Is Beyoncé’s album hold-up bad news?

As Beyoncé reportedly scraps 50 tracks in advance of her long-awaited fifth album, Greg Kot asks: what happens to artists who take too long making records?

The latest reports from inside Camp Beyoncé say the singer has scrapped the 50 tracks in consideration for her fifth studio album and decided to start over. Ne-Yo, one of the artists whose songs were reportedly shelved, said Beyoncé was “still trying to figure out” a direction for the album in June, according to the Hollywood Reporter. Who knows how much truth there is to these reports, because Beyoncé and her record label, Columbia Records, haven’t commented. But something’s clearly amiss.

Last February Beyoncé headlined the Super Bowl halftime and launched a major arena tour this summer. Micro-managed pop stars usually commit to that kind of schedule only when there’s new product to push. Multi-million-dollar marketing campaigns for big albums are the cultural equivalent of the D-Day Invasion – plotted months in advance to saturate media and heighten public awareness. And yet there’s still no sign of the follow-up to Beyoncé’s 2011 release, 4. 

It wouldn’t be the first time a major artist has run into roadblocks while readying a highly anticipated album, and usually the longer the wait, the more disappointing the results.

Axl Rose and an army of hired guns laboured for 17 years to make the bloated Guns N’ Roses album Chinese Democracy. The follow-up to the twin releases, Use Your Illusion I and II, it finally came out in 2008 to a resounding sigh of indifference. Rose spread 14 tracks across 77 minutes – that’s about 4.5 minutes of music a year. Peter Gabriel was recording at about the same pace when he finally released Up in 2002, 10 years after his previous studio album. It stiffed commercially and, since then, Gabriel still hasn’t released an album of original songs.

He’s got company. R&B star D’Angelo, who released landmark neo-soul albums in 1995 (Brown Sugar) and 2000 (Voodoo), has been silent ever since, finally emerging to play a few concerts last year. (The singer was recently hospitalised for an undisclosed illness and had to cancel a series of shows). Lauryn Hill, currently serving three months in prison for tax evasion, has managed to release only one live album since her 1998 breakthrough, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. With each year, the prospect of D’Angelo and Hill regaining their form, let alone their standing as cultural game-changers, becomes increasingly unfathomable, despite their fans’ fondest wishes.

You snooze, you lose

Even Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails paid the price for toiling a mere five years over The Fragile, the double-album follow-up to his 1994 blockbuster, The Downward Spiral. The ambitious album sold about a quarter as much as its quadruple-platinum predecessor, despite justifiably laudatory reviews. Jimmy Iovine, the overlord of Reznor’s label, Interscope, called it “the right album at the wrong time.” The implication was that Reznor had procrastinated, and his moment had passed.

The music industry isn’t a friend to artists who wait. In the ‘60s and ‘70s, artists typically recorded an album – and sometimes two or even three – a year, and toured relentlessly. Now, with trends arriving and disappearing in record time, bands that don’t keep the pipeline flooded with their genius are quickly forgotten.

Beyoncé is unlikely to be forgotten by anyone anytime soon – she’s a true multimedia celebrity in addition to being a recording artist. But the longer she’s away, the more likely she’ll look like she’s chasing trends rather than shaping them.

‘Deadline’ is a dirty word in the music world, but sometimes the by-products of having one are urgency and focus. Artists who dither and tinker endlessly because they have the time and budgets to do so can second-guess themselves into inertia. Gabriel said he had 130 songs in play for the Up album. "I guess I just enjoy the business of making music better than selling it,” he said at the time. “I didn't have a producer on board whipping me into shape, and so deadlines become things you pass through on the way to finishing."

The rulebreakers

But there’s another potential storyline, one that has little to do with commercial expectation. One senses that Gabriel really didn’t care all that much about fashioning another Sledgehammer-style hit when he made Up, just as Reznor wasn’t all that bothered about distancing himself from the mainstream with The Fragile. Some of the most self-contained and longest-lasting artists give the impression that they just exist in their own space and time, oblivious to the industry and the whims of marketing. They develop a loyal fan base precisely because they don’t play by everyone else’s rules. Every decade or so, Kate Bush gets around to releasing another album and it’s usually worth the wait. Portishead chilled out for 11 years after their second album, then dropped the terrific Third in 2008.

It can be done. Beyoncé has the clout to make a radical, perception-shifting album if she chose. She hinted that she might do so on 4, referencing everyone from Fela Kuti to Frank Ocean, but ended up backing off and settling for a more straightforward mix of pop and ballads. Maybe she’s clearing the decks not because she’s stuck, but because she’s focused on something a little beyond what’s expected of her.

Greg Kot is the music critic at the Chicago Tribune. His work can be found here.

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