Dawn Richard, making her own brand of R&B


Dawn Richard has survived reality shows and failed girl groups to find solo success. She performed at Howard Theatre on Tuesday. (Kyle Gustafson/For The Washington Post)
June 5, 2013

If you’d made it through an MTV reality show with your reputation intact, escaped girl-group purgatory and extracted yourself from the grip of Sean “Diddy” Combs without the usual nervous breakdown that has become a rite of passage for his discarded artists, you might fancy yourself a modern-day Joan of Arc, too. Singer Dawn Richard has been through all of that and, accordingly, her solo indie debut album, “Goldenheart,” is all about vanquishing foes, conquering fears and epic battles — both external and internal.

“Y’all don’t understand how beautiful this is. I’m independent and you’re here!” Richard said during her Howard Theatre show Tuesday night.

The singer, formerly of the “Making the Band”-manufactured pop group Danity Kane and the unfortunately named Diddy-Dirty Money, has created a stunning, loosely medieval-themed sci-fi/fantasy-tinted concept album about heartbreak and change. Peter ­Gabriel, “Game of Thrones,” Debussy and the aforementioned 15th-century French folk hero are among its influences.

Richard, who played to a smallish but devoted crowd at the Howard, seems genuinely touched, and not a little bit surprised, that her recent output — not only “Goldenheart,” but the 2012 EPs “Armor On” and “Whiteout” and mixtape “The Prelude to a Tell Tale Heart” — has been so warmly embraced by fans and critics.

“Today, we just found out that Spin magazine put ‘Goldenheart’ among the top 40 albums of 2013,” Richard said, before jumping into the shimmering dance track “Gleaux.” “No other album [of mine], group or not, has made it on that list. We keep proving everybody wrong — no, we keep proving ourselves right.”

The praise “Goldenheart” has received is well deserved, but the acclaim surrounding the album has also sparked a bit of a cultural debate. Much of it is centered on the fact that despite decades of diverse strains of rhythm and blues, many critics are dismissive of traditional R&B and yet also express surprise anytime black artists from the genre draw inspiration from anything that isn’t Motown, Muscle Shoals, Michael Jackson or some derivative thereof.

The discussion doesn’t distract from the excellence of “Goldenheart.” In a live setting, with some of the sonic nuances swallowed by Richard’s live band, it’s apparent just how strong the bones of the album are, from arrangements to singing to songwriting.

The New Orleans native said she would “take personal offense” if anyone sat through the first part of her set, so everyone danced during “Bombs” and “Northern Lights.” The latter, with its twinkling ambient noise broken up by hand claps and Richard’s smooth power notes, is one of the best examples of what she and her new producer and musical partner Andrew “Druski” Scott can do.

Special treats included her first-ever live performance of “Army,” a new track released just a few weeks ago, and a lush cover of Kendrick Lamar’s “[Expletive] Don’t Kill My Vibe,” which she turned into an empowerment song with a few well-placed ad-libs about self-esteem. She ended with “Goldenheart’s” “86” and “Riot” and a thank-you to fans for joining her in the leap from commercial pop to whimsical, progressive R&B.

Godfrey is a freelance writer.

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