A response: Why secret albums are beneficial to artist and listener alike

By David Flanigan

In the previous issue, Fraser Bryce chastised the idea of so-called “secret albums,” so consider this the case for their defence.

Largely popularised by Beyonce’s 2013 self-titled release (although Kanye West’s Yeezus from earlier that same year shared many characteristics of secret albums, arguably going further by neglecting to have an album cover), a “secret album” is fairly umbrella term, covering: records released utterly out of the blue (Beyoncé’s aforementioned self-titled) records sporting previously released singles or promotional tracks (Beyoncé’s Lemonade) and projects with vague or un-adhered to release dates, no official press campaign and no true singles (Drake’s If You’re Reading This, Frank Ocean’s blond). Despite largely perpetuating the hype culture that dominates the entertainment industry, secret album releases have a few distinct benefits to both artist and listener.

Secret albums are, if nothing else, an artist’s protection against leaks. While leaks likely cause a minor haemorrhage in sales on release day, more importantly, they remove an artist’s distribution over their art. Kanye West – who has a widely-known detest of leaks – apparently needed convincing from guest rapper Pusha T not to outright scrap My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy’s ‘So Appalledfollowing the track leaking (a world without CyHi the Prynce’s gloriously batshit verse doesn’t bare thinking about). Restricting access before a public release does not altogether remove the threat of leaks, but massively reduces it, and regains an artist’s control on distribution.

There are purely artistic benefits to the practise. Released hours after a placeholder appeared on Spotify, Kendrick Lamar’s compilation of unused tracks from two years of studio sessions: untitled unmastered., suited the format of a surprise release as the traditional album roll out could well have mis-sold what is a far less common practise in hip-hop than other genres: a B-sides album. Moreover, secret albums can promote the notion of an album as a single, cohesive piece of art, rather than a collection of several vaguely-linked modules of it. To this end, untitled unmastered.‘s parent project – Kendrick’s 2015 masterpiece To Pimp a Butterfly – could have benefited from the same treatment, lead single ‘i’, unveiled 6 months prior, makes a great deal more sense within both the record’s narrative and its context, aurally, than it did as an individual release.

For fans, secret albums are the ultimate leveller. With media outlets traditionally given advanced copies for reviews and features, a widespread critical response and general “feel” for an album can be measured well before release date. With fans and media alike simultaneously receiving secret albums, they offer a previously-impossible day-one listening experience, one free of box-quotes and preconceptions – bar those offered by the artist’s previous discography, naturally.

Of course, such a practise is limited to artists sizeable enough for hype to provide the necessary promotion – singles and marketing campaigns remain a sensible default for the vast majority – as well as sway with their respective labels. Likewise, the day-one experience is dependent upon an album’s availability on release, particularly as the industry stumbles towards a heavily-digitised future fraught with exclusive streaming releases. However, secret albums are a by-product of the era we live in, and the sheer ease with which music can be distributed and accessed, and that alone is worth celebrating.