Covering Beyoncé and the Surprise Album Drop

Beyoncé performs on stage in Glasgow, Scotland, during the “On the Run II” Tour.CreditKevin Mazur/Getty Images Europe

The New York Times.

Not much gets between Jenna Wortham and a new Beyoncé release. When “Formation” dropped, she canceled a date.

And when Beyoncé and Jay-Z released their joint album, “Everything Is Love,” late on a recent Saturday afternoon, Ms. Wortham, a staff writer for The Times Magazine and a co-host of the Times podcast “Still Processing,” was with friends at Jacob Riis beach in New York, where her cell service was unreliable. The moment she had service, messages poured in, the Twittersphere exploded and she knew something big was happening.

Jenna Wortham
At this point, she’s used to turning her week upside down for Beyoncé news. After the singer’s much-celebrated (and much-streamed) first set at this year’s Coachella music festival, Ms. Wortham and her “Still Processing” co-host, Wesley Morris, scrapped the week’s episode and instead ad-libbed on the performance.
“There’s a little bit of a thrill,” she said. “There’s very much a way in which my entire world stops when Beyoncé releases something, because it often means that I will end up writing or talking or having to think about it in some capacity — which is not the worst job in the whole world.”

Beyoncé’s last three albums, “Everything Is Love” (with Jay-Z, 2018), “Lemonade” (2016) and “Beyoncé” (2013), emerged seemingly out of nowhere, without much warning for even those most tuned in to all aspects of the music industry.

The self-titled album ushered in an era of surprise drops — though few as elaborate as those of Beyoncé and Jay-Z — including albums and mixtapes like J. Cole’s “KOD,” U2’s “Songs of Innocence” and Drake’s “If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late.”

But even when the album drops aren’t entirely a surprise, the content often is, and the rollouts much less traditional.

Traditionally, reporters and critics receive completed albums for advanced listening months ahead of time, in order to meet long print deadlines. But top-tier artists today increasingly avoid middlemen — and leaks — in the production, promotion and even delivery of their albums. (Kanye West, for example, seemed to finish “Ye” just hours before his Wyoming listening party and release in June.)

Before, you used to have to finish an album, give it to the label, have them send it to a CD plant, and it would take weeks or months to package an album,” said Joe Coscarelli, a pop music reporter for The Times. “Now there’s this system where the most powerful artists can basically deliver their finished work directly to streaming services hours before it’s online.”

The secrecy prevents leaks and keeps fans on their toes, but it can also make reporting on the albums tricky.

Unlike a music critic or a writer who analyzes culture, Mr. Coscarelli does not take a personal stance on Ms. Knowles’s albums. He reports on them as breaking news, pulling together the details of the drop and the most newsworthy lyrics.

He’s learned to look for signs of an impending drop — a big event with opportunity for a dramatic release (like Beyoncé’s 2016 Super Bowl performance; the song “Formation” dropped the day before), appropriate timing (“Everything Is Love” dropped just before the North America leg of the On the Run II concert tour), or tips from his sources. Ms. Wortham had been waiting for the third part of a trilogy.

Mr. Coscarelli keeps notifications turned on for relevant Twitter and Instagram accounts, including those affiliated with Beyoncé, Jay-Z and Tidal, as well as fan accounts (like the @Bey_Legion Twitter page, which posted a sign from the concert in London announcing the album’s release).

Still, Ms. Knowles doesn’t follow the typical industry rules.

“At this point, new music comes out at midnight on Thursday,” Mr. Coscarelli said. And so, the week “Everything Is Love” dropped, after hearing vague musings that something might come out, he was ready and waiting until midnight on Thursday, and then until midnight on Friday, and then much of Saturday, at which point he thought it was a false alarm.

Just then, Beyoncé posted a promotional video for the album on Instagram, and the frenzy to confirm, process and write about the album began.

“We got a news item online as soon as possible, and I’m sort of listening in the background as I’m doing the first pass at the story,” Mr. Coscarelli said. “When the piece goes to the editors, I’m listening more closely and pulling out details like the guest features and what seem like the most important lyrics — Beyoncé talking about Spotify, Jay-Z addressing the N.F.L. — all those little moments that you knew would be talkers.”

The surprise drops certainly make it a scramble for those covering her, but they fit in with the Beyoncé brand (even her last pregnancy was ultra-private, and it took weeks for The Times to confirm the birth of her twins).

“Being caught off guard is part of the enjoyment, part of the fun and almost like going to an amusement park,” Ms. Wortham said. “People who are fans of her are getting what they might consider to be like a surprise present, or a surprise party.”

Courtesy of the NY Times