Album review: Dawn Richard – Redemption

John Preston

Dawn Richard has fulfilled her promise from 2013 and delivered the third and final instalment in her series, Hearts. Gold, Black and now Redemption are the work of an independent artist who is rooted in a variant of experimental, ambient electronica underpinned by core R&B values. But that’s just the skimming the surface.

To have actually released a triptych of albums, when so many mainstream artists with considerably more resources promise an imminent musical reinvention which never materialises (hey, Rita Ora!), is a tremendous accomplishment in itself. And the native New Orleans singer is doing this herself – her vision and her rules. There is no compromise and also no-one else to blame if the wheels start to fall off the thing.

But there is little worry of that happening here, Redemption picks up and runs with the high quality already established with her previous releases. Richard now almost makes it sound easy.

Of all three albums, Redemption feels the least conceptual. Goldenheart was about establishing intimate and often difficult connections, Blackheart provided a safe place for a cathartic recovery of a broken life but the Redheart era is less easy to define, lyrically or sonically. Initially spoken off as a celebration of change, an embracing of the new and vibrant, Redemption is probably the most dance-heavy album of the three but it is also deeply concerned with the real issues that, particularly now, pollute the social landscape. On ‘Love Under Lights’, for example, Richards finds herself in the club, a place we should be tired of hearing about now. She not only positions herself in a situation where she is sexually open to all genders, but the final 90 seconds disconnect from the original EDM elements and incorporate house beats, live percussion, shimmering mandolins and a call to prayer. This is Richard’s manifesto, it seems – her world view being exactly that.

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‘Black Crimes’ follows but Richard substitutes the word ‘black’ with ‘love’ and scats out towards the end whilst the computers compete against her humanness with chirping resilience.

‘I put my brave face on,’ Richard intones again and again on the grandly futuristic ‘Voices’, which also pulls frequently from the classical world (a familiar Richards trope) with cellos and a string play-out coda.

‘LA’, which features Trombone Shorty, is the album’s episodic and breathtaking centrepiece. Clipped and diamond-sharp hip-hop beats eventually morph into psychedelic guitar squalls and, finally, a play out of carnival street music by Mr Shorty set against a hazy, lazy summers day. Whilst all of this unfurls, Richard’s near mantra of ‘these LA streets are killing me’ never quite fades away. It’s an audacious, sublime and thought-provoking six minutes and one of Richard’s strongest and most idiosyncratic compositions to date.

It’s incredibly satisfying to hear Richard take from dance music’s past and push it into her – and our – future. ‘Lazarus’ could have appeared on a mid-90s Oribital album and the iridescent, twinkling ‘Tyrants’ is anchored by a thickly seductive, classic-house bassline. But it is Richard herself, her vocals constantly being refined and reimagined, that make these bangers sound so progressive.

‘Hey Nikki’ ushers in a change of mood and tempo for the album’s last third which dwells in areas of romantic reflection with a downgrading in pace and the sonic madness that proceeds it. ‘Hey Nikki’ is a morose, drum-heavy slow-grind which obviously plays an homage to Prince’s heroine of the same name. Richard has lifted imaginary female figures from iconic pop songs before and given them their own voice (Blackheart‘s ‘Billie Jean’) and she does so with integrity and wild imagination.

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Being part of the underground, which Richards still very much is, is a modern and too familiar conundrum for this type of artist in 2016. It would appear that despite, and maybe because of, her reality TV background and association with powerful industry and celebrity figures, Richard is not included in mainstream music’s rotation. Up to a point this can be a personal decision but once an artist has sold enough music then their inclusion in popular culture is no longer possible to negotiate. Once you’re in, you’re in but once you’re out – well, we all know how that story goes. Richard could associate herself with more commercial artists and producers but she chooses not too and, unfairly, this can hamper big-time stardom – especially for female artists. This is a shame because Dawn Richard is needed on a bigger platform. Her talent, ethos and worldview is inspirational in the truest sense and Redemption should be blaring from every speaker and stadium in the world.

About John Preston

South London based music obsessive with strong opinions about most things. Doubts Madonna has another good record in her but would love more than anything to be proved wrong.