The Tunes and Fortunes of Celebrity Musicians

Understanding album rollouts, audience engagement and storytelling in popular music releases.

In the wake of Kendrick Lamar announcing his fifth studio album, ‘Mr Morale and the Big Steppers’, I found myself intrigued by the methods employed to create a ‘buzz’ around an album rollout. In the modern commercial industry, the concept of rollouts has evolved into an artistic venture in itself. From the moment an album is teased to the public, most creative artists are able to immerse us in their world. By the time we get to hear the music, it feels like we are entering through the gates of an exotic, and thus far concealed palace. However, lost in this ocean of multitudinous advertisements and promotions, hurled in the face of the audience, only a select few truly ever manage to stand out. Perhaps this calls for a  deeper dive into the ways different musicians engage with their audiences through rollouts.

There exists the idea that the roll-out needs to be widened into an event of impressive, almost imposing magnitude. Kanye West promoted Donda (2021) with a 3 stadium listening party, where the original demos and mixtapes of the songs were played. Taking this a step further, Travis Scott tried to create a fictional universe for his third studio album. Astroworld (2018), the crown jewel of Scott’s decorated shelf, was teased for  three years before the first single was dropped. In interviews with Scott, the mention of a now demolished children’s park from his childhood in Houston started making early rounds. Claimed to have been destroyed by industrialists, Astroworld began to take the imagination of fans by mythical storm. In an attempt to messiah-nically return the park to today’s children, Scott did a never-seen-before ‘mythologically awed’ rollout, which culminated in him creating an actual Astroworld Park. With the optimal exploitation of social media, one was either part of the ‘Astroworld train’ or  simply left behind. The audience no longer felt as if they were waiting for the album, so much as they found themselves in a labyrinth full of gratifying revelations. On the back of this immersive experience he managed to build around himself and his history, Scott dropped the masterpiece that the album was later labelled.

Alternative to exercises in turning albums into events, sometimes artists change the very fashion in which they present themselves. Character deviation has been an integral part of how The Weeknd promotes upcoming work. He often tries to represent any change within his inner self through music but also goes on to showcase this through social presence. In The Weeknd’s world, the character arc for each promotional time period is referred to as ‘an era’. During the post production period for his album ‘After Hours’ [2021] audiences saw the Canadian musician in his red tuxedo, with his face covered in bandages. By leaving breadcrumbs of imagery that consistently pushed his fans towards questions and theories, The Weeknd managed to increase anticipation. The eventual release of the songs and music videos of the album thus became more gratifying for listeners who were finally able to join the dots. The process becomes an insight into Abel’s mind as much as his music. From a psychological point of view, it is possible to imagine why fans may find it easier to connect to rollouts like these: one doesn’t have to participate in a crowd or hop onto a bandwagon to feel involved–one can simply interpret the development of the character from one’s own perspective to feel included.

On the other end of the spectrum, certain rollouts possess the elements of grace and surprise, albeit lacking the build-up. This is carried out only by those who are immortals in the memory of pop culture audiences, and have a significant commercial. Take Beyonce’s self-titled album from 2014. It was met with equal parts shock and unfiltered excitement from everyone. Although long-term publicity allows one to create vivid memories, nothing tops the feeling of unsuspectingly waking up to a new album from a phenomenon. Frank Ocean did the same for Blonde [2016]. The audience’s initial surprise, while rewarding, can be precarious in the age of untraceable leaks. 

After the VMA incident with Taylor Swift, Kanye West locked himself up in his Hawaii studio. Keeping up with the hideous and concealed nature of his album, only a few leaks emerged of ‘men rapping in black tuxedos’. According to other leaks, Kanye put every producer on the tightest of schedules, bringing out the perfectionist in every artist collaborating with him on My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy [2010]. The album was clouded in mystery, and audiences started coming up  with  theories and suspicions. When the roll-out began, Kanye only released new songs on ‘Good Fridays’. Although this might seem pretty common now, it was a fresh concept back in 2010 and became hugely popular. Fans were intrigued by the way Kanye was trying to get back into the general audience spectrum and appreciated the effort being put in, after being disgraced publicly not more than a year ago. He could have just let his music do the talking, but he came out himself and did the majority of his promotions, in personal and distinguishable ways. 

However, in some cases, it behoves an artist to stick to the most minimalist roll-out possible. It works, perhaps when an artist is vying for critical success, which is bound to be followed by commercial success. Pusha-T, who I think is arguably the best rapper of this generation after Lamar, has never leaned on ostentatious rollouts. A text-book process works for him– a couple of singles and then promotionals or SNL interviews. He did the same for his latest release ‘It’s Almost Dry’, and although this method might seem overly simplistic, it foregrounds the artist’s music over their personhood. Larger roll-outs may often end up narrowing the spectrum in which the audience can conjure musical imagery of their own. The relationship between an artist and their fans in cases such as Pusha-T’s is one of mutual respect; the audience doesn’t demand every minor detail to be pointed out and elucidated, they prefer to interpret the music and enjoy it  on their own terms.

However, we must keep in mind that an album roll-out never goes on to justify the quality of music being put out. Rihanna had one of the messiest roll-outs of the decade with Anti [2016]. It is safe to say that this did not fatally affect the album’s critical success. A good roll-out, however,   elevates the memories that audiences can create with respect to the music subsequently released. The excitement building up to the drop, coupled with the characters that the artist has portrayed, create myriad possibilities of what the album can ultimately deliver. When The Weeknd comes up with a new character arc, the album is expected to deliver a story from their perspective and the audience builds up their own hopes surrounding that specific idea. The artist therefore lays down a foundation upon which they deliver their art. A story is told, lives and worlds are built. Jay Z puts it best, ‘An album is like a story. Any great story in the history of time has these elements. It comes on and it builds up to something. Then, comes the moment of high.’

Swastik Mandal
Swastik Mandal enjoys likes writing on geopolitics, culture & sport. He is a final year high school student, and tries to analyse the world from his perspective, which we admire.