Review: D∆WN, 'Redemption'
Note: NPR's First Listen audio comes down after the album is released. However, you can still listen with the Spotify playlist at the bottom of the page.
There was no room to move, yet the room moved. We found open spaces to jump and gyrate, enraptured not only by the pulsing future-club music, but also by its maker. Just before an ambitious run of gigs during SXSW, Dawn Richard — who records under the name D∆WN — was our body-music guru in a small Washington, D.C., venue. She sang hard, danced harder and partied hardest with an already-ecstatic crowd; she achieved goddess status from her radiant energy alone. But that's Dawn Richard's standard operating procedure: Take it all, and bring everyone with her.
With Redemption, D∆WN closes an album trilogy that encompasses a wild and weird spectrum of R&B, pop, electronic and dance music. But in a field that's seen more experimental sounds embraced by the mainstream (from Kanye West's noisy Yeezus to PC Music's alien EDM), she stands apart not only for her abstract production, but also as a black woman who makes challenging pop music with soul. It's quite a leap from her time in the MTV-made Danity Kane, but as she's asserted herself as an independent artist, that creative freedom has driven every aspect of her career. As a singer, songwriter, producer, entertainer, set designer and animator, D∆WN owns her creativity, drawing a line through Afro-futurists like Sun Ra, Larry Heard and Erykah Badu.
Where last year's Blackheart was beautiful and bleak in its genre ambiguity, Redemption is defiant in its celebration of the self. As Richard told NPR in June, "Whatever or whoever you are, be proud of it — that this would be our redemption. To go into this era hands up and heads high." That celebration exists not just in the rave-worthy cuts, but also in how Richard encourages open conversation about sex-positivity and consent (the glowstick anthem "Love Under Lights," featuring an outro that chops woozy vaporwave with street percussion), desire (the hyper, brassy "Renegades" and the slinky and string-laden, proggy slow jam "The Louvre") and the limitations of labels (the underwater Sade smoothness of "Sands"). Machinedrum, who co-produced this year's non-album singles "Not Above That" and "Wake Up," continues to be Richard's sonic ally in tracks like these — and, like a good accompanist, knows when to hype up the drama and when to hold back, always in line with D∆WN's vision.
Noisecastle III, who was all over Blackheart, co-produces two of Redemption's most curious tracks. "Black Crimes" lands somewhere between bubbly '90s house-pop and the fractured beats of Aphex Twin, with an industrial denouement — this is where Rihanna might land if she fully gave in to freaky EDM. "LA," on the other hand, is something else entirely: an appropriately titled encapsulation of the thriving Los Angeles music scene that hears electronic music, fusion and free-jazz as one entity (think Flying Lotus, Thundercat, Ras G). What begins as an ambient space-funk jam suddenly dives into Prince/Return To Forever territory, as a proggy synth does battle with stylish hard-rock guitar and arena-sized drums.
In "LA," D∆WN reminds listeners that Redemption is about bodies. As the crunchy guitar gives way in its closing moments, Trombone Shorty offers a minute of ecstatic brass. In New Orleans, where Richard is from and Trombone Shorty is based, the second line is a Sunday ritual, a brass-band party in the streets after a wedding, a business opening — anything, but most significantly a funeral. It's a celebration of life, and here it's set against a body count: "We just want to know / If we really matter? / We just wanna know," she sings. If that D.C. crowd in March was any indication, those bodies are black, those bodies are LGBTQ, those bodies deserve to move and love — and D∆WN wants to lift them up, find allies and bring them all to the dance floor.