In the glory years of Timbaland and the Neptunes—the mid 1990s to the early 2000s—the stars they produced were made not just because those stars had starpower, but because there was something holistically unique, exciting, and innovative about their sound. To use the most obvious (and most-cited) example, Aaliyah was an exceptional artist in her delivery, her charm, her mystique, but she didn’t really change the game until her collaboration with Timbaland, which brought out her natural inclination to experiment with form, and to envision a sound particular to her artistry. Most of all, those producers famously made the radio sound fresh, like gold-plated quarters falling into the ozone layer—Aaliyah was the one true, but the formula also worked to push artists like Clipse, Mystikal, Ginuwine, even Jay Z into the 21st century when the sun was still going down on the 20th, true millennial pop music that was both optimistic and shrewd about the future.
This is not to compare Dawn Richard to any of those artists, but it does set a precedent and a template for the exceedingly creative, exceedingly self-directed way she’s been releasing her solo albums for the past three years, even as her reality show pop group Danity Kane reunited and dissolved once again; there’s palpable drive behind her voice, and true artistry beneath it, as she explores her least-scripted impulses and toys around with beats that have analogues in contemporary sounds—last year’s Blackheart, in particular, was an amalgam between London pirate radio and the most crucial global pop—but work outside of them, as surely as Richard stands on her own.
This year, Richard will complete the album trilogy she began in 2013 with Goldenheart with RED*emp*tion, and today she’s released the first single and announced a short tour in the Spring. “Not Above That” captures her vocal ebullience in its ethereal splendor, as well as her resolve; she sings “If I beg for it, will you get me off?” and makes a reference to Sheila E.’s “Glamorous Life” before the beat even kicks in. “I want it all” is as proud a line of self-actualization as any, and the production, by Berlin-via-the Carolinas beatmaker Machinedrum, meets her on her elevated level. It’s exceptional, breathy, full of confidence and power in none-too-obvious ways; three-quarters through, she floats vibrato over a plasticky bit of sub-bass and lets it linger in its own sensuality. As ever, some of the most compelling pop/R&B/dance we can imagine—or, more accurately, the kind we can’t.
3/12 * New York * Webster Hall
3/14 * Washington DC * DC9
3/17 * Austin TX * SXSW
4/21 * Minneapolis * Cedar Cultural center
4/22 * Chicago * Reggies
5/20* North Carolina * Moogfest
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Image via Biz3