Last year was the year of the woman in music; the most thoughtful and interesting albums came most often from female auteurs pushing at societal and artistic boundaries. And Dawn Richard’s new breed, the most interesting album of the year so far, serves as a hint that that trend will carry on into 2019. Something is happening in western society, things are changing, and women are at the forefront of it in both politics and art.
In many ways, new breed can be compared to Janelle Monáe’s Dirty Computer from last year. They both come from an artist who has managed to achieve critical acclaim for experimentalism over the years but hasn’t reached a mass audience yet. They’re both concept albums with a vague narrative thread. They’re both essentially pop albums with plenty of hooks that sometimes dabble in spare, Prince-like funk (check out “shade”). They both consider bisexuality and blurred gender lines as things of wonder: liberating, feminist, and empowering.
new breed never hits as hard as Dirty Computer‘s best moments – “Pynk”, “Make Me Feel”, “Django Jane” etc. But like Dirty Computer, it’s the strongest work to date from its artist.
Dawn Richard has had an intriguing career, going from reality TV show star in the girl group Dannity Kane to a Pitchfork-beloved independent artist in the space of a few years. Yet though I’ve respected her highly unusual pop star career path, nothing she’s made before has managed to catch my attention quite like new breed, in or out of her manufactured girl group. new breed feels alert and engaged in the cultural moment where previous albums felt insular and rather esoteric. It hence springs out and captures your interest in Dawn Richard the person like never before.
The album’s journey starts with “the nine”, a brief a cappella intro in which Richard gets nostalgic about everything from her youth except Catholic school. And then it launches into the title track, which is the first signs of this album’s more ambitious reach. Over a trap beat, Richard half-sings half-raps, like Monáe on “Django Jane”, and does a decent job without ever over-exerting herself. Yet it’s what she raps about that’s most interesting. She starts off the song with “Fuck the heels and dress/It’s nothing I can do up in a suit, yeah”, which is as harsh and compelling a rejection of society’s cultural expectations of femininity as Rihanna’s “Fuck your white horse and your carriage” from a few years back. Then it goes on to claim: “There ain’t no bitches, ain’t no queens/I’m the motherfucking king, yeah”. She’ll take the male title, thank you very much. And she proudly sings “I am a lion/I am a woman” on the chorus in case you got any wrong ideas about her abandoning her gender.
This is overall a self- and sex-positive album, a triumphant statement of pride in herself and all women. “shades” and “sauce” in particular are dripping with eroticism, taking her right to give and receive pleasure as a given. But don’t assume her sex objects are all men – the title track features a sample that’s an interview with Grace Jones in which she responds to a reporter’s questions about her sexuality with: “I find women attractive. I think if I didn’t, I wouldn’t find myself attractive.” Richard’s approving use of this backs up her main theme on the album, which is that love of women = love of self. Both in and out of the bed.
Another theme is acknowledging, and being proud of, America’s history in all of its diversity. Spoken word clips from the Washitaw Nation, a group of black New Orleans residents who are connected to the Mardi Gras Indians, are scattered across the album. In this way, the album feels like an embracing of all the different cultures and people of America (Richard herself is of Louisiana Creole and Haitian descent). It’s warmer than any of Richard’s previous efforts as a result: it has vision.
The truth is, the music isn’t quite as interesting as the words, at least for the album’s first half. Only the funktastic “shades” is really memorable, the rest of the first 5 tracks being synth-pop jams without enough melody or rhythmic ingenuity to distinguish themselves. Yet the album picks up in its second half, with the dub stylings of “jealousy” and in particular the pretty piano hook of “we, diamonds” proving enormously satisfying. Come the end of the album’s brief 33 minutes you feel sated; even if it isn’t as experimental as her previous work as a solo artist, it’s more emotionally involving.
Richard does get depressed on “spaces”, “jealousy”, and especially “vultures wolves”, but the overall feeling of the album is uplifting anyway, because it embraces a positive view of America as the cultural melting pot of the world when the president of the country actively seeks to fight that image. The album could be called They Go Low, We Go High.