdman beat back in 2001 (Pusha-T was one half of Clipse and Birdman owns Cash Money Records, where Drake is signed). But over that period of time, that beef has grown from childish back and forths to fully fledged spats with money being put on the line.
When Pusha-T made a manic comeback with the drug-fueled, Yeezy produced DAYTONA, plenty of ears were drawn towards a line on “Infrared” about a Drake verse that was “written like Nas, but… came from Quentin”, alluding to the age-old idea from Pusha’s previous diss tracks that Drake uses ghostwriters. Less than a day later, the king of the 6ix clapped back with his own “Duppy Freestyle” diss track, claiming he should be invoicing G.O.O.D. Music for the free publicity he gives them. Long story short, Drake stayed true to his word, and sent Pusha a $100,000 invoice for “promotional assistance and career reviving.”
Recounting this morsel of true rap culture pettiness seems stupid now, because even if you haven’t got around to listening to DAYTONA or Drake’s diss, you’re fully aware that the beef plays a key part in each artist’s release; as a result of that, you’re going to be more inclined to stream that song in the future. It might seem a product of animosity, but in actuality, pulling crazy stunts like ‘gramming a photo of a $100,000 invoice to another artist for “career reviving” creates the kind of headlines an album drop alone couldn’t.
And it worked. In a week that saw Pusha go head to head with new releases from fellow rap royalty A$AP Rocky and teenage pop-rocker Shawn Mendes (a tween fanbase usually equates into crazy, competitive streaming hits), DAYTONA is currently riding high at number three on the US iTunes charts – three spots ahead of Rocky’s effort.
In comparison, A$AP’s off-kilter approach to album promo with his new one TESTING, including a performance art piece staged at Sotheby’s in New York and a surprise intimate show in London, felt like the work of a more modest artist. In this day and age, when you’re pitted against thousands of other musicians for streaming space, making an immediate, provocative impact matters. Understanding how to use your social media and your beef to your advantage – whether it’s legit or staged – plays a huge part in leading new fans to your music.
There are only a few artists who can pull off that aforementioned iconic Beyoncé stunt. In fact, you could probably name them on one hand. Love him or hate him, Kanye West is definitely one of them, which is why it’s so strange that he announced his latest projects six weeks ahead of time. His follow-up to The Life of Pablo is supposedly a seven track record that will drop on June 1 – aka this Friday, which is set to be followed up by a full-length project with Kid Cudi one week later.
But we know that nothing with Kanye is ever as it seems, and the likelihood of us getting that first record feels improbable – especially with music industry rumors swirling that he hadn’t even recorded the final tracklist as the month of May is drawing to a close. He’s indecisive and meticulous; neither are the kind of qualities of someone who could promise a release date that far ahead of time.
It’s the kind of baiting Frank Ocean is so brilliant at – throwing out numbers, sometimes cryptically, and watching the world experience existential breakdowns when the date rolls around with no new tracks. That in itself is a pivotal part of his album promotion – creating hype by dangling a bone in front of a pack of rabid dogs, just out of reach.
It doesn’t help either that we’re now at the point of deconstructing Kanye’s provocative, problematic persona in the hopes that we’ll find some insider scoop on what his new record might tackle thematically. As Yeezy gets put on blast for his Trump support, his dangerous stance on Black America, and his increasingly obscure sound, Twitter’s deep divers believe the whole thing could be an act: an attempt at performance art to rile up an audience before he makes a masterful comeback.
Kanye’s attempt to throw us off the scent will obviously lead to one thing: when his album eventually does drop, we’ll all be there to listen first-hand and up make our own minds. If past experiences are anything to go by, we’ll have heard nothing from its tracklist before it surprises us on our Spotify accounts sometime in the near future. We’ll have no preconceptions, no singles to give us an excuse to ‘opt out’ of this era in his career, and no magazine interviews that will leave Kanye “cancelled.”
Instead of forcing us to listen to their new music, drip-fed to us and cheapened by overexposure, artists are now drawing us towards their music by surprise, and by forming their own narrative – either by staying silent and letting the rumor mill spin, or creating a kind of online hysteria that demands you explore more. Adore the artist or despise everything they do, you’ll be right there listening – just so you can be part of the conversation – when the real rap reckoning comes.
For more of our features, check out our exclusive Q&A and editorial shot in Tokyo with rapper Smino right here.