[Merge; 2021]

The descriptor ‘cutting-edge’ ironically feels outdated, but sometimes it feels appropriate to use, especially regarding Dawn Richard and her new solo studio album Second Line. If you have followed her since she was in Danity Kane or since her early solo ventures, you will understand just how ahead of the curve she has been – twisting genre and its conventions with an incisive bravery that has always yielded great rewards. Always high-concept, Dawn has delved into epic medieval R&B set in crumbling castles, dark introspective electronica spiked with synth stalactites, and opulent, victorious dance pop. These are literally just a few of the sonic territories she has conquered, and Second Line proves that Dawn refuses to stay confined with any sort of parameters. Equal parts an old-school electronic and incandescent club odyssey with an emotional R&B core, the album veers between liberating confidence and vulnerable transparency.

As she did on her previous album New Breed, Dawn creates a love letter to New Orleans and her home life. Interspersing snippets of conversation between Dawn and her mother yet again proves how she weaves every sinew of her soul into the tapestries of her projects. “A second line is a dance where everybody is happy and they’re doing how they feel. They don’t necessarily have any set steps to do – they’re just getting down,” her mother explains, and this philosophy underlines not just the album but Dawn’s musical career, which has often veered in the most unexpected, fearless directions.

Dawn always sets the scene in her albums, and that’s the case with Second Line opener “King Creole (Intro)” where, over groovy drums, she reminds us “I don’t need a genre / Fuck it, I am the genre.” This segues into the classic vibes of “Nostalgia”, which maintains a chill, throwback vibe as she sings about wanting to go back. Although this isn’t necessarily the most lyrically interesting idea, it still provides a foundation upon which she builds this new sonic world of hers.

The album picks up the pace on the excellent “Boomerang”, whewre she explores the euphoria of being with someone who maintains the same good energy as herself. “And your love keeps coming back to me like a boomerang,” she sings over the uptempo grooves with her euphoric, processed harmonies responding “And your love keeps coming back / Keeps coming back.” Lead single “Bussifame” (which you pronounce as “Bust it for me”) is a fun, clanky club track with uplifting synths, keyboards and fast-paced drums that, although very simple lyrically, is just irresistible. She leads the dance and exercises control and rhythm with her deep, tantalising voice talking herself up; “Hopscotchin’ on you hoes / Trick the watch the feet / They me to slow down / Bitch never me.”

The album progressively becomes serious and sensuous, starting with “Pressure” – a shape-shifting masterpiece that begins with churning synths, syncopated rhythms and hand-clap beats before transforming into a satisfying dance break on the chorus. It’s a great example of how Dawn blends genres seamlessly, simultaneously feeling like 90s-electronica with R&B and hip-hop sensibilities as she sings about the feeling of wanting someone right now. This pairs perfectly with this is the following “Jacuzzi”, which is a bonafide sexual inferno where Dawn bares her raunchy side (“Every time you touch me, I get slicker / Tryna make the sauce stick like a sticker”) and the results create an absolute electronic earworm.

With sensual guitar, smooth drums and Dawn’s melodic propensity, “Mornin | Streetlights” switches up the vibe of the album to a more overt R&B sound. The first part of this segmented track is seductively groovy, and sings about satisfying morning sex with a wink of humour; “It’s so good, I’m cookin’ toast / Grits and shit, doing the most / I don’t mind ‘cause he put it down / I feel it in my toes.” Coming off this post-orgasm high, the second part of this track transforms into a taciturn, synthy rumination on those who have tried to compromise her artistry and who don’t put their soul into their own art; “Too many people lurking / But not giving no credit / If you love it, then do it for the passion / Instead of sitting in everybody’s traffic.” “Mornin | Streetlights” is the definition of juxtaposition – two completely different vibes meshed into one song – but it works amazingly; only Dawn could pull off an R&B bedroom banger seamlessly transitioning into an atmospheric introspective landscape about industry bullshit.

This introspection continues as DAWN further explores the bullshit she’s suffered in a very fickle and shady industry on the track “Radio Free”, where she frankly sings about the insecurities she’s experienced as an artist; “She losing, she losing herself / She not selling records / Need help.” These pains seep into the following “The Potter”, an emotionally intense track about how psychological scars can transform us until we feel unrecognisable; “Days add rust to my frame / I’m not what I was, I’m not the same / I’ve got cracks and chips that won’t fade / Hope I make you feel anyway,” she sings over dark, clattering synths.

But, the emotional core of Second Line is the masterpiece “Perfect Storm”, a song about her experience with Hurricane Katrina – resulting in a deeply emotional gut punch with the brightest light at the end. With genius production of wind sounds, murky piano, a clattering beat and strings – the latter of which elevate this song to new heights – she sings “I’m losing myself / I don’t recognise who I am / Your love knock me down like the wind / Tryna hold on to stay here.” At this hopeless point, the song suddenly switches into a victorious proclamation with warm keyboards and fast-paced drums: “I went from homeless to living this y’all / We went from homeless to living this y’all.” A whole spectrum of emotions across the “Perfect Storm”, and it proves an inspirational narrative arc.

Yet another impressive and experimental addition to Dawn’s discography, Second Line proves that this prolific artist is not running out of steam or fresh ideas any time soon. As the first release since being signed by Merge, the singer has clearly found a new home where her vision and artistry remains authentic to herself. While the upbeat tracks manage to both be interesting and successfully invoke past eras of dance music, the latter half of this album is brilliant and contains some of Dawn’s most emotional and personal outpourings. It seems that no matter whether she keeps her eyes turned outward towards a sweaty club or inward towards her demons, her gaze is unflinching and confident. If you haven’t yet journeyed into the surprising hemisphere of Dawn’s music then it’s time to listen, lest you miss out on someone who has truly been ahead of the game for a decade now.

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