Review: Redemption by Dawn Richard – a defiant statement from the underground dance queen

Rebranded former Danity Kane member, Dawn Richard, is back with a defiant third album. Alex Macpherson reflects on her rise from underground dance queen to visionary artist.

Dawn Richard aka D∆WN. Richard says she made the switch because her Haitian surname was continually getting mangled. Tim Mosenfelder / Getty Images
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In a week when every last piece of cultural consumption was coloured by the election of Donald Trump to the United States presidency, Dawn Richard's third album, Redemption, arrived like a salve. Two tracks in, bullets fly as she describes white America's joy in murdering its black population. Fragmented lyrics give way to wordless chants – but the music is urgent, defiant aggression. It's an apt, topical extension of the former Sean "Diddy" Combs protégée's world. Redemption is the final instalment of a trilogy she began in 2013, during which she has cast herself as an underdog warrior fighting against the odds. It completes a narrative arc of passion and loss with a final chapter that confirms her as one of the most idiosyncratic and visionary artists of her generation.

It's all the more remarkable, too, given Richard's lone-wolf status: fiercely independent, she has existed outside the music industry's official structures for most of the past half-decade. Her journey is a reversal of the more usual path from underground acclaim to mainstream approval: having started her career in the spotlight as a singer in the girl group Danity Kane, put together on the Diddy-helmed reality TV show Making the Band in 2004 to 2005, the past two years have seen Richard re-emerge as a heroine of the underground dance scene.

Until this year, Richard's solo projects have been entirely self-contained – both in the sense of being immersive sonic experiences and in their creation shut away from the outside world. 2012's Armor On – the 45-minute EP designated as the prologue to the trilogy – and its first instalment proper, 2013's Goldenheart, were made with Druski, a producer with few other noteworthy credits to his name; for 2015's Blackheart, Richard teamed up with the equally unknown quantity Noisecastle III. With Druski, she established a singular aesthetic that saw her dubbed "the Joan of Arc of R&B": imagery of medieval warfare paired with monolithic, metallic beats to soundtrack a righteous march into battle. With Noisecastle III, she didn't so much expand her vision as explode it into shape-shifting electronic shards. The territory between R&B and dance has been much ploughed over the past few years, but Richard was carving new ground that genuinely sounded like nothing else.

Blackheart – an album written and recorded, Richard has said, after hitting rock bottom both professionally and personally – was also the work that made the wider world start paying attention. In the 22 months since its release, she's worked with brands such as YouTube and VR Playhouse on innovative marriages of technology and music (a live 360-degree streamed show and a virtual reality video respectively); partnered with London-based grime and garage label Local Action to co-release Redemption; and gone into the studio with acclaimed producers with existing sounds, most notably North Carolina's Machinedrum and Fade to Mind co-founder Kingdom.

This vindication of Richard’s independence is long overdue but in terms of her creativity contained potential pitfalls. Having spent so many years veering away from both mainstream and underground trends in terms of both her off-kilter sounds and her earnest persona, would there be a temptation to pander to a new-found audience? A rebrand as D∆WN caused trepidation along those lines, although Richard maintains her switch to a mononym was based on her Haitian surname continually getting mangled and the slightly try-hard triangle a representation of her trilogy rather than a grasp for graphic design cool.

But perhaps the most impressive aspect of Redemption is how easily Richard continues to navigate her artistic direction: there's no suggestion of compromise here. Her work with Kingdom, in which she ended up sounding like Kelela if Kelela had a stronger grasp of melody, was hived off into a standalone EP, Infrared, in May. None of the Machinedrum-produced singles released over 2016 have wound up on the album: Richard has been ruthlessly firm about choosing their collaborations, which are recognisable more as her work than his. And instead of inserting her voice into a pre-existing aesthetic, she has an uncanny ability to make every style she explores sound more like her than whatever it was originally.

On the urgent, dancefloor-focused first half of Redemption, Richard ensures that her voice is pushing itself to the front of those aggressive, spiralling beats as if elbowing its way to the front of a crowd; if recent trends have been for soft-voiced singers (Kelela, FKA Twigs) sinking into intricate rhythms that sound as though they're made of glass, Richard strains against her arrangements in every direction. Love Under Lights finds her voice pitch-shifted wildly in different directions, often within the same line; the song's release comes with an explosion into stereopanning synths, birdsong and Afro-Cuban polyrhythms. A few songs later, Renegades tilts thrillingly into staccato grime rhythms. The album's epic centrepiece, LA, is a literal homecoming: its title refers to both Los Angeles, whose sordid underbelly has preoccupied Richard across her trilogy, and her home state of Louisiana. It's a thematic sequel to Blackheart's Adderall/Sold but the squalling guitars and zigzagging synthwork signify an escape this time: the song ends with New Orleans jazz musician Trombone Shorty reprising its melody with an exuberant trumpet line.

It's not the only callback to Richard's previous material, either. Her songs are rooms with many doors and they're all situated within an engrossing maze of a discography. The swooning, elegiac The Louvre – in which Richard compares a lover to an artwork she's selfishly keeping to herself – is like a flip of her 2013 single Judith, which found her singing from the perspective of a Gustav Klimt painting. There are echoes, too, of Armor On standout Heaven in its crooned hook. Hey Nikki is a Prince tribute that reimagines his "Darling Nikki" character as a mysterious goddess benefactor – the second time Richard has given a twist to an iconic pop archetype following Blackheart's Billie Jean. Both fit neatly into her love of populating her songs with mythological references: Nikki and Billie Jean take on a new meaning in much the same way as Goliath, the nymph Calypso or the Titans have on past material. These connections aren't surprising: Richard's penchant for fantasy world nerdiness has long been on record. But the thought she's put into these details isn't just nerdiness for the sake of it: it's about creating an intricate universe with so much narrative potential that getting lost inside it feels necessary to fully explore it.

Redemption resembles less the idea of what a dance/R&B crossover album in 2016 should sound like, and more the kind of wide-ranging auteurist tour de force that collapses the idea of genre completely. It's reminiscent – in spirit if not direct sound – of a certain type of 1990s album that doesn't get made so much now: Björk's Post, say, or Tori Amos's From the Choirgirl Hotel – or, for that matter, Richard's last project with Diddy before going solo, his short-lived and criminally underrated Dirty Money trio and their only album, Last Train to Paris. There have been points at which her trilogy has seemed like a pipe dream – not least when she first declared her ambition in 2011 as an unsigned girl-group refugee with no critical traction and just one promising but poorly mastered mixtape to her name. Also when she opted to return for an ill-fated Danity Kane reunion in 2014 that was doomed to messiness from the get-go.

The strangest aspect of the trilogy is that it's panned out roughly as Richard intended – a colour-themed arc in which Goldenheart would be the battle, Blackheart the painful freefall and Redemption the jubilant victory – despite the setbacks and events that overtook each project. On the release of Goldenheart, the plan had been to produce the entire suite with Druski. Richard could not have predicted neither her subsequent split from him, the Danity Kane drama and the family tragedies that led to the low point at which she made Blackheart, nor the waves of acclaim that would usher in Redemption. Her thoroughly in-character way of concluding this journey is with a vision of Valhalla as a racial utopia – the kind of idea a lesser artist might spread out over an album, but which Richard outlines in a 40-second outro. Not even she knows where she will go from here, but that vision has been well earned.

Alex Macpherson is a freelance journalist who also writes for The Guardian and New Statesman.