It’s hard to think of an artist who has had a more interesting career trajectory than Dawn Richard. She was part of girl group Danity Kane who got their start on Diddy’s television show Making The Band 3 and later went on to join Diddy Dirty Money. In the two groups, she clocked up two number one albums and three top 20 singles until the two groups lost members and disbanded. Danity Kane returned in 2014 for a record with just three members, Richard included, but they failed to recapture their former success. Rarely, if ever, can artists comeback as their own solo entity after success like that but Richard didn’t really set about staging a comeback.
Instead of chasing hits, she carved her own sonic backdrop and began to unleash some of the most innovative yet accessible music of the last five years. Goldenheart was first, a record that showed signs of Richard reaching for something weirder but it wasn’t until Blackheart that her version was realised. It was a warped, distorting electronic record that shook the expectations of what an ‘R&B artist’ should be doing.
Since then, people have rarely attempted to trace DAWN back to her Danity Kane roots, mostly because the two are incomparable. This year alone, she’s impressed with an EP produced by Kingdom Honest, worked with Star Slinger, Machinedrum and Oshi, and is now unleashing her third album and the final part of a three album trilogy Redemption. The album stands on its own without a history of how DAWN got to where she is now but knowing the backstory aids in viewing Redemption as DAWN’s triumphant realisation of her artistic freedom.
In her own words, Redemption is about “moving on,” and that’s true in many ways. There’s a euphoric freedom to the electronic backdrops that drive the album but in order to move on she has to address issues from her past and that defines a lot of the lyrical work on the record. “We’re sentenced to life,” she sings on Black Crimes reference police brutality in the US and the subsequent Black Live Matter movement. Elsewhere on LA she sings, “We just wanna know, if we really matter, we just wanna know.” Electronic music has rarely harnessed political commentary but under the pulsating beats and heavy synth work here, it’s strikingly powerful.
There’s plenty of questions and hurt on Redemption but that’s juxtaposed beautifully by the strength that punches through on many of the albums high points. Renegades is a battleground of fast firing beats and brassy drops and on Voices she sings, “I put a brave, brave face on,” over a flurry of industrial beats. Once we’ve traversed through the sonic journey of beats and voices, she leaves us with the lyric “Escape, run away with me,” on the auto-tune heavy Valhalla. This is DAWN moving on, freeing herself of the weight that she carries on many of the songs.
There’s so much to appreciate from a thematic point-of-view that it’s easy to under appreciate the forward-thinking sound of this project. On Blackheart she consistently pushed the boundaries production-wise but it didn’t carry as much lyrical weight as Redemption. On Redemption she’s managed to bring both and some of the production-choices are spectacular. Album highlight and opener Love Under Lights soars thanks to a pulsating tempo change that makes an already great song greater. Under anyone else’s guidance Lazarus would’ve been a forgettable mid-tempo but with Machinedrum at the helm it becomes a dizzying, busy trip. Each song blends effortlessly into the next, making it easy to get to the end without realising that you’ve just devoured 15 songs.
Redemption isn’t going to take over the charts but it’s probably the best alternative for those who crave the melody of a pop hit but are fed up with the copy/paste aesthetic that the radio beams out. None of these songs are word-heavy, in fact repetition is key on a number of the songs, but DAWN goes for quality not quantity, meaning what she does say hits hard. That combined with the intentionally futuristic sonic-backdrop makes Redemption a record that stands alone in 2016. It analyses the past and the present but only so that it can deduce a euphoric alternative for the future.