BreatheHeavy’s Aaron Butterfield reviews Dawn Richard's 'Blackheart' and tips it as an early contender for the best album of 2015.
Given the rebellious, anti-radio nature of Dawn Richard’s solo material, it was inevitably shocking when Danity Kane announced their (extremely brief) reunion, and whilst ‘DK3’ ended up being an outstandingly good record in almost every sense, there was an anxiety that the identity Richard was carving out for herself as an individual artist would be eroded or confused. Clearly no such fears were necessary, as she’s kissed (or should that be punched?) Danity Kane goodbye and come back on the second installment of the ‘Heart’ trilogy with her strongest material yet.
The most obvious statement to be made about ‘Blackheart’ is that it's a record which is almost without genre, an impressive feat immediately established in the introductory pairing “Noir” and “Calypso”.
Richard’s arresting acapella vocals on “Noir” give in to a beat made so explicitly for the dance floor that it should be impossible for the production to ascend above dreary, lowest-common-denominator club fodder. But with the masterful use of vocal distortion, beautiful strings and jungle breaks, “Calypso” manages exactly that almost effortlessly.
Between the synths, glitches and lyrics so distorted it’s impossible to pick up a tone or meaning, the track has the initial feeling of a remix and in many senses, Dawn’s voice is used as a secondary instrument to the largely electronic orchestra. When clear vocals do kick in with ‘been waiting so long’ (which isn’t until 2.55, mind you), the lack of previously intelligible sentiment make the repeated line sound extraordinarily profound for such a simply expressed idea.
Indeed, simple ideas paired with daring production is where the album excels. In comparison, as good the first two singles "Blow" and "Billie Jean" are independently, their more traditional smooth-R&B roots and abrasive lyrical style are way too reminiscent of other Alt-R&B artists like The Weeknd to feel quite as audacious as the album as a whole. Although “Blow” has triumphant moments and the drawling vocals and confronting I'm-a-big-girl-now lyrics of “Billie Jean” are compelling, the tracks feel misplaced in the overall context of ‘Blackheart’. “Billie Jean”, however, does feature the absolute best chorus on the record and is more than worthy of a look over, however mediocre the verses and the hook may be.
Just because the lyrical ideas and execution are largely kept reasonably straightforward, however, doesn’t mean they aren’t still one of Richard’s key strengths as an artist, as was obvious with 2013’s ‘GoldenHeart’. Her passion and honesty can be uncomfortable in the best way which is so clear on the presumably auto-biographical and often paradoxical lyrics of sprawling double track, “Adderall / Sold”. The bold, repeated instruction, ‘get thee right’, is one of the clearest examples of Richard’s power not just as a vocalist but as a songwriter. You’ve got to applaud Richard for keeping it simple because an album that features this kind of complex production with equally ambitious lyricism would undoubtedly become totally impenetrable for the casual listener. Dawn walks the line between abstract and relatable outstandingly well.
As well as being lyrically stronger than the majority of 2015’s radio fodder, Richard makes use of instrumentation from such a variety of musical traditions that “Adderall / Sold”, like most of the album, seems above any unimportant nonsense like genre. The vocoder which pre-empts the explicit electric guitar is a brilliant example of her ability to marry two traditionally contradictory styles – you wouldn’t assume that the robotic vocals of EDM and raw guitar riffs and patterns of classic Rock would be happy bed-fellows, but she makes it work. Indeed, the song moves over so many melodic constructions and instrumental ideas that it feels less like a two numbers and more like ten.
It’s interesting that Richard sets tracks up in such a way that the arch of their ordering in the track list is maybe more convincing than the songs themselves. On “Swim Free”, the percussive instrumental and simple melodies that sink into a jungle beat and electronic xylophone are interesting enough but it feels more satisfying as a very extended intro to the confusingly titled “Titans (Interlude)”.
For a track labeled to seem like a throw-away moment, “Titans” actually feels like one of the most adventurous parts of the album. The bold heartbreak song is the best example of Richard as vocally misleading – lines like ‘why would you want to die, if you can live with me?’, with the emphasis on ‘can’ rather than ‘you’ feels deliberately confusing despite having a very clear, very direct message. The risky descent into high-pitched vocal madness is an equal mix of entertaining and off-putting but for some reason it all comes together as one of the album's most re-playable tracks.
