“Pulling a Beyoncé” has always been a fairly elastic concept. Even when the phrase came into vogue at the end of 2013, when she surprise-released her self-titled visual album and, in her own words, “changed the game with that digital drop,” people were crediting her with both the surprise album trend and the visual album trend. The album was undeniably influential in both regards. After a year when album rollouts were becoming ever more ostentatious, BEYONCÉ careened in out of nowhere and singlehandedly made such promotional tactics passé. Suddenly the only stylish option was to drop your album with no warning. Visual albums, with music videos for every track, also suddenly became all the rage.
And then in 2016, the notion of “pulling a Beyoncé” was redefined again. With Lemonade, she adjusted the “surprise visual album” equation in significant ways. This time she gave people a few days’ notice but left us in the dark as to what, exactly, she was debuting. When it premiered — not on iTunes, but HBO — it turned out to be another album with complete visual accompaniment. This time, rather than a series of unconnected music videos, both musically and visually it held together as a full-fledged narrative that used the death and resurrection of Beyoncé’s marriage to Jay-Z as a launchpad for a broader story about the experience of black women in America. Now “pulling a Beyoncé” meant releasing an album that doubles as a prestige TV special.
For many reasons — its budget, its richness and complexity, its tabloid intrigue, its insane list of collaborators and inspirations, its prodigious enforcement of non-disclosure agreements — Lemonade was even more of an unattainable standard than BEYONCÉ. Perhaps the project’s impossible scope and unrepeatable context is why not many artists have attempted to replicate it. Yet more than three years later, it’s starting to seem every bit as influential. In recent months a trend has been apparent in the upper reaches of the music business: LPs released not as standalone works or even as visual albums but with complementary film projects on Netflix.
Beyoncé herself did it in April with Homecoming, which documented her legendary 2018 Coachella sets with both a conventional live album and a hybrid documentary/concert film. In May, comedy-rappers the Lonely Island released The Unauthorized Bash Brothers Experience, a collection of baseball-themed songs presented as a visual album on Netflix. Radiohead’s Thom Yorke released his solo album ANIMA in June with an accompanying “one-reeler” short film of the same name featuring three songs from the album and elaborating on its themes, directed by Paul Thomas Anderson and streaming on Netflix. This past weekend, left-of-center country star Sturgill Simpson hosted a panel at Comic-Con to announce Sound & Fury, a new album and — in a twist hardly anyone could have seen coming — feature-length anime, also on Netflix. Just two days later, Kid Cudi announced Entergalactic, a Netflix animated series with a companion album of the same name.
Lemonade premiered on HBO, but it looms over these Netflix music projects all the same. It remains the predominant example of a musical artist turning her album into a multi-platform experience, reaching across mediums to flesh out her own mythology and amplify her reach. Its mere existence was a flex: You don’t get to turn your album into must-see TV without a certain amount of cachet. Among the artists with the resources to attempt something similar, it seems to have gotten brains churning, considering new possibilities of what an album can be in the streaming age. In another era, some of these projects might have been released through more traditional channels: Homecoming on DVD, ANIMA on YouTube, the Bash Brothers album on NBC primetime. The major difference in those cases is platform. Netflix is reaching the largest number of people. For better or worse, it’s the center of the pop cultural universe right now. Furthermore, it strikes a balance between the accessibility of YouTube and the stature of HBO. The service presents both a cool factor and an audience of nearly 150 million subscribers. Of course musicians want to be there.
As for what Netflix gets out of it, the company has proven itself to be an all-consuming force in the entertainment industry. It’s already the world’s largest movie studio and TV’s most popular network, so it’s not surprising to see it moving into the music space as well. Short of a merger with Apple or Spotify, it seems unlikely Netflix will become a destination for on-demand audio streaming, though who knows what they’re talking about in that ravenous board room. Barring that, projects like these are a natural way for the company to connect with the music industry, to weave itself into the field of buzzy new music releases the same way it has for movies and TV. With competing services from Apple and Disney in the works and tentpole shows like The Office soon to disappear, Netflix has every reason to spread its tentacles as far and wide as possible.
