With only two weeks left in 2013, Beyoncé pulled off one of the year's biggest surprises in music.
As much of the country was tucking into bed Thursday night, the singer suddenly announced that her new self-titled album — one she'd spent a year teasing in high-profile live performances — was suddenly available for purchase on iTunes.
The album, currently out as an iTunes exclusive, features 14 new tracks and 17 accompanying music videos. A double disc CD/DVD will be available before the holidays, according to her label, and individual tracks will become available for downloading Dec. 20.
The singer waited until just after 9 p.m. Thursday (midnight on the East Coast) to announce the news of the new album via Instagram.
"I didn't want to release my music the way I've done it," Beyoncé said in an announcement on Thursday. "I am bored with that. I feel like I am able to speak directly to my fans. There's so much that gets between the music, the artist and the fans."
News of the album's release spread across Twitter and Instagram, and it went on to sell 80,000 downloads in its first three hours on iTunes and 1.2 million tweets about the album lit up the social network in just 12 hours. At $15.99 a pop, the release is relatively expensive for a digital-only album.
Beyoncé, 32, is the latest high-profile artist to roll out an album on short notice.
Her husband Jay Z and close comrade Kanye West recently did the same, though they lacked the same element of surprise that accompanied Beyoncé's latest.
Kanye gave a cryptic tweet a little more than a month in advance of "Yeezus" and Jay Z announced his forthcoming album in a Samsung commercial just a couple weeks before "Magna Carta Holy Grail." Still, both those other albums dominated the pop music conversation in the weeks surrounding their releases.
For her album, Beyoncé worked with producers Timbaland, Justin Timberlake, Pharrell Williams and The-Dream, among others; guest vocalists include her husband Jay Z, Frank Ocean and Drake. The impressive list of collaborators could help add lasting impact to her album in a music business that's quick to move from one release to the next.
Coupled with her other business ventures (the Mrs. Carter world tour, endorsement deals with Pepsi and H&M), Beyoncé's new record may also help make this year her most lucrative ever, Forbes reports. It's projecting that "she should easily double the $53 million she made this year."
Her best annual revenue figures came in 2009 and 2010, when she collectively brought in $87 million each year, according to Forbes.
"She'll also challenge for music's earnings crown, which went to Madonna at $125 million for 2013," Forbes predicts. The magazine calculates figures from June 2013 to June 2014, so Beyoncé's take will include the 83 shows she's so far scheduled to play next year.
For her part, Beyoncé dangled plenty of hints that new music would be arriving at some point this year. She headlined the Super Bowl halftime show in February, sang for the president's second inauguration and launched a sold-out world tour, which is ongoing. She previewed one track, "Grown Woman," in a Pepsi ad, while another single, "Standing on the Sun," was the backdrop for an H&M campaign.
Songs on the album move between genres and include spoken-word interludes as well as the coos of her daughter Blue Ivy, and the accompanying videos include Beyoncé in various scenarios (as a beauty queen, a suffering wife and a saucy spitfire nicknamed Yoncé) and appearances by Jay Z, Drake and her former Destiny's Child bandmates. The videos were directed by talents including Hype Williams, Terry Richardson, Pierre Debusschere and Jonas Akerlund.
A rich visual rollout and surprise release of an album don't always mean lasting success.
West's "Yeezus" debuted at No. 1, but at 327,000 copies sold in its first week it was his lowest U.S. opening ever, and the album dropped 80% the following week. Jay Z's situation was tougher to assess, as his record came pre-sold (baked into a Samsung app), and though it was given middling reviews he remains in a rap league of his own.
Contrast that with the months-long rollout of other major pop releases like Lady Gaga's "Artpop," Katy Perry's "Prism," Daft Punk's "Random Access Memories" and Justin Timberlake's "The 20/20 Experience." Timberlake even had an online commercial announcing the date when he would release future updates on his album release.
But all these tactics have had varied success. Gaga had a No. 1 with "Artpop," but like her previous album "Born This Way" it slumped in its second week, dropping more than 80% in sales. The long-awaited follow-up from Timberlake had better sea legs, going double-platinum and remaining the year's bestselling album.
Beyoncé's digital-only release strategy likely prevented its leak (a good portion of album leaks happen in the perilous physical run from printing plant to distribution center to retail outlet) and spurred impulse buys Friday. Sales figures, through Sunday, will be reflected in Wednesday's Soundscan data.
"I felt like I didn't want anybody to give the message when my record is coming out," Beyoncé said Thursday. "I just want this to come out when it's ready and from me to my fans."