“Warriors” is an equally strong example of risk taking paying off – featuring a jumping and running beat paired with demanding, self-assured lyrics and vocals it’s easily one of the most memorable moments on 'Blackheart'. The apex of noise in the middle of the track surrounded by a sparse into and outro make it feel longer than just over five and a half minutes. It’s hard to tell what exactly makes the song excel, but perhaps it’s the constantly flipping and changing beat because the following track, “Projection”, which features a fairly consistent percussive backbone, is one of the record’s only really forgettable songs. It’s fair to say that it works well as a bridge between “Warriors” and “Castles” but you’d be hard pressed to argue that it has much personal identity. As I said, it does move us nicely along into “Castles”, which showcases nostalgic hooks and riffs that could almost be a remix of a forgotten ‘90s R&B gem, especially with the vocal games Richard plays towards the end.
There are moments when the robust identity of ‘Blackheart’ cracks and falters. “Phoenix” (featuring Aundrea Fimbres), for example, is ultimately going to be the most discussed track on the record for nothing more than its featured artist, which is almost a shame because it’s a bit misleading in terms of the sound and style that the album ultimately embodies.
Having said that, it is logically the strongest independent song and even though it’s the most radio-ready offering on the album, it doesn’t feel out of place or pandering. Instead it feels like a testimony to a time since past, mixing pop melodies and a reasonably generic beat with the vocal distortion and instrumental inconsistency that litters the rest of the record. It’s undoubtedly the song that works best as a self-sufficient entity, so it’s interesting that it still feels like an inextricable part of the album’s identity.
"Pheonix" lyrical style seems to trigger a change in ‘Blackheart’ because as the album draws to a close, Richard’s introspection kicks into overdrive. The self-empowerment lyrics of “Choices” would sound cringe-worthy coming from pop-peers Perry or Swift, but in Richard’s capable hands they’re uplifting and inspiring – not eye-roll inducing. Again, “Choices” is somewhat inexplicably labeled as an interlude, despite being long-enough and self assured enough to be a track in its own right, but at this point it should be obvious that the ideas of interludes and outerludes are probably destined to only ever make sense to Dawn herself, so my advice is just to go with it.
It’s followed by “The Deep” which is, without question, the most triumphant point of ‘Blackheart’. From the haunting piano chords to the disturbingly reflective lyrics, the track will give you chills. Indeed, it’s the moment on the album with the least vocal distortion which we can only assume is a deliberate declaration that nothing matters more than what Richard has to say here, and her statements about artistic and personal freedom are definitely worth listening to. The synthesized strings that come in at 3.30 and the percussion which appears less than a minute before the end of the track lift the song from simply heartbreaking to truly epic.
And so it all comes down to the title track – if you heard “Blackheart” before the rest of the album and couldn’t make sense of the synth based, sonically confused outro, listen to it again in its position as album closer and all will become clear. The rolling beat and quiet vocal snippets give it the feel of film credits, but credits that render you unable and unwilling to stand up and leave the cinema. The almost instrumental track is essentially the perfect schizophonic ending to an almost perfect schizophonic record.
At its bare bones, ‘Blackheart’ is an electronic R&B record that doesn’t sound dated (a nearly impossible achievement in 2015) but as a whole it’s way more than that. The production, whilst short of totally revolutionary, is outstanding in a way that most albums could only dream of being and Richard, who co-produces most tracks on ‘Blackheart’, should give herself a hearty pat on the back for that one.
What’s unsurprising about Dawn’s sophomore solo venture, is that she succeeds far more frequently when she takes risks than when she plays it safe. Let’s be honest, the music industry becomes more and more risk averse by the day and so to find an artist with a reasonably high-profile unafraid to fail is not just rare but almost unprecedented. There is always a fear though, as the album is set to make very little chart impact (despite Richard’s notoriety as that girl who punched that other girl from Danity Kane) that artists will have to chose between being adventurous and being commercially successful. Because whatever way you spin it (and the indie magazines will undoubtedly scream sacrilege at this statement) this is a pop record. A pop record done right. And how many of those have you seen in the last ten years?
Hit: “Calypso”, “Adderall / Sold”, “Titans (Interlude)” and “The Deep”
Skip: “Blow”, “Billie Jean” and “Projection”