It’s funny: Netflix has been widely criticized for its cold, calculating dependence on statistics, its tendency to prioritize algorithmic data over bold creative impulses. Yet with some of these musical crossovers, the service is still making room on its seemingly boundless servers for some genuine experiments. Maybe anime is so popular on Netflix that Sound & Fury seems like a sure bet, but an anime that doubles as a new heavy psychedelic country album? That’s some weird shit, and it makes me happy to see Netflix lending Simpson its imprimatur. Similarly, perhaps in a post-Adult Swim world, an animated series from an iconoclastic festival headliner like Kid Cudi is an obvious hit. But it’s still a major album release that doubles as a cartoon TV series, something we haven’t really seen before. Whether it turns out to be any good or not, I respect the ambition, and I’m curious to see what other kinds of formal experiments emerge from Netflix and its competitors before they reduce it all to a formula in service of the bottom line.
In the context of all these Netflix projects, Beyoncé’s new album tied to her role in Disney’s live action CGI remake of The Lion King feels positively old-fashioned: It’s strewn with snippets of dialogue? From a Disney movie? That’s being released in theaters? Truthfully, its existence as a companion album separate from the actual movie soundtrack does mark it as part of a modern phenomenon. But if The Lion King: The Gift is not exactly a throwback to Whitney Houston’s The Bodyguard soundtrack, it does represent the first time in a while that Beyoncé seems to be riding someone else’s wave. The most obvious precedent is Kendrick Lamar’s Black Panther album last year, which used a big-budget Disney-owned franchise movie as a jumpoff point for a thematically linked compilation, with Kendrick serving as curator and tour guide. And with its spotlight on today’s leading African pop stars, Bey’s latest evokes the international flair of Drake’s 2017 “playlist” More Life.
Like those projects, The Gift is too substantial to be filed away as a minor release even if it’s more a companion piece to a Hollywood production than a proper Beyoncé album. Not that any Beyoncé release is ever released in a pressureless vacuum, but between this and Homecoming and last year’s Everything Is Love with Jay-Z, she’s been finding inventive ways to keep releasing music without the pressure of following up Lemonade. Each of those releases, though, has afforded her a chance to add fresh nuance to the larger-than-life sound she’s been refining for herself this decade. She put her own spin on Migos-style trap with Everything Is Love hit “Apeshit,” gave R&B classic “Before I Let Go” a Tay Keith-produced modern makeover on Homecoming, and reframed her whole catalog in the context of HBCU marching bands at the Beychella concert documented in the movie.
On The Gift, the choice to spotlight African artists — albeit none from East Africa, where The Lion King is set — allows her to explore the Afrobeats sound that has contributed some of the most vibrant global pop music in recent years. Drake was vulturing into this scene more than three years ago, but if Bey is a bit late in terms of trend timelines, she’s approaching the sound with her usual grace and skill. The project holds up the likes of Burna Boy and Tiwa Savage as equals with Jay-Z and Childish Gambino and will probably do more to popularize African artists in America than Drake’s dabblings have accomplished.
“Find Your Way Back” in particular gorgeously skitters through the twilight. Beyoncé’s collaboration with Pharrell and Salatiel is as refreshingly brisk as you’d hope from a song called “Water.” The metallic and hard-hitting “My Power” matches her with Philly art-rap rising star Tierra Whack, New Jersey songwriting prodigy Nija, and South African dancer and singer Moonchild Sanelly. Even the songs that don’t pointedly reference today’s African music scene, like the Frank Ocean-reminiscent opener “Bigger” and cascading piano ballad “Otherside,” do a great job of setting a mood. And “Brown Skin Girl,” which convenes Beyoncé’s daughter Blue Ivy plus Afrobeats star Wizkid and Guyanese-American artist Saint Jhn, has inspired a celebration of black beauty across Instagram and Twitter.
Even when she’s not pioneering new trends, Beyoncé continues to churn out great music and send ripple effects through pop culture. This year alone she’s released one of the all-time great concert films and turned a promotional tie-in album into a showcase for the African pop scene. These are grand gestures, but in the context of the career she’s built up, they feel like business as usual. It makes me wonder what else she can do at this point to top herself. Whatever it is, it will probably be on Netflix: She reportedly has two more specials in the works, cementing an ongoing partnership between an unstoppable force and an immovable object.
At 16 weeks and counting, “Old Town Road” is now the longest running #1 single of all time. For at least one more week, Lil Nas X’s breakout hit — buoyed first by the instant classic Billy Ray Cyrus remix and recently by a new version featuring Young Thug and Mason Ramsey — is tied with two other singles: Mariah Carey and Boyz II Men’s “One Sweet Day” (1995-1996) and Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee’s “Despacito” (2017). Can it break the record? Billboard suggests the stage is set for it to happen. Stay tuned!
