Richard knows to set herself apart not only to stand out but also to survive.
Dawn Richard always lived by the age old adage, “Write about what you know.” Her ‘10s trilogy of Goldenheart, Blackheart and Redemption detailed struggles with her identity, career and, as with most records, relationships. With her sharp sense of self, Richard ties her story into her high-concept works. Her self-awareness speaks to her own keen ear and songwriting, both of which channel her life into songs with rich productions bolstered by candidly honest lyrics. Even still, Richard knows to set herself apart not only to stand out but also to survive: “I know you like me in ya spot/ But I need room to roam about.”
New Breed gives Richard the space she seeks, a place to develop the person who emerged from the Hearts trilogy. “I didn’t change I became” she announced on Redemption, already a full decade into her musical career. Over that time, she worked in two different groups, Danity Kane and Diddy-Dirty Money, only to discover she preferred the independent route to manifest her visions. Emerging as D∆WN, she found that while being an independent artist still technically means the same thing, it exists as something different in 2019. In the past, an indie artist would struggle to find airplay or support for their work; today, they are much more accessible than ever before, an accessibility Richard embraces and struggles with. This new breed of artist strives to create on their own terms, but they also grapple with knowing that independence from the industry also makes their struggle more difficult: “I keep getting in my own way.”
Pining for simpler times, New Breed opens with Richard alone, reminiscing on her past in New Orleans. “I wanna rock the people don’t judge you/ They don’t hang with you if they don’t fuck with you” she cries out through her vocoder, an instrument she’s wielded with aplomb for years now. Richard’s voice, with its wooden timbre and distinctive use of electronic enhancement, sounds as strong as ever. Whether flexing her flow (“New Breed,” “Shades”) or her range (“Jealousy,” “Spaces”), it never feels overshadowed. Among today’s artists, who are often indecipherable, Richard never comes across as ambiguous.
Instead, her candor allows her to either celebrate herself or to delve to the root issues at-hand. “Live flagrant/ Make people nervous,” she sings on “Dreams and Converse,” a guitar-driven anthem to living one’s truth unabashedly. On such upbeat tracks, when Richard busts out that New Orleans jazz groove, her infectious energy shines strongest. The confident romp of “Shades” recalls the swagger of Chance the Rapper’s “All Night,” carried along by a swift bass and Richard’s assured tongue. Speaking of assured, “Sauce” throws inhibition into the pile of clothes on the side of her bed: “I’m ready to ride you like about to win a prize at the Kentucky derby.” As progressive in its attitude as its sound, New Breed also gets flagrantly sexual at points, catching you off-guard with its directness.
Even the most explicit songs come loaded with double meanings, heightened further by intros separate from the lyrics. “Spaces” opens with Richard recounting the music industry’s critiques of her as “Too brave, too confidant, too black, too ugly, too thin” but the subsequent lyrics seem to signal the end of a romance. Before it becomes a club banger, “Shades” starts with a segment regarding the Mardi Gras Indians, whom Richard descends from and who inspired much of the album’s visuals. On “Vultures | Wolves,” Richard acknowledges her faults, but her apologies sound as if they’re more for the comfort of the person she speaks them too. It’s “sorry, not sorry” delivered as a soaring ballad.
But don’t think for a second that your judgments throw her off: “So won’t you put that pressure on me cause then you’ll see the best in me,” she promises on the penultimate and positive “We, Diamonds,” an ode to the resilience and strength of black women, that “incorporates piano, woodblock, and a funky guitar for a warmer, more intimate atmosphere. Musically, it goes back to the origins Richard felt so distant from at the album’s onset while also foreshadowing glory yet to come. Detractors and industry figures may fail to see it, but Richard isn’t waiting for them to catch on – as a highly evolved being, she already knows her worth. “You need to catch this vision,” otherwise you’ll never learn how to evolve yourself.