"She was 5'10/looking real good in her skin/I think her shirt said Zeppelin/boots up to her ass man." You'd think those lyrics would come from a nostalgic white retro-rock lusty hairy guy band, macking on groupies and the awesome potency of guitar riffs. But you'd be wrong. The lyrics are not by guys with beards. Instead, they're the opening of "Love Under Lights," the first track on electronica/R&B/dance weirdo genius Dawn Richard's new album, Redemption.
Redemption is the conclusion of a trilogy of albums that began with Goldenheart (2014) and Blackheart (2015). On all three, Richard—who got her start in the P. Diddy girl group Danity Kane— is ostentatiously omnivorous. She deliberately positions herself in relation to a tradition of rock music defined as broadly as possible. Goldenheart transforms Peter Gabriel's "Your Eyes” into a funky dance anthem; Blackheart turns Michael Jackson's "Billie Jean" inside out, so the woman is the "rolling stone" and the "sex fiend"; "I'm not your girl, I'm just your wet dream."
Redemption's tribute is "Hey Nikki," a variation on Prince's "Darlin' Nikki" which positions Nikki imagining herself as both desirer and desired. "Don't you want to come and get with me/I know you looking at me," she sings as distorted electric guitar tears and warps in the background and the track doom crawls like a slowed down Zeppelin track. It's not clear whether Richard is Prince wanting Nikki or Nikki wanting Prince, or herself wanting both. "She painted her scent all over her room" she moans; there's a dispersal of lust and identity. Rock, R&B, men, women, queer and straight, burn up together in a conflagration of cool.
There have been other amazing eclectic R&B albums this year—most notably Beyoncé's Lemonade, which gloriously embraces multiple genres, from a country song to a rock song to hip-hop and experimental film. What I love about Redemption, though, is the way it insists all genres are the same, lacquering them in the depths of Richard's echoing, multi-layered production. After she name-checks Zeppelin on that first song, Richard goes on about Drake and Kendrick Lamar, treating them all as a common language. "I guess we're kindred spirits," she declares as the track shifts to disco rave up that doesn't sound like Zeppelin, Drake or Kendrick, but includes all of them just because it's by Dawn Richard. "You been putting me in boxes and I don't feel comfortable being tied like this/I feel stifled, like a seed that can't grow" she sings in multi-tracked harmonies on "Vines." To prove her point, on "LA," she includes stinging classic rock guitar squall that fades out into guest star Trombone Shorty's New Orleans jazz. It's all black music: it's all American music. Why shouldn't it go together?
Richard doesn't just claim black or American traditions. On the last track, "The Louvre," Richard starts the song with mournful classical strings, haunting and distorted, which moan and saw until the keyboards come in and she whispers, "I stare at you like you're a work of art/you should be on the wall instead of hanging in my heart" as her own voice echoes a half measure behind in the background. She's taking the form and imagery of the high art Western canon as her own, so that the traditional white male viewer of the elusive white female Mona Lisa becomes a black woman looking at a (black?) man (or woman?), or actually creating that man, since he only exists in the song itself. "Oooh, you're a work of art" is both a tribute to a lover, and a meta-appreciation of her own artistry.
The epilogue of the album is titled "Valhalla"; it's a cappella and multi-tracked; a Norse gospel chorus. "Run away with me/Where rebels are the majority/and my color isn't minority/Escape." Redemption is a bit more elliptical than albums like What's Going On or There's a Riot Goin' On, but it's still a protest record, which imagines a world in which gender and race no longer constrain anyone, and black women can be Zeppelin, Prince, Da Vinci or Thor or whatever they want to be. As Richard says in "Lazarus," "I didn't change, I became."