Five years ago today, Beyoncé released her stunning self-titled album, Beyoncé, with no advance warning. The record was a critical darling, steamrolled the charts, and gave us some ace memes. But it's lasting legacy might be that it set a precedent for all surprise releases to follow.
Teresa LaBarbera, Beyoncé’s longtime A&R, says the impetus for the surprise release came from the superstar singer’s desire for her fans to hear a body of work in its entirety without their perception being altered by radio-curated singles or media coverage.
“These so-called ‘surprise albums’—I think it creates an event and an enthusiasm and an excitement around the music, not so much all the marketing and this and that,” LaBarbera says. “Not that those things aren’t important, but it all comes right down to like, ‘Oh shit, so-and-so dropped a record and it sounds amazing!’”
The album was in the works for roughly a year-and-a-half, partially crafted at a house Beyoncé’s team procured in New York. Jerome “J-Roc” Harmon, who co-produced standouts like “Drunk in Love” and “Partition,” says that he and frequent collaborator Timbaland were called in together to work on the project relatively early on.
“At first, it was starting out that we were going to produce her whole thing, and she had some other producers come in as well,” he says. “That's why some of the tracks that she got from other producers, we touched on and spiked them up and put our sound on it and everything. We became part of almost every track.”
The most impressive feat of all was that all of Beyoncé's collaborators kept the album a secret and avoided leaking the news to friends and family. Part of what helped preserve the shroud of secrecy was that Beyoncé was initially an iTunes exclusive, and one that only a handful of higher-ups at the service even knew about (it was codenamed “Lily”).
Crafting an album of this scale out of the public eye is impressive enough, but making an entire visual component with high-profile directors like Hype Williams, Melina Matsoukas, and Jonas Åkerlund is even more stunning. An extra from the video shoots told Stylecaster that they didn’t play any of the Beyoncé tracks on set to avoid leaks.
"Only a handful of us knew what was actually happening and when it was happening." - LaBarbera
According to LaBarbera, no one had ever uploaded that many videos to iTunes concurrently, and there were last-minute worries that it wouldn’t be possible, though it obviously succeeded. And while there were rules on set, there were also plenty in the studio, where updates on social media apps like Instagram have become one of the main ways fans find out which producers and artists are working together.
“[Beyoncé’s team] has rules regardless, when you're around them working or not working, that they don't allow cameras, telephones, and stuff like that in the room anyway,” J-Roc says. “That's one of their rules from jump.”
LaBarbera says there were “thousands” of standout moments from the LP’s creation, including watching Beyoncé record the “Rocket” vocals in a single take or seeing JAY-Z lay his “Drunk in Love” verse, but she doesn’t feel that the hush-hush nature of the self-titled record was especially different from their typical creative process. “I don’t think so much that we set out to make a record in secrecy as much as we are under-the-radar,” she clarifies. “You don’t want people talking about what you’re trying to create until you know that you have it right.”
Non-disclosure agreements are par for the course with someone of Beyoncé’s magnitude (just ask Tiffany Haddish), and that was the case for many of the people involved in the creation of her self-titled record. According to J-Roc, only a few members of his circle knew what he was working on. “I mean close people, so they know exactly where I am in case of emergency,” he says. “They’d sworn a secret as well, they don't really talk my business. There's only one or two people that are that close to me that would know.”
James Krausse, who was involved in the mixing of the record, remembers needing to come up with excuses to explain what was occupying so much of his time. “The whole process was very secretive,” he recalls. “The only person I told was my wife. I remember having to come up with excuses to friends, family, and other clients why I couldn’t hang out or had to push a project.”
"The only person I told was my wife. I remember having to come up with excuses to friends, family, and other clients." - James KRAUSSE
He also says that the vision for the mixes largely came from Beyoncé, who LaBarbera says typically takes on that role, in addition to doing her own vocal arrangements and voice production work. But while Beyoncé’s collaborators had a clear sense of how the project should sound, one thing virtually none of them knew was exactly when it was actually supposed to come out.
J-Roc says he had no idea when the record was slated to drop, and he certainly wasn’t the only Beyoncé collaborator to be shocked by its sudden release. Noah “40” Shebib, who produced “Mine,” told Rolling Stone in 2013 that he was similarly blindsided when his manager called and said that the record was on iTunes.
“That's just how she do it,” J-Roc says. “Get it and just put it out. We were happy about it. We weren't mad about it. We were like, ‘No warning? Nothing? Throw it out there, okay.’ It was cool.”
LaBarbera was helping to oversee the album’s mixing and engineering concurrently, bringing in studio technicians like Krausse, Tony Maserati, and Stuart White. LaBarbera says that she kept the trio in the dark, setting up a dramatic reveal for three key Beyoncé contributors.
“Only a handful of us knew what was actually happening and when it was happening. It’s better not to tell in a lot of ways, because everybody just stays focused on the work. I didn’t even tell my guys, and we lived in Tony’s studio for like 10 days straight. We had all these rooms going and we were trying to turn out the mixes and finish them, and they didn’t even know,” LaBarbera remembers. “I called them all two minutes before everything was going to appear on iTunes. I said, ‘Get in front of your computers.’ They were like, ‘What, what happened? Is something wrong?’ I said, ‘No, just get in front of your computers.’”
Since the release of Beyoncé, everyone from Drake to D’Angelo (and Beyoncé again) have gone the surprise release route, but Beyoncé’s self-titled LP remains the high-water mark of execution and impact.
On Nicki Minaj’s “Feeling Myself,” Beyoncé rapped that she “Changed the game with that digital drop/Know where you was when that digital popped/I stopped the world.”
Five years later that statement still rings true, but she couldn’t have pulled off such a paradigm-shifting feat without her team and collaborators preserving the secret.