Dawn Richard’s Redemption is pop music in extremis. The final album in Richard’s Heart Trilogy, following Goldenheart in 2013 and Blackheart in 2015, Redemption represents Richard’s most definitive statement as a solo pop artist for a new age - an age that, thanks to the internet’s seemingly infinite breadth of exposure and accessibility, has made pop music out of every shade of the musical spectrum.
The specific brand of pop found on Redemption is encyclopaedic, almost cataclysmic, in its deployment of genres. R&B, EDM, trip hop, jazz fusion, afro-futurist gospel, New Orleans jazz, acid house - to name a few - forge the sonic DNA of Redemption. Because of the sheer volume of styles contained on the album, dizzying as they appear on paper, the standard descriptions and categorisations familiar to critical discussion seem inadequate when talking about Redemption; at every moment Richard feels prone to throw in a new idea and take off in a different direction, yet all the while maintaining a sense of control that gives the album a distinct, cohesive arc.
Where last year’s Blackheart found Richard working primarily with Scott Bruzenak (of Noisecastle III) to craft the dark, heady, entranced EDM found on that record, this time around Richard worked primarily with the LA-based producer Machinedrum. Together, they've crafted an album that is equally as textured and layered, but one that is altogether brighter, more maximalist. Love Under Lights, the first lyrical track on the record following the instrumental opener, is an ode to the dancefloor as a space that knows no distinctions of gender or race. It’s the most dance-ready track on the album, replete with builds that are common to EDM festival headlining acts, but never quite 'drops' in the same way; Richard opts to lift the listener with the progression of the beat rather than forcing it to its peak with a climactic explosion of bass-heavy melody.
Bruzenak also appears on the album as a co-producer of two of its best tracks, Black Crimes and LA. On Black Crimes the utopian vision of the dancefloor as a liberating space found on Love Under Lights is parried by a darker narrative, one of interracial violence. The track features cryptically fragmented lyrics, “They don’t realise/ This love is murder/ Bullets/ They Die,” set to a dark, bouncy synth beat that moves with the aggression and intensity of a machine gun’s spray. Richard’s voice flows above the synths and, paired with some of the most busy and colourful production to ever underscore her vocals, reaches peaks of vigour unheard in her prior catalogue of work.
Part of what makes Redemption Richard’s most mature work to date, and one of the year’s best releases in any genre, are the visual components to her music. Richard is indeed a visionary.
Her ability to transform the cavernous soundscapes of her music into visual representations - be they in the form of music videos, virtual reality installations, or even promotional artist portraits - feels as necessary and refined as the music itself. Specifically in the realm of virtual reality, a realm that so far has been left criminally under-explored by musicians of any variety, Richard is a vanguard. Earlier this year she performed YouTube’s first ever live streamed virtual reality concert. Later on, in June, she released a VR music video for her excellent non-album, Machinedrum-produced single, Not Above That. In many ways her career is a testament to the necessity of exploiting visual frontiers in pop music, as nebulous as a category as it ever remains to be; that perhaps because of the ambiguity of what constitutes pop in the modern day, if it is indeed a matter of anything more than chart numbers and radio play, experiments in visual representation are the necessary grounds for distinguishing oneself from all of the white noise.
Speaking to NPR in June, Richard commented on the idea of redemption and the celebration of the self that guide her vision throughout the closing chapter of her Heart Trilogy. “[Redemption] would be about dancing in the beauty of the self, that whatever or whoever you are, be proud of it--that this would be our redemption. To go into this era hands up and heads high.” At the end of a truly calamitous 2016, a year with enough devastating headlines to run to a length far longer than this review, Redemption is an album that greets the future, and instills a sense hope that has long felt absent.
Nowhere on the album is this political response more directly felt than on the closing track, Valhalla. The track is a gorgeous harmony between layers of Richard’s voice as it is filtered through a synthesizer - an acapella track, in a futuristic sort of sense. At the end of the album you are left alone with her voice as it is embodied, almost totally, by a machine. She pleads the listener to escape with her to some not-so-distant reality where rebels and people of colour are no longer a minority. Or, in other words, she’s addressing the non-so-distant future of tomorrow’s generation: as signified by the the rise of reactionary populist politics throughout the nation, minority group citizens are expected to make up over half of America’s population within the next generation. And yet, while such a historical sea-change would appear to force a necessary confrontation with the privileges and biases that underwrite the majority’s appeal to power, a politics built on fear-mongering, deception, and outright bigotry steadily continues to impose itself across the country.
There’s something comforting, then, almost familiar, in the inhuman, alien quality of Richard’s voice. It sounds like an appeal to our political times: now more than ever one must embrace the inhuman and the unreal to capture some of the reality of present experience. Redemption is a beacon in dark times, beckoning towards a brighter day--or, perhaps a more fitting word, a new dawn.
Words: Andrew Ward