On Dawn Richard’s brilliant trilogy of progressive pop/R&B (Goldenheart, Blackheart, Redemptionheart), she seemed always somewhere between here and the galaxies. Her songs were tied to our lived reality – disparities, injustice and all – but also creatively oriented towards intergalactic realms. On New Breed she comes down to Earth, without stepping away from the sparkling sonic architecture and streamlined production of those past works.
Geographically where she’s landed is clear from the start, when she re-introduces herself as “a girl from the Nine” – 9th Ward, New Orleans, Louisiana. In “The Nine (intro)” she sings, “I want to go back”, and that’s significant. Her family left New Orleans post-Katrina, and have since returned. This time she’s musically come with them. The songs point back towards her upbringing, with autobiographical memories referenced throughout, but also pull us along with her on a trip to her New Orleans.
On the album cover she’s wearing the headdress of a Mardi Gras Indian. Their actual voices are woven into the mix, in moments, as is the voice of her father Frank Richard, singer for New Orleans funk band Chocolate Milk. The culture, style, history and music of New Orleans are here in her music, yet it’s more like lightly surfacing roots that were always there, rather than her adopting a new direction.
Whether directed towards an ex-lover, a would-be lover, to herself or the world at large, Richard’s songs carry themes of independence, survival and freedom, while keeping style and spatial design always at the forefront. Those personal themes sync up with the New Orleans theme in a natural, perhaps inevitable way.
The 5-minute “Vultures / Wolves” is perhaps the emotional centerpiece, a portrait of the predators among us, in relationships and business. Predators disguised as men, be they would-be lovers or music-industry businessmen Vulnerability is displayed in her delivery, leading to a statement of strength and determination.
Songs like “Dreams and Converse” and “We, Diamonds” are aspirational but not naively so. “Let’s get lost up in the moment and live richer than we can”, she sings in the former. On the latter, she’s asking to be challenged so she can soar past the low expectations.
“We rough around the edges / but that don’t mean we ain’t diamonds”, is the chorus to that song. That’s a recurring attitude on New Breed, one she carries for herself, her family, her culture, her city.