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Blackstar (stylised as ?) is the twenty-fifth and final studio album by English musician David Bowie. It was released worldwide through ISO, RCA, Columbia, and Sony on 8 January 2016, coinciding with Bowie's 69th birthday. The album was largely recorded in secret between The Magic Shop and Human Worldwide Studios in New York City with Bowie's longtime co-producer Tony Visconti and a group of local jazz musicians.
Two days after its release, Bowie died of liver cancer; his illness had not been revealed to the public until then. Co-producer Visconti described the album as Bowie's intended swan song and a "parting gift" for his fans before his death. Upon release, the album was met with critical acclaim and commercial success, topping charts in a number of countries in the wake of Bowie's death, and becoming Bowie's only album to top the Billboard 200 in the United States. The album remained at the number-one position in the UK charts for three weeks. It was the 5th best selling album of the entire year, worldwide. It was also the best selling album worldwide for two consecutive weeks, having sold more than 969,000 copies as of 31 January 2016. It has sold more than 1,900,000 copies as of April 2017 and received Gold and Platinum certifications in the U.S and the U.K., respectively.
Bowie recorded Blackstar while suffering from liver cancer; his illness was not made public until he died, two days after the album's release. Like Bowie's previous album The Next Day, recording took place in secret at the Magic Shop and Human Worldwide Studios in New York City. Bowie began writing and making demos for songs that appear on Blackstar as soon as sessions for The Next Day concluded. He recruited a local New York jazz combo led by Donny McCaslin as the backing band for the sessions.
Two songs that appear on Blackstar, "Sue (Or in a Season of Crime)" and "'Tis a Pity She Was a Whore", had been previously released, but were rerecorded for Blackstar, including new saxophone parts played on the latter song by McCaslin (replacing parts Bowie played on the original release). The title of the latter derives from the title 'Tis Pity She's a Whore, a play by John Ford, an English dramatist of the 17th century. McCaslin and the rest of the jazz group recorded their parts in the studio over a period of about one month from January to March 2015, and were reportedly unaware of Bowie's declining health - according to McCaslin, the band worked with Bowie "essentially from 11 to 4 every day", while bassist Tim Lefebvre stated that "it never looked to us like he was sick". The song "Lazarus" was included in Bowie's Off-Broadway musical of the same name.
Billboard and CNN wrote that Bowie's lyrics seem to address his impending death, with CNN noting that the album "reveals a man who appears to be grappling with his own mortality". "Lazarus", the third track on the album, was notable for the lines "Look up here, I'm in heaven / I've got scars that can't be seen"; this specific part of the lyrics appeared in many publications following Bowie's death on 10 January. "I Can't Give Everything Away" contains the line "Seeing more and feeling less / Saying no but meaning yes / This is all I ever meant / That's the message that I sent", which led Neil McCormick of The Daily Telegraph to think of the song as a point where "Bowie sounds like he is grappling with his own mystery." "Girl Loves Me", the album's fifth track, was notable for its inclusion of Nadsat, a fictional language created by Anthony Burgess for his 1962 novel A Clockwork Orange, where it was used very often. It also included Polari, a type of slang used commonly in England by homosexual men during the mid-20th century.
The artwork for Blackstar was designed by Jonathan Barnbrook, who filled the same role on Heathen, Reality, and The Next Day. The cover's star image is credited to NASA in the CD booklet. The five star segments below the main star form the word BOWIE in stylised letters. The vinyl cover, in black, features the star as a cutout, revealing the record (with an all-black picture label) beneath. With the record removed, the black paper behind the cut-out reveals a hidden picture of a starfield when the foldout sleeve is held up to a light source. It took more than four months for fans to discover the effect. The designer claimed there were many other surprises hidden in the LP's artwork. Music journalists noted that a "black star lesion," usually found inside a breast, suggests to medical practitioners evidence of certain types of cancer. After Bowie's death, Barnbrook released the Blackstar design elements under a Creative Commons NonCommercial-ShareAlike license.
