Surprise releases in hip-hop aren’t so surprising anymore. In 2015, skipping the drawn-out promotional rollout for an album—singles, release dates, and numerous press rounds—in exchange for an immediate reaction is becoming more alluring for artists. As listeners continue to consume rap music through SoundCloud, leaked MP3s, or any other faster means, we are seeing rappers taking greater risks and breaking traditions in order to get music directly to their fans.
One of the biggest advantages of a surprise release is the amount of anticipation it creates for an artist regardless if there’s a single making noise on the radio. On Tuesday afternoon (June 23), Tyga went against YMCMB’s wishes and finally released The Gold Album: 18th Dynasty exclusively on Spotify under his Last Kings Music label. A few days later after saying he would not do any physical releases, The Gold Album was made available on iTunes. Every major celebrity in his circle (Kanye West, Kim Kardashian, the Jenner sisters, Chris Brown, Big Sean, etc.) all tweeted the link in support, giving fans an opportunity to purchase it digitally. It’s important to point out that the 12-track effort included his previous singles (“Hollywood Niggaz,” “Pleazer” featuring Boosie Badazz), but none of the tracks that built hype surrounding his fourth studio album.
When a rapper drops an album with little warning, it’s usually for one of the following reasons: to retaliate against a major label’s pushbacks, to capitalize on streaming services to make money, or to instantly be the conversation a la Beyoncé. In the case of Tyga, Birdman, his Cash Money mentor, was to blame.
Since The Gold Album’s initial talks in 2013, the LP aimed to be his strongest work yet and show his progression since Hotel California. But only two promotional singles were released through Cash Money: “Wait for a Minute” with Justin Bieber and “Hookah” with Young Thug. Young Money’s “Senile” was originally Tyga’s single, but the label decided to package it as a crew anthem under Young Money: Rise of an Empire. During that seven-month timeframe, he received little to no push for his singles or album promotion, especially after Nicki Minaj’s The Pinkprint debuted at No. 2 on the Billboard 200 in December.
While “Wait for a Minute” and the gold-certified “Hookah” both received videos with substantial views on YouTube, the singles failed to make an impact on the Billboard Hot 100. Still, T-Raww wanted to supply the e-streets with consistent new material after teasing fans with Well Done 4, so he took matters into his own hands. Last Kings Music is the imprint that made Honey Cocaine a brief thing, but more importantly, it allowed him to put out an abundance of singles on his own. Despite murmurs of a summer release, he followed “Hookah” with “Real Deal” in May 2014 that only went as far as a WorldStarHipHop exclusive that could be purchased on iTunes later in July. Once YMCMB granted him a Nov. 18 release date, he sought out extra muscle in EMPIRE Distribution to keep the momentum going.
EMPIRE, a distribution company based in San Francisco, is known for releasing albums across all genres on an independent level. In hip-hop, notable albums distributed through EMPIRE include Kendrick Lamar’s Section. 80, ScHoolboy Q’s Setbacks, and more recently, Troy Ave’s Major Without a Deal. On the singles side, they’ve released everything from Trinidad Jame$’ “All Gold Everything” to Rich Homie Quan’s “Flex.” Although we don’t know the specifics about EMPIRE and Last Kings’ partnership (reps for EMPIRE declined to comment for this story, as did Tyga's management), we do know that they’ve actively put out every one of Tyga’s singles pertaining to The Gold Album. “Erryday,” released on Aug. 18, 2014, and “Make It Work,” released on Oct. 27, 2014, proved that he was laying the foundation as an indie artist and getting ready to move on from YMCMB, a label he’d been on since 2007.
From there, Tyga’s highly publicized tweets in October 2014 only supported his behind-the-scenes moves in the industry. “Gold album been done. My label holding me hostage so I can’t release nothing. Might leak it for my fans then let them make $ off it,” he wrote. After enticing listeners with a photo of him in the studio with West earlier in the year, we saw “40 Mill,” which was the last bullet in the chamber to get his label to take him seriously. On December 4, 2014 he tweeted: “#TheGoldAlbum is going to be my first independent release 2015.” (He’d offer a link for pre-orders later that month for his new release date of Jan. 27.)
“I feel like as an artist what we do creatively should never be imprisoned, and at the end of the day we do it to bring it to the fans,” he told Power 106 Los Angeles a day later. “It's not a selfish thing; it's just not fair to the fans.” He later added, "I'm dropping [The Gold Album] regardless. I'm paying for my own videos and everything, so I ain't waiting on nobody. Everything come to the light so you got to treat people the way you want to be treated at the end of the day."
When Jan. 27 didn’t stick, he kept going with Fan of a Fan: The Album with Chris Brown that was a joint release between RCA and Republic Records. During the promo run for that, we could already tell Tyga was over the instability of Cash Money—a sentiment he has openly shared with his other mentor Lil Wayne.
“I don’t really know who to point the fingers at. I just think the business—there’s a lot going on. They got some of the biggest artists, you know, Drake, Nicki, Wayne, myself,” he told the Breakfast Club in February. “They got a lot of artists over there. Maybe it’s a lot to handle…. I talked to Baby. I was supposed to be out of my deal last month, that’s why I was actually gonna drop my album in January, but it didn’t drop. I got a great album that Kanye executive produced. I didn’t want to waste that.”
Fast forward four months, and Tyga’s The Gold Album has finally arrived for streaming until its official release date of June 30 via EMPIRE. After tweeting a link to Spotify (which they dubbed “A Tygantic Surprise” in their ensuing e-mail blast), he thanked everyone from Weezy and Gym Class Heroes’ Travie McCoy to ’Ye and Mike Dean, who are listed in the credits as executive creative director and the album’s main producer, respectively. It’s obvious he wants nothing to do with YMCMB anymore, as shown in a possible subliminal message to haters who didn’t believe in him or his album.
Thank you to everyone who kept hating on me and not believing in me . This album is for yall. Fuck Yall!!— T-Raww (@Tyga) June 23, 2015
As of now, The Gold Album continues to get mixed reactions. Within hours of Tyga’s announcement, Twitter ridiculed him for his surprise release method, even going as far as saying it went unnoticed and that it will underperform. On the other side, his loyal fans describe its greatness through many, many flame emojis. For an album that draws listeners through big looks like a Weezy feature and a young Stunna rant on "Spitfire" more than the lead artist itself, it’s a rocky start to his career as an indie artist.
Eric Diep is a writer living in New York. Follow him @E_Diep.