The year-end surprise album release is becoming a holiday tradition. First, Beyoncé, then D'Angelo: Each of them released recordings that came out of nowhere to capture the pop imagination just in time for the New Year.
But what happens when an album release is a surprise even to the artist?
That's the bind Madonna is in right now. Last week, 13 of her demos in various stages of completion were stolen and leaked to file-sharing services. The singer told the Guardian that there was a "big possibility" that her home computer had been hacked, and the singer (perhaps overheatedly) called the leak "artistic rape" and "a form of terrorism."
Her tactical response, though, was unexpected. She put an EP's worth of tracks from the album, called "Rebel Heart," up for sale immediately on iTunes. It was just enough new music to count as a last-minute winter release (she quickly topped iTunes charts in more than 40 countries). But it wasn't quite enough new music to land with the force and urgency of "Beyoncé" or "Black Messiah." More pieces from the album are expected to land on Feb. 9 to preview the March 10 release on Interscope.
So what is this six-song partial record intended to be? An album teaser? A middle finger to the hackers? A sign the LP might not be quite finished? Or just something, anything, Madge can do to take back the narrative around "Rebel Heart"?
It's hard to tell if this panic-button release timeline is part of a coherent strategy. Madonna said that she had planned a traditional Valentine's Day single release for "Living for Love," but it's now on the EP, which she called an "early Christmas gift." Perhaps ironically, the sped-up timeline might keep fans coming back.
Serially releasing pieces of a completed artwork can be a successful strategy (see the runaway podcast hit "Serial"). But it's a new twist on the new models we have for putting out LPs. Taylor Swift can take a months-long drip-drop of singles, videos and fun stunts to tease "1989"; Beyoncé can just throw it all up on iTunes in the dead of night; D'Angelo can rush it to the presses to respond in real time to salient political issues.
However, there's not quite the same ravenous demand for a new Madonna album in 2014 (her last one, 2012's "MDNA" was given middling reviews for its late-to-the-game rave sounds and images, and her Super Bowl halftime show was overshadowed by M.I.A.'s possibly obscene hand gestures). But by breaking "Rebel Heart" into smaller pieces, she's actually hewing closer to the release strategies of her beloved EDM acts. Skrillex became an arena-sized superstar by releasing just a spate of EPs (before this year's full album, "Recess"). Underground dance labels usually pack around two to four tracks per 12-inch release.
And these six tracks really are a fresh new look for Madonna. Yes, she's a couple of years behind the trap/noise party sounds she's mining on songs like "Illuminati" and "Bitch I'm Madonna." But even this album snippet features production from Kanye West and Diplo and a guest turn from Nicki Minaj. This is shaping up to be a brash, angry and self-affirming LP — one that might be less dismissable because of its stutter-step release.
A full Madonna LP could have come and gone in a few weeks, to no more notice than the usual flicker of the Internet's content-churn. But the scramble to get something legitimate up from "Rebel Heart" has had a strangely punkish, humanizing effect on Madonna — and right when such an approach is on-brand with her record.
If necessity is the mother of invention, then maybe Madge just invented a new way to keep fans on edge.