- The New Orleans native flirts with house, footwork and pop on her first album for indie giant Merge.
- At first glance, Louisiana artist Dawn Richard signing to North Carolina's Merge Records—home at one time or another to the likes of Arcade Fire, Neutral Milk Hotel and Superchunk—may seem puzzling. But it really does make sense. See, Richard has spent the last decade (make that almost two, if you count her Danity Kane and Dirty Money days) meandering down a less conventional road to stardom. Over the years she's consistently opted for outlets and projects that have allowed her to stay as free and sonically authentic as possible. She worked with labels like London's Local Action and producers like Machinedrum and Mumdance, for example, potentially forgoing more lucrative options in the process. But, as she's proven on multiple occasions through her music, interviews or even just her longevity, that's really not what she's about. She's just doing her thing and having fun doing it, an approach that makes her music all the more enticing.
Richard's new album, Second Line, is a 16-track excursion into the past. Her mother features on the record (as opposed to her father, whose presence was felt strongly across her last album: 2019's new breed) as Richard rustles through a grab-bag of familiar themes—think industry gripes, loss and love, for herself, a partner, her hometown or otherwise. She also explores what it means to be a Black woman working in music, yes, and more importantly what it means to be a Black woman breaking new ground in electronic music. It's an open and honest release that straddles styles like R&B, house, footwork and New Orleans bounce—all, crucially, Black-rooted genres—as Richard and LA producer Ila Orbis (who is credited across the record) use her past encounters to propel her sound into the future once again. This introspective-meets-outwardly-reflective approach is something we've come to expect from Richard, but it feels most realised on Second Line. Maybe it's because the inspiration, and the movement that Richard wishes to usher in, feels more urgent this time around.
On Second Line, Richard becomes King Creole, an alter ego. King Crole is described in the LP's press notes as an "assassin of stereotypes, a Black girl from the South at a crossroads in her artistic career"—making the character comparable, of course, to Richard. The album's title also draws from her lived experiences. A second line is a New Orleans musical tradition that takes place during funerals, parades or even at weddings. "The definition of a second line in New Orleans is a celebration of someone's homecoming," says Richard. "In death and in life, we celebrate the impact of a person's legacy through dance and music." Richard's use of the term, and the references to it in both her lyrics and her production choices, point to her wanting to see herself, and other Black female artists in her vicinity, celebrated for their enduring legacies, too.
You could call Second Line a dancefloor-centered record, at least on first listen—but that's not the case. Richard weaves electronic flourishes into the album to elicit a physical response regardless of where you are listening—bringing the club, or, scratch that, the parade—to you in a direct and intentional way. This is music to sing loud and obnoxiously at home, or turn up to tinnitus-inducing levels and move to in whatever way feels right. It's music for rejoicing and reflecting in equal measure. Effersevent bop "Nostalgia," funky, house-leaning cut "Bussifame" (AKA "bust it for me") and the radio-ready highlight "Pressure" are highlights. "Pressure", in particular, might be the most fruitful example of Richard's cross-genre experimentation—think New Orleans bounce claps, stirring vocals and a euphoric chorus.
"Perfect Storm" is the track that I find myself returning to repeatedly. Personally, I'm drawn to sad songs with plenty of strings, and Richard is an expert at the format. That's not to say it's sad or even slow, for that matter, all the way through: there's a surprising switch-up towards the end, with Richard's voice rising up through the atmospherics much like the welcome light of a morning sun.
Lyrically, when it's not braggadocious ("Southern Girls only make the fly shit," she says on "Pilot (a lude)"), Second Line makes it clear that Richard is over superficial connections. She doesn't just want to be heard by partners or peers, she wants to be understood and respected accordingly. It's also obvious that she really does love love. On new breed, it was sensual, sexy and just a little jealous. Here, it's sweeter. Take, "Mornin | Streetlights," where Richard questions her mother on how many times she's fallen in love.
Visual language is equally important to Second Line, which is something that goes for all of Richard's work. On the album's cover, an illustrated figure (presumably King Creole) poses in a crouched position. The figure is dressed in a gold cyborg get-up reminiscent of battle armor, with sky blue feathers peaking out from behind it like wings. It's a nod to Richard's affinity for sci-fi, New Orleans Mardi Gras and maybe even her well-documented desire for creative freedom in one fell swoop.
That's the thing about Richard: every decision is purposeful. There's a reason for each track, stylistic choice and reference. It's never a coincidence. On Second Line, we're invited to view the world from Richard's perspective. Not only that, but we're granted access into her heart and even family home, in such a way that it's easy to feel a kinship with Richard through her sheer openness. This is a connection that's sure to feel even stronger to the IRL King Creoles out there, or young Black artists from the South who might look to Richard as an inspirational figure. Second Line offers an impressive level of immersion from an artist who's spent years inviting us into her own personal universe.
01. King Creole (Intro)
06. Pilot (A Lude)
08. FiveOhFour (A Lude)
09. Voodoo (Intermission)
10. Mornin Streetlights
11. Le Petit Morte (A lude)
12. Radio Free
13. The Potter
14. Perfect Storm
15. Voodoo (Outermission)
16. SELFish (Outro)