In the class of R&B, Dawn Richard is the rebel child screaming at the top of her lungs for attention; she was far too untamed for Sean “Diddy” Combs’ Danity Kane or Dirty Money roster.
Richard’s debut album, Goldenheart, is eccentric, yet it’s a shining of example of the limitless directions R&B could go. And while it’s Dawn’s official introduction as a solo artist, it’s more of a public service announcement, as her time at Bad Boy Records (i.e. Diddy-Dirty Money’s Last Train to Paris) already proved her musical chops and knack for coloring outside the lines.
But Richard’s debut takes her peculiarity a step further as an audacious attempt to shake the status quo. Despite not having a major label backing her, Richard has proven that a unique sound accompanied by strong music visuals (i.e. “Bombs” and “Wild N’ Faith” off her 2012 EP Armor On) can often times rival that of major artists.
In a quest to find her voice outside the groups she once helped build, Richard may have accidentally (or intentionally) discovered an entirely new genre of music. Fusing rock, soul and electro-pop, she serves up a cohesive body of work that’s almost like a dramatic symphony without all the musical conventions. It’s amped up and ferocious.
The 16-track project is Richard’s bold declaration to the world that she’s staking her claim whether she has the support of music critics or not. “Return of a Queen,” the album’s first song, sets the warrior-like tone—suggesting that Goldenheart is more of a return than an introduction.
Contextually, many of the songs on the album are double-entendres in which Richard appears to be singing about her rocky relationship with both the music industry and an estranged lover. Sonically, Richard is exquisitely grim and gritty, yet she makes sure to not push too far. Dawn soars vocally with acrobatic rifts that seem to take a page from Brandy, yet remains to be something R&B has never heard before.
It’s almost silly to call Goldenheart an R&B album for it is the genre-bender of all genre-benders; so nuanced you don’t exactly know what to call it. Songs like “Goliath” and “Gleaux” are like rock anthems layered with soul. When pinned against some of her R&B classmates, Dawn stands out among the fray. Not quite as bluesy as Elle Varner’s Perfectly Imperfect, but edgier than Rihanna’s Unapologetic.
Pairing her soulful voice with producer Druski’s avant-garde sound, Richard taps into a dimension that transcends what is considered R&B. To classify Goldenheart would be a disservice to Richard, who could easily find commercial success on the pop charts with EDM standout “Riot” and “Pretty Wicked Things,” while holding its own among her urban contemporaries with “Northern Lights” and the tribal mix “86.” It’s a deliberate quest to craft a new era of R&B, and maybe even music as a whole.
If you listen close enough, you’ll learn a lot about Dawn; her insecurities, her heartbreaks, and her unwavering desire to be respected as a legitimate artist who isn’t afraid to push the envelope. But most of all, you discover her strengths. Richard showcases her vulnerability on “Break of Dawn,” a metaphorical play on her name, in which she affirms her resilience from being knocked down by personal hurdles: “I couldn’t find my way up out the dark/ Until I realized I was my help/ I found my light/ I told myself you’ll never crush me no matter how hard/ You’ll never see the break of Dawn.”
Rather than falling in line with R&B’s fleeting sound, which often gets lost in the shuffle, Richard gives you something you can hold on to. But as innovative and revitalizing as Goldenheart is, it could be ahead of its time. While listeners may shelve it as too far out of the box, it’s impressively gutsy—a risk she appears to be willing to take. – Gerren Keith Gaynor (@MrGerrenalist).