Dawn Richard has spent her solo career blowing up emotions to near-mythical levels. Her last solo album, 2013’s self-released Goldenheart, portrayed a love affair in the language of battle and war, while 2012’s Armor On channeled it through religious devotion. It’s potentially hammy territory, but it works because Richard sells it so well—she’s a tremendously evocative singer who can turn a song as fluffy as Katy Perry’s “Dark Horse” into something truly exotic and alluring. And with help from her close partner Druski, she dressed it all up in sleek, futuristic production. All of that made last year’s reunion of Danity Kane, the “Making the Band” group with which she got her start, almost shocking, at least on Richard’s part. Jettisoning her independent freedom in favor of cookie-cutter girl-group pop she already managed to escape once, it turned out the group couldn’t contain her anyway. The reunion only lasted a few months, resulting in a nearly-unlistenable album and an alleged physical altercation involving Richard. Now, just a few months after DK3 landed with a flop, we get Blackheart, a fierce and sometimes harrowing album that feels all the more potent given the shaky year that preceded it.
Blackheart is the second installment in Richard’s planned Heart trilogy, and it also launches a new phase in her career which she calls “The Black Era.” Appropriately, the music is darker, more paranoid, and more personal. Where Goldenheart‘s themes of romance were intentionally universal, Blackheart deals with Richard’s own experiences in the music industry, her frustrations and her frayed nerves. She also plays a much larger role in the production, co-producing most of the tracks herself with Noisecastle III. Don’t be fooled by the bump and grind R&B of first single “Blow”; Blackheart offers a sprawling and sometimes knotty take on songwriting, sometimes doing away with verse and chorus structure altogether and settling on a stream-of-consciousness barrage instead.
The album’s opening run seems purposefully designed to scare away less adventurous listeners with rushing synth runs, jungle breaks, and sharply-cut vocal samples. Dawn doesn’t even come in for three minutes on “Calypso”, and once she does, she’s nearly taken in by the tide anyways. The idea might be a cliché at this point, but on Blackheart Richard truly uses the studio as an instrument. Organic sounds are few and far between, and just when you think you’ve got a hold on a song, it could all melt away and morph into something else entirely. “Billie Jean” turns from side-eye rant into an orchestral ballad, and the cautionary tale “Adderall/Sold” swells into a passionate vocoder hymnal where Richard bellows “She was living/ Like she’s dying soon” with such conviction that it’s hard to believe she’s not talking about herself. The vocoder aappears over and over on Blackheart, embellishing her cries with a gravity that meshes with the already otherworldly texture of her natural voice.
There are a few more traditional moments on Blackheart, beginning with the power ballad “Warriors”, which sounds like a holdover from Goldenheart. “Projection” is a stunning rumination on memory that sounds illusory, transient, and in danger of simply flickering out at any moment, while “Castles” focuses on themes of fragility and solidarity amidst a torrent of vocal ad-libs both sampled and Richard’s own. This section of the album forms a redemptive arc that peaks with “Phoenix”, a feel-good duet with ex-Danity Kane partner Aundrea Fimbres that would be overbearing if it didn’t feel so triumphant. Look at it one way and it’s a typical radio song about coming back from heartbreak, but put it in the context of Richard’s career outside her solo work—a series of false starts unbefitting of such a uniquely talented artist—and it feels transcendent. Even its relatively simple structure and Top 40 sonics register as a renewed sense of clarity rather than a compromise.
The excess of “Phoenix” is tempered by “Choices”, a short interlude where Richard croons “I love you/ But I love me more” over gilded threads of synthesizer. It’s one of the many little moments on Blackheart that feels like an emotional punch in the stomach, especially once she starts cooing “I choose me” in gorgeous falsetto melisma that sounds as effortless as her talk-singing on “Billie Jean”. “Choices” and penultimate track “Deep”—a bare, conciliatory climax—are a reminder that beneath all the production flourishes and high-art concepts, Richard is also a deft and powerful vocalist.
“Deep” is a heartbreaking conclusion where Richard acknowledges her mistakes. “Trying to save the little soul I have left/ I lost it in a poker game to the highest bet/ And if you ask me I’m not the kind to play and quit/ And even though I lost the best of me/ It was worth it,” goes the opening verse, a confession from someone who was, at one point in her career, part of a major pop group. As she stands now, Richard is a lone wolf, and Blackheart reaffirms it. The album pulls her back onto the path she she started with Armor On and into unknown territory.
“I took it to the deep,” she sings on the song’s chorus, “because my heart doesn’t swim in shallow creeks.” She’s not exaggerating: if there’s anything that defines Richard’s music, it’s her grand, sweeping feelings that she lays bare for all to see and hear. Blackheart takes it down a peg from the mythology of Goldenheart into a more introspective, earthy realm—that it’s wrapped up in inventive production that feels about five years ahead of mainstream radio is just icing on the cake. She begins the album howling “I thought I lost it all” into the void, but by the end, it feels like she found herself, and her voice, again—Blackheart is the singular, visionary work that she’s been hinting at since she struck out on her own post-Diddy in 2011.
from Album Reviews – Pitchfork http://ift.tt/15aNhkN