There’s something thrilling about witnessing the growth of an artist like Dawn Richard, a woman who has had one of the most interesting paths in pop music. For over 15 years, Richard has been making music, starting in 2005 with her appearance on Sean ‘Diddy’ Combs’ reality show, Making the Band, earning a spot in the girl group Danity Kane, earning a platinum and a gold record, and being featured on two top 10 hits. After Danity Kane broke up, Richard’s association with Combs continued with her collaboration with the rapper/impresario on his 2010 album Last Train to Paris.
Since 2011, she has followed her own idiosyncratic music, putting out a series of brilliant albums, mixtapes, and EPs that sought to explore and expand on the boundaries of pop, soul, and dance music. With her latest, Second Line, Richard continues to thrill listeners with some beautiful, fascinating music. Working with various producers, including Joe Beats, Kaveh Rastegar, J-Rick, Sam O.B., and Ila Orbis, Second Line is a gorgeous record that has some fantastic, strange, esoteric sounds that play with house and club conventions. It’s a pioneering record and easily one of the best of the year.
There’s a concept or theme laced throughout the record; Richard pays tribute to New Orleans, her birthplace. The title refers to the traditional parades of New Orleans, hosted by the Social Aid and Pleasure Clubs. “Second Line” refers specifically to the group of people who follow the first line, reveling in the music and fellowship. For much of New Orleans culture and lore, music is an integral part of the narrative, and so it makes sense that in her homage to such a rich tradition, Richard creates a whirl of an album with a dizzying array of sounds.
The album’s first track features Richard interviewing her mother, a New Orleans denizen who refers to herself as a “Creole girl”. The record opens with Richard asking her mother if she’s ever been to a second line, to which her mother answers with an emphatic, “Oh, yes indeed”. Then the track explodes into a bass-heavy marching band with snatches of sampled vocals. It sets the stage for Second Line with its innovative use of synths, beats, and studio wizardry.
The first full track, “Nostalgia”, pays tribute to the titular second line. Richard’s vocals are coated and processed, rendered wholly artificial, and they became part of the instrumentation of the dance track. The haunting track works on a catchy hook with Richard’s ghostly vocals crooning “I want those days back” as beats and synths loop around her.
For those still unclear about what a second line is, “Bussifame” starts with Richard’s mom breaking it down for listeners. “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.” The track then turns into a fantastic boast track, in which Richard spits out the lyrics with the aplomb of the greatest MC.
On “Boomerang” Richard pays homage to 1990s house as well as to 1990s dance-pop (there are vague elements of Michael Jackson’s Thriller-to-Bad era found in the song). There’s so much going on with this excellent track – Richard’s breathy, sexy voice alternately floats above as well as matches the tight dance beats. “Jacuzzi” – another single off of the album – is a sultry, erotic, club track with a grinding bass that grooves impeccably with the sensual lyrics which capture the scorching heat of NOLA in the summer.
As with the dance tracks, the slower songs are just as imaginative. On the loud and cinematic “The Potter”, the song chugs along with a boozy synth line as Richard emotes, her voice breaking through the production. And “Perfect Storm” is simply gorgeous with a heavenly violin that adds heightened drama to the song.
Second Line is an important record in that it brings deep humanity and emotion to dance and club music. It’s a deeply personal album, one that brings to mind the soulful singer-songwriter albums of Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, or Syreeta Wright but marries the confessional, candid sentiment with a self-consciously synthetic soundscape of electrosoul and house. As Dawn Richards continues her unique musical journey, we’re very fortunate she’s chosen to let us join her.