Dawn Richard’s career has been defined by her evolution. From her earnest beginnings as a cast member and eventual winner of Diddy’s Making The Band reality show and eventual pop success with her fellow contestants as Danity Kane, Richards has been poised for reinvention ever since. Even as her band’s success dwindled and the group began to break apart, Dawn had already begun releasing what would soon be come a trilogy of post-Kane reinvention.
First, we received the glossy and dated pop of 2013’s Goldenheart, which although not aging well is deservedly Richard’s proper debut. Its follow-up, Blackheart, is a transitional record, an improvement on its predecessor but existing largely to lay the groundwork for Redemption, the album that would soon define Richard’s career trajectory. After completion of that trilogy, her fourth album 2019’s new breed, fixated itself on ignoring Richard’s pop origins to focus on a more nuanced, topical sound. Like Jamila Woods’ LEGACY! LEGACY! LEGACY! and Solange’s When I Get Home that same year, new breed helped to define a new and urgent type of music. Music that made its appeal relevant, political, and most of all-inclusive, not just to black audiences but to anyone invested in the artist’s genuine experience.
Richard’s follow-up Second Line on the other hand does try to bridge her pop roots to her new sound, and for the most part, it’s successful. Its highlights are among the catchiest of her career, with “Nostalgia” and “Boomerang” bringing levity to her work without sacrificing the resonance she’s developed over the last few years. Second Line maintains that ebullient energy even on its more midtempo tracks. “SELFish (Outro)” the closing opus, builds itself into a multifaceted rumination that sums up the bulk of what came before it, a great return to form to dispel any notion of degradation.
If there’s any weakness in Richard’s new album it comes from its cohesion. Much like Blackheart, Second Line often feels unsure of itself, towing a line between different styles and never failing, but often teetering between reason. Particularly in the second half, the album begins to lose its nerve, leaning back on some of Richard’s more diminishing choices from her first few albums. There is nothing wrong with a lot of her soft balladry or pop-conscious belting per-se but for how out of place they feel here, it’s no wonder her best album is also her shortest.
But Second Line is another strong turn from Richard, a successive trip through the different styles that have made up her evolution over the years. As a singer she is still effective and turbulent, lending a rough edge to her sweetest songs and still sounding like she’s at the forefront of pop music. Her problem is in her execution of Second Line, an album that feels more scattershot the revolutionary. It doesn’t necessarily feel like regression but for an artist who has consistently topped herself, it falls short.
PHOTO: PETROS KOY/MERGE RECORDS