The album was released on 8 January 2016, coinciding with Bowie's 69th birthday.
Blackstar sold 146,000 copies in its first week in the United Kingdom (a week that saw four other Bowie albums in the Top 10 and a further seven in the Top 40, the latter equalling Elvis Presley's chart record) and more than 181,000 in the United States. Within days of the album's release, online retailer Amazon.com temporarily sold out of both the CD and LP editions. In the week 11-17 January, Blackstar was the most downloaded album in 25 iTunes national charts.
Bowie was the biggest-selling vinyl artist of 2016 in the UK, with five albums in the vinyl Top 30, including Blackstar as the number-one vinyl album of the year. It sold twice as many copies as the previous year's winner, Adele's 25.
In 2018, Jon Culshaw played Bowie in the BBC radio play The Final Take: Bowie in the Studio, an imagined account of Bowie as he works on the album and looks back over his life.
Blackstar was acclaimed by music critics and fans. At Metacritic, the album received an average score of 87, which indicates "universal acclaim", based on 43 reviews.Rolling Stone critic David Fricke called Blackstar "a ricochet of textural eccentricity and pictorial-shrapnel writing". Andy Gill of The Independent regarded the record as "the most extreme album of [Bowie's] entire career", stating that "Blackstar is as far as he's strayed from pop."Jon Pareles of The New York Times described the album as "at once emotive and cryptic, structured and spontaneous and, above all, willful, refusing to cater to the expectations of radio stations or fans".The Daily Telegraphs Neil McCormick hailed Blackstar as an "extraordinary" album which "suggests that, like a modern day Lazarus of pop, Bowie is well and truly back from beyond." In a favourable review for Exclaim!, Michael Rancic wrote that Blackstar is "a defining statement from someone who isn't interested in living in the past, but rather, for the first time in a while, waiting for everyone else to catch up".
Reviewing for Q magazine, Tom Doyle wrote, "Blackstar is a more concise statement than The Next Day and a far, far more intriguing one."NME critic Sam Richards stated that Bowie had maintained his "formidable record of reinventing himself" on a "busy, bewildering and occasionally beautiful record", adding that "one of the few certainties we can take from this restless, relentlessly intriguing album is that David Bowie is positively allergic to the idea of heritage rock." Chris Gerard of PopMatters called the album "singular in its unique sound and vibe," describing it as "trippy and majestic head-music spun from moonage daydreams and made for gliding in and out of life."Pitchfork's review of Blackstar, written by Ryan Dombal, was published on the day of the album's release, two days before Bowie's death, and concluded: "This tortured immortality is no gimmick: Bowie will live on long after the man has died. For now, though, he's making the most of his latest reawakening, adding to the myth while the myth is his to hold." Writing for The A.V. Club, which chose it as the best album of 2016, Sean O'Neal described Blackstar as "a sonically adventurous album that proves Bowie was always one step ahead--where he'll now remain in perpetuity."
Blackstar was already on course to debut at number one on the UK Albums Chart prior to the announcement of Bowie's death on 10 January 2016, according to the Official Charts Company. The album debuted at number one after selling 146,000 copies and became his tenth number one album in the UK. The album remained three weeks at number one, falling at number 2 behind another Bowie album, the compilation Best of Bowie (2002), which became the first ever album to get to number one in the UK because of streaming. As of January 2018, the album has sold 446,000 copies in the United Kingdom.
In the US, the album debuted at number one on the US Billboard 200 chart, selling 181,000 copies in its first week. It was Bowie's first number one in America and best weekly sales figure. It was the 14th best-selling album in the US in 2016, with 448,000 copies sold that year.
The album also peaked at number one in 24 countries, number 2 in Greece, Mexico, South Korea and Taiwan, number 4 in Hungary and 5 in Japan.
"Sue (Or in a Season of Crime)" contains elements from "Brand New Heavy" by Plastic Soul, written by Bateman and Bhamra. The latter's surname is consistently misspelled as "Bharma" in the album's liner notes.