Despite the suite-laced sweep of Blackheart, dense and chimeric, I find myself drawn to the misdirect simplicity of its beginning — Dawn Richard’s solo voice, the emotional and musical bedrock of this project. She calls out alone on the crystalline opener “Noir (Intro),” “I thought I lost it all,” into reverberating emptiness. It’s from this emptiness that Noiscastle III’s production reveals the album as a duet, between the music of Richard’s voice and the voice of his music.
Dawn Richard has spent her solo career blowing up emotions to near-mythical levels. Her last solo album, 2013's self-released Goldenheart, portrayed a love affair in the language of battle and war, while 2012's Armor On channeled it through religious devotion. It's potentially hammy territory, but it works because Richard sells it so well—she's a tremendously evocative singer who can turn a song as fluffy as Katy Perry's "Dark Horse" into something truly exotic and alluring.
There’s a danger for cult artists in any field to be trapped in their own self-created mythologies; the line between boldly carving your own path only to find that it goes round in circles is a fine one. On 2012’s Armor On and 2013’s Goldenheart, Dawn Richard’s vision was singular, awe-inspiring and obsessive to the point of monomania: the self-described Joan of Arc of R&B constructed a fantasy landscape in which she waged holy war in the name of love. Last year, the prospect of victory seemed to recede.
Fifth Harmony was formed on the second season of the American version of “The X Factor,” a collection of powerhouse singers sagely culled by Simon Cowell into a girl-group phalanx. They lacked a clear, unified identity, a problem answered with a curious solution on “Reflection” (SYCO/Epic), the group’s full-length debut album. On “X Factor,” these singers covered well-known songs.
Dawn Richard has straddled the mainstream pop and indie worlds as a member of the Diddy-convened R&B group Danity Kane and as a solo act with a taste for high-concept, sci-fi flavoured R&B. Danity Kane came to an acrimonious end last year, leaving Richard to indulge the latter side on her second solo album. Whereas past releases filtered her traditional, melismatic R&B runs through a Peter Gabrielesque worldly surrealism, Blackheart is refreshingly unbeholden to the convention that requires R&B singers to balladeer non-stop at top volume.