Dawn Richard – Blackheart – Review

John Preston

With Blackheart, Dawn Richard has one musical foot in the past and one very much in what sounds like the future. It can only be hoped that she is embraced sufficiently enough right now. Her music and attitude are truly independent, independent of major labels, producers, collaborators and industry manipulation and that is how she wants it. Previously a member of the now forever defunct, Diddy selected US girl group Danity Kane who took part in MTV’s Making the Band, her experiences have clearly influenced her in her subsequent need for total creative control. It would be accurate to say the music Richard has offered to date is a type of experimental, electronically-steered RnB, and it would be tempting to say that the music here is also rooted in this genre, but with Blackheart, even that’s thrown into dispute. Dawn Richard is using melodies, metaphors and sonic ripples and explosions that belong more to established visionary artists such early Goldie, Bjork, Nona Hendryx and possibly even Kate Bush. She is not at their level yet, admittedly, but this collection of songs and narratives demonstrates she has a lot in common with this small circle of artists whose influence is far greater than the influences they may initially crib from.

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Armor On and Goldenheart, Richard’s previous albums, were idiosyncratic, occasionally indulgent and frequently brilliant collections of love as a battlefield. Blackheart is the second installment of a hearts-themed trilogy (Redemption Heart will follow), and as the title suggests, the lights have now gone out and it’s flight or fight, win or lose. Aiming straight for the kill, the first third of Blackheart is the most challenging, disorientating and compelling music that Richard has produced so far. ‘Noir’, which opens with the piercing acapella cry of ‘I thought I lost it all’, ends with plaintive strings before segueing into ‘Calypso’, an almost wordless boogie-disco vocoder riff and vocal samples cut to run this way and that. It serves more as a six minute introduction of mania before Richard fully reappears again on the regally drumming single ‘Blow’, one the more straightforward songs here. This is promptly followed by one of the oddest. ‘Billie Jean’, while not the Michael Jackson song, has references that allude to its protagonist, which manage to accomplish the quite remarkable feat of not only tying all of the sonic elements that define the album into one song but to also create one of the instant and more obviously pop melodies here.  The languorous and melancholic chorus sung over a cloud of synthetic strings which should be at odds with the rattling, stuttering overt sexuality of the verses but instead mesh gloriously.

‘Adderall/Sold (Outerlude)’, the album’s emotional core, is a depressive, bleak account of the woman who has reached her lowest point:

‘All the days when she slept to noon, she was living like she’s dying soon’

Bolstered by bare, springy reggae pads and pulsing synths, Richard pushes the listeners’ patience here as the track is not only the longest, but from the 3 minute point, it constantly shape shifts for the remaining 5. Guitars come in and then disappear (one of the very few acoustic instruments featured), vocals are pitched up and down and bellowed in a robotic auto tuned cry. In less capable hands this could have resulted in a self- indulgent dirge, but Richard makes it the album’s essential high point. ‘Swim Free’ follows and this signals Richard’s re-awakening of sorts, presuming that Blackheart is indeed auto-biographical. A beautiful, ambient ballad which mimics an irregular heartbeat before opening up like a bejeweled music box, it’s chiming cords and gently fluttering micro- beats are reminiscent of Bjork’s exercise in introversion ‘Vespertine’.

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‘Phoenix’, which appropriately enough features vocals from ex-Danity Kane member Aundrea Fimbres, is a near hysterical, borderline brilliant, traditionally structured pop song – the dysfunctional partial girl group’s one last concession to mainstream radio. It is one slice away from pure EDM cheese but Richard, in a manner that suggests she could just toss great commercial melodies like this out in her sleep if she felt like it, is so brazenly sincere and over the top that it’s impossible not to surrender to her most euphoric moment. Contrast this to album closer ‘The Deep’, a stark piano led ballad which is the other exception here as Richard finally allows her voice to be exposed without distortion or effects. Clear, soulful and life embracing, it represents the strong calm following the storm that came before it.

An experimental concept album of this magnitude coming from an artist such as Richard, one who many will want to tidily pigeon-hole all too easily, may have trouble in finding an audience appropriately big enough to contain and appreciate its considerable aims. This wasn’t always the case as albums with as grand a reach as this have always been made, but without big record company money supporting a relatively new artist it can be difficult for them to evolve creatively and effectively identify the maximum extent of their audience. But with Blackheart, Richard is proving her single minded ambition and massive talent to be mighty, she could have made any kind of record at this point and this is what she chose to do. A true musical auteur, Dawn Richard should be mentioned in the same breath as current acts such as Arca, FKA Twigs and Saint Vincent, and it is hoped that this record is as commercially buoyant as it will undoubtedly be critically lauded. The industry that Dawn Richard has had to turn her back on to get Blackheart made desperately needs her as she truly does represent the future.

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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.