If Björk’s latest only draws unsatisfying comparisons to Homogenic, if Sleater-Kinney can no longer quite summon the scorched punk energy they once had, then there is another recently released record that touches on those great album’s themes—love, loss, femininity, self-actualization—in a fresh light. (It’s also written and co-produced by a longtime Diddy apprentice.) Dawn Richard, former member of prominent girl-group Danity Kane, was behind much of Diddy’s slept-on auteurist work Last Train To Paris, and was also perhaps the member of Kane most understanding of the music side than the reality-show theatrics that birthed them (she also worked with Drake so she has to matter, right?). On 2015’s Blackheart she fully asserts herself as an artist. Building on the mix of melisma and twitchy electronics created on 2013’s Goldenheart, Blackheart follows Richard’s powerful journey of self-preservation, dealing with a crushing breakup and typical label drama along the way.
The narrative of Blackheart is central to it’s power, opening with Richard’s rousing cry of “I thought I lost it all!” “Calypso” then breaks any expectation the listener could have of a tidy collection of girl-group stompers, riding a squall of electronic rave-ups and muddled David Lynch samples to the verge of collapsing. From here, she takes us down a host of twisting musical avenues and byways. There’s a visit to the club for the vaguely drum n’ bass “Blow,” followed by the inexplicably sensual quasi-rapping of “Billie Jean.” “Adderall/Sold”’s wounded electro-pop doubles as a trip through the kind of industrial, white-powdered clubs The Weeknd frequented on “Thursday,” its thundering bass drum soon discarded for chunky punk guitar. There are forays into 80’s-style synths (“Castles”), deep house (“Swim Free”) and molasses-slow percussive elements (“Projection”), the latter of which sees Richard repeating “I see you in my head,” like she’s about to tear her cranium open.
The craftsmanship of Richard’s co-production tells her oblique stories, many of which center on the breakup and label drama she experienced in this album’s writing period. It is interesting that, on the album’s first two-thirds, Dawn Richard utilizes the subject pronoun “we” almost entirely. Whether it’s to equate her and a lover to Greek gods as on “Titans,” or to summon sniggering club dominance on “Blow.” This all sets up for “Pheonix,” the record’s climactic burst of melismatic pop cheese (fitting for the only track here with another Danity Kane member). Here, Richard sounds more powerful than she has at any other point on the record, and the subject pronouns shift from obscurantist “we,” traditionally underutilized in pop music, to a foot-stomping “I”. Like the titular creature of myth, Richard rises from the ashes a changed woman. This newfound focus on her inner self does not abandon her on “The Deep,” as she spouts more well-earned versions of Katy Perry’s motivational platitudes over heavy piano chords.
One of the central aspects of Blackheart is it’s self-consciously performed aura. Set up by the opera mask Richard removes on the album’s cover, her powerful emotions are carefully placed and refined within a larger narrative. And even though Richard foregoes forced attempts at conveying “real” emotions that don’t mean much anyway, the feel of her, largely ephemeral words still feels earned, in part due to its juxtaposition with the squelched electronica she is adept at creating. Indeed, throughout Blackheart, the primacy of emotion is reasserted, from the mountainous yelps of “Warriors” to the broken intimacy “Titans” depicts. Richard follows in a line of immaculate performed emotionality, of feelings as immaculate organisms that build and contract and crumple up and then are new again, that includes artists from Aeschylus to Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe to Pablo Picasso to Jeff Mangum to Scarface. This is the true power of Dawn’s work. By relaying the inner crevasses of her own self out to the unfeeling ether, Richard removes the mask to reveal the aching, messy humanity underneath.