Dawn Richard’s backstory should be familiar to anyone with even a passing history of popular music. Her career began in a short-lived but successful R&B group (Danity Kane, as documented on MTV’s reality TV series Making the Band) before ultimately striking a solo path of her own, with a sound and a vision that set her apart as a force to be reckoned with. As a solo performer, Richard hasn’t reached the commercial success of artists such as Beyoncé or Justin Timberlake, and this is the part of the story where her path diverges from the norm. As a one-time protegé of Sean P-Diddy Combs, Richard has by and large moved away from the standards of contemporary pop and R&B, instead exploring more progressive sounds like UK bass while collaborating with visionary newcomers like Kingdom. All the while, she’s controlled every aspect of her artistry—performance, songwriting, design, even animation. She hasn’t just surpassed her former group, she’s asserted herself as an individual whose creativity knows no limits.
Following three EPs and two full-length albums in the past half-decade, Richard’s third album Redemption is simultaneously her most eclectic and most focused. With production provided by North Carolina-born, Berlin-based IDM/footwork beatmaker Machinedrum, Redemption (which she’s released as D∆WN) is a vibrant and celebratory statement that’s just as peculiar and experimental as she’s ever sounded. Its first proper song, “Love Under Lights,” is a fascinating microcosm of the vast world—experimentally innovative and contemporarily in-touch—that Richard inhabits. Its pulsing club beat could fit in comfortably with the best of Rihanna’s singles of late, with a narration of a chance meeting—one that challenges pop’s sexual norms—which nods to hip-hop’s reigning kings: “She said she fuckin’ with Drake/I say ‘King Kendrick’/I guess we’re kindred spirits.” Yet as it progresses toward an outro, “Love Under Lights” gets incredibly weird, dropping club beats in favor of tweaked vocal samples and polyrhythmic percussion, like the drugs are just now beginning to take effect. It’s no chemical illusion, though, just another curious pathway through Richard’s strange and compelling sonic world.
D∆WN’s standard mode is straddling a line between electronic exploration and pop accessibility. At her most immediate, she’s bold enough to take strange risks and bathe everything in an alien glow. At her most alien, she’s never a long distance from a killer hook. “Renegades” is a prime example of the former, with a vocal hook in the chorus that seems primed for radio dominance, while her odd vocal effects recall Laurie Anderson and the track’s arrangement approximates the dark brassy textures of Yeezus to more successful effect. The outstanding “LA,” featuring Trombone Shorty, takes a considerably more psychedelic ride through Brainfeeder-inspired weirdness. Richard laments, “These L.A. streets are killin’ me,” but the funkadelic ride she embarks on speaks a different story, one of an acid-tongued love letter to Flying Lotus, Thundercat, Gaslamp Killer and their ilk. Even farther afield is “Hey Nikki,” which rides a slinky funk between Prince’s funk and Tinariwen’s desert blues.
Texturally, Redemption is every bit as otherworldly and strange as its predecessor, Blackheart, but its outlook is far less sinister. “Voices,” an art-pop bounce with a clarinet hook curiously reminiscent of UK post-post-punks These New Puritans, finds Richard seeking assurance in the face of adversity: “I put a brave face on… It’s days like these/I have to get upon my knees/and ask God to see me.” There’s ambiguity in Richard’s distorted verses in “Tyrants,” as she sings “Never be scared/Never understand/How far it goes/The light expands,” evoking either the divine or something even less immediately understandable against a Boards of Canada-style IDM ooze. And “Lazarus” channels biblical allegory in the name of self realization: “My ignorance is a human thing/ My ascension is a spirit babe/ I can be both and the same/ I didn’t change, I became.”
Though it’s easy to draw comparisons between D∆WN and anyone from Rihanna to George Clinton, she has few contemporaries. In essence, she’s more of a successor to the convention-challenging pop art and theatricality of Grace Jones, or the Afro-futurism of post-millennial Erykah Badu. Redemption is both a striking statement from one of pop music’s most artful iconoclasts as well as a continuation of a career of continuous innovation and actualization. We’re on this journey with Richard, watching the future of pop and R&B unfold even as the world seems to be crumbling all around us. She arrives like a beacon of hope from the future, offering both a beautiful song and a path toward someplace beautiful—someplace better.
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.