, December 3rd, 2016 16:57
Maybe it’s boring to note when an artist doesn’t fall within typical genre categorisations. At this point in time, fusing elements of electronic dance music with flourishes of pop, R&B and soul is not in itself something new. All the same, you could safely wager that there’s no artist making music quite like D∆WN (a.k.a. Dawn Richard) right now, and her being hard to pin down stylistically is absolutely part of that. Redemption is the final part in a trilogy of records (2013’s Goldenheart and last year’s Blackheart), and in it she cements her place at the forefront of her strangely sultry, spacey game.
It’s easy to make Kanye comparisons – lots of autotune, lots of experimental noise within what is - on the surface, at least - some kind of pop record. But there’s also something of Miguel’s Kaleidoscope Dream here in the opulent, seductive space opera sounds - notably on ‘LA’, which has the kind of baroque guitar riffs that wouldn’t sound amiss on a Julian Casablancas solo record (to clarify, I mean this as a positive thing). But Kanye, Miguel and Casablancas don’t dabble in club bangers and sexy Prince-style moments and rich dashes of New Orleans-style free-flowing brass all in the same breath. Put simply, Redemption is an impressively ambitious record, and its to Richard’s credit that she pulls it off as a cohesive piece of work.
Richard paints pictures of the night - opening with the humid, twinkling launch of the ‘Intro’ track before we find her in the club on ‘Love Under Lights’, chatting about Drake and “King Kendrick” on the dancefloor. But when you think you’ve got it sussed as a relatively generic EDM banger, it descends into ornate polyrhythms and trilling synths that sound oddly like a harpsichord. ‘Renegades’, with its forceful brass and crescendoing beats, is the kind of floor-filler that would probably be riding high in the charts if it were done by, say, Rihanna.
But in spite of the majority of the first half being big (if dark) takes on lavish dance music, as the album goes on it becomes more intimate - more flirtatious and, ultimately, more conventionally “R&B”. ‘Vines’ for example, seems exemplar of 90s / early 00s slow jams – D’Angelo and even Toni Braxton spring to mind, if Richard’s take is a little more uneasy, with something of an edge. “If these walls could talk”, she says coyly on the breathy, quietly sumptuous ‘Hey Nikki’, taking the Prince song and turning it on its head.
Then on ‘The Louvre’ she moans over echo-y, stormy beats and dissonant, sweeping strings that pull at your gut - “Oh, you’re a work of art”. Richard admits that she’s too greedy to share - “so I’ll frame you with me and hope that’s enough” - and it’s all gorgeously seedy and selfish.
Another hackneyed but valid point is that it’s a record that bears repeated listening for it to “open up” - the vast range of styles Richard is working with mean it’s difficult to grasp it all in the first few listens without feeling overwhelmed and somewhat lost in it. Initially, some of the slower songs can seem drawn-out: self-indulgent rather than introspective. Again, it is to her credit that the record proves itself to be a strong one in spite of these initial concerns.
It’s orchestral, it’s odd, it’s experimental, it’s ornate, it makes you want to dance, it makes you want to swoon - at its heart Redemption is reflective of so many touchstones of black music from the past 30 years or so. It feels odd to say what Richard is doing is still perhaps too niche to get her a place in the R&B ‘Hot 100’, given her sound is so broad and all-encompassing, but its true. Richard has carved out an ambitiously futuristic place for herself that the mainstream hasn’t quite caught up with yet.