Beyonce / YouTube

Beyoncé, Frank Ocean, And The Art Of Anticipation

Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib on the bitter juice of Lemonade

Last Saturday, Beyoncé released a teaser trailer for Lemonade, which we now know is going to be a documentary-style special, airing on HBO this Saturday. The trailer, which is just over one minute, is jarring in its presentation, at moments seeming like it could be a trailer for a horror film. There's Beyoncé’s voice droning softly over a rapidly changing mix of images: a field consumed by dark clouds, an ominous stairwell drowned in red light, women on a bus with painted faces, an alleyway on fire; all the while, we get a continuous shot of Beyoncé’s head, covered in blonde braids, arching back from an equally blonde fur coat. As the anticipation builds, in the moment before we see her full face, the screen cuts to black. There is a title, the promise of a “World Premiere Event,” and a time, all while Beyoncé’s voice repeatedly whispers “pull me in, pull me in, pull me in …”

In the moment, watching this from my parked car on Saturday afternoon, I realized that even in paying close attention to the visuals of this, I had no idea what it was for. A song? A movie? A new line of Beyoncé-themed drinks?

I think that this, too, is now a part of the art — the art of creating excitement from mystery. The Internet, awash with anticipation, cleared its schedule, called its long-lost friends to check if they still had HBO and if they “wouldn’t mind company” on Saturday night, all on the promise of Beyoncé delivering something. Even if we weren’t sure what it was.

When I was younger, album release days were similar to Christmas. A few dozen small holidays, circled on the calendar in red, coming two or maybe even three times a month. To know that there was a Tuesday when an album I anticipated would arrive, barring a rare drastic pushback, was a comforting and stabilizing force in my early music fanhood. A record store that I had to go to first thing after getting out of school on a Tuesday, hoping that they hadn’t sold out of whatever release I had been traveling toward since my last purchase. Years from now, when the idea of release dates has long gone out the window and music fans are looking over their shoulders while being jolted from one surprise release to the next, we will look back to December 2013, when a new self-titled Beyoncé album arrived in the middle of the night. We will talk of the night when we fell asleep and woke up to a whole Beyoncé album that we knew nothing of, like it was a historical moment, another grand tale of human discovery: I just woke up, and the Internet was quoting words to a song I’d never heard. There were memes that I didn’t understand. And then, in the distance, there it was.

A “surprise” album, before this, meant an album that arrived with little notice — like what My Bloody Valentine did months before Beyoncé’s 2013 album, releasing mbv, their first new music in 22 years, with only a Facebook post that existed for two hours before the album dropped. Those were high stakes, but not nearly as high as, say, the biggest pop star in the world creating an album without a whisper of notice or promotion and casting it into a winter night. If nothing else, this gave a type of permission to musicians across genres. If Beyoncé can drop a surprise album, why shouldn’t other stars give the world a surprise song or mixtape out of nowhere?

It is hard not to notice and appreciate the impact this has on the music fan. Once you know that, at any moment, you can be undone by the arrival of something new by a musician you love, the intensity of your fanhood reaches new, more anxious levels. Even when Beyoncé isn’t actively promising new music, she’s still promising new music simply by existing. The magic trick has done its work. Once the rabbit comes out of the hat, there is no putting it back, hoping no one noticed. Everything is believable now. When Kendrick Lamar’s Untitled Unmastered crept up as an early-evening rumor before becoming a nighttime sensation, it was equal parts shocking and desperately needed. This is part of being a music fan now: sitting on the edge, a handful of wishes that could possibly come true or never exist at all, each of us a minute away from something that will send us darting to our computers, parking our cars wherever they may sit, and streaming whatever falls, seemingly from the sky, into our eager laps.

The other side of this is, of course, the unfulfilled promise. Most of this stems from pure entitlement, the way some of us feel that we are owed a Frank Ocean album because he made a great one once before. This is also the magic trick that can’t be undone: the one where you touched greatness once and now must do it again. Produce at all costs — anxiety, fear, disinterest be damned. I wish for a Frank Ocean album, but I also wish for Frank Ocean to want to make another album, and another one after it.

Some artists tease and tease but never follow through. Views From the 6, Drake’s fourth album, is scheduled to be released in just over a week, if we are to believe the latest reports. This, after nearly a year of vague mentions of Views being “almost finished,” countless shots of Drake and his team in the studio, and a host of throwaway singles being released by Drake, most of them better than album cuts from some of his peers. And this is, of course, also fine. To strike a balance between these two extremes — anxiety over the potential for a surprise and overwhelming anticipation — there has to be a world in which an artist promises a prize and then pulls it just out of reach at the last moment, after letting our fingertips touch its edge.

The dilemma here, in what this has done to us as music listeners, is how quickly we listen to music, form opinions on it, and then discard it in anticipation of the next arrival. I blink and a new song is a distant memory. In music years, it feels like the craze over Beyoncé’s “Formation” happened an entire lifetime ago. So few pieces of popular music linger beyond what brief takes can be squeezed from them. In a way, this is exciting, even when it is excruciating. I am a different music fan now because I have to be. I am no different than everyone else, waiting for my favorite bands to come out of nowhere and announce they have re-formed, all while looking at my watch and waiting for a pop artist to finally deliver on the album they’d long promised. This is the current climate: One grand musical moment swallowing the next, all of us along for the ride, hoping to find something we can dance to.

I have HBO, and so I will field calls from old friends who had to ask a friend of a friend for my phone number that they had perhaps long discarded. I will invite them into my house so that we can, once again, watch Beyoncé cash in on her ever-expanding artistic vision. Even as I do this, I look out on the landscape of music fans that have been built and continue to be built. And I want to say: Stay home, Frank Ocean. They will never love you outside like they have loved the memory of what you once gave. Nothing you present to them will be good enough to satisfy what time and distance have imagined you to be. Because of this, they do not deserve you now. Make them wait, until your name is only a faint memory on their tongues. Come out when it’s safe. When the magic trick is fresh again. When you can step on a stage, confidently reach your hand into a black top hat, and set an entire audience on the edge of its seats.