The continued reign of “Old Town Road” means, of course, that Billie Eilish’s “Bad Guy” remains at #2 despite a Justin Bieber remix seemingly designed to nudge Eilish past Lil Nas X. The Bieber remix would have probably helped a lot more if it wasn’t complete garbage. Bieber and Ed Sheeran’s “I Don’t Care” has returned to #3, with Shawn Mendes and Camila Cabello’s “Señorita” at #4 and Khalid’s “Talk” at #5. Lizzo’s “Truth Hurts” climbs back to its #6 peak, followed by Post Malone and Young Thug’s “Goodbyes” at #7. Jonas Brothers’ “Sucker,” Post Malone and Swae Lee’s “Sunflower,” and Chris Brown and Drake’s “No Guidance” round out the top 10.
Over on the Billboard 200 albums chart, Ed Sheeran’s No.6 Collaborations Project debuts at #1 with 173,000 equivalent album units and 70,000 in pure sales, per Billboard. It’s his third #1 album and boasts the seventh biggest debut of 2019 in terms of units, following albums from Jonas Brothers, Ariana Grande, Billie Eilish, Backstreet Boys, BTS, and Khalid. Eilish’s WHEN WE ALL FALL ASLEEP, WHERE DO WE GO? remains at #2, while the J. Cole-led Dreamville comp Revenge Of The Dreamers III falls to #3 in its second week. The rest of the top 10 comprises Lil Nas X, Chris Brown, Lizzo, Khalid, Post Malone, Jonas Brothers, and DaBaby.
Taylor Swift – “The Archer”
Hot take: “The Archer” is awesome. It’s Taylor Swift making a dream-pop song — maybe even a Chromatics song. What’s not to like?! I have heard complaints that it goes nowhere, but who said dream-pop songs need to rise above a steady simmer? I’ve also encountered grumbling about the Humpty Dumpty-referencing lyrics, but to be honest those lines wouldn’t have sounded out of place in any T-Swift era. To me this is easily the coolest thing she’s released since “Ready For It.” As a wise woman once said, “Haters gonna hate hate hate hate hate.”
Sam Smith – “How Do You Sleep?”
This and “Dancing With A Stranger” are still adult contemporary through and through, but I am all for Sam Smith edging his sound back toward the club, moving incrementally closer to recording more “Latch”-style heaters.
Alessia Cara – “Ready”
Although not generally my musical vibe, “Ready” is a great example of how nifty production (everything fuzzed-out and shimmery) and compelling lyrics (“Boy you’re not ready for me”) can elevate a song.
Majid Jordan – “Caught Up” (Feat. Khalid)
I’ve always thought Drake underlings Majid Jordan were underrated, and with young superstar Khalid lending his voice to their new single “Caught Up,” hopefully they’ll have their first proper hit since “Hold On, We’re Going Home” six(!) years ago. It’s one of their most contagious songs to date, and one that casts Khalid’s melancholy rumination thing in a much more stylish and engaging context than Khalid’s own album.
PRETTYMUCH – “Lying” (Feat. Lil Tjay)
The boy bands have been edging into crisper, more tasteful modern hip-hop sounds for so long that I figured this Lil Tjay collab would basically be a rap song, but no: Definitely a boy band song with a rapper on it.
NEWS IN BRIEF
- Katy Perry took the stand on the first day of the “Dark Horse” copyright trial. [Billboard]
- Rosalía appeared to tease a collaboration with Travis Scott. [Instagram]
- Ariana Grande and Taylor Swift lead the 2019 MTV VMA nominations. [TV Line]
- A man with burglary tools — lock picks, a crowbar, a baseball bat, etc — was arrested outside of Swift’s Rhode Island home. [Westerly Sun]
- Nicki Minaj remixed DaBaby’s “Suge (Yea Yea).” [Audiomack]
- Madonna released a video for her “Batuka” featuring Orquestra Batukadeiras. [YouTube]
- Here’s Ariana Grande shooting her Givenchy campaign and improvising a song about it. [Instagram]
- Charli XCX appears on Brazilian drag artist Pabblo Vittar’s first ever English track, “Flash Pose.” [Instagram]
- Priscilla Presley when asked by The Blast whether Lana Del Rey should play her in the upcoming Elvis biopic: “I like Lana.” [The Blast]
- Shawn Mendes got a butterfly tattoo. [Twitter]
HOLD ON, WE’RE GOING HOME
— ЖTИ (@killthenoise) July 19, 2019