Dawn Richard Leaps and Retreads on Second Line
The longtime electronic innovator’s sixth album sees her at once expanding her palette and vision while keeping her roots firmly groundedMusic Reviews Dawn Richard
For someone so committed to flexing her New Orleans roots, Dawn Richard often makes music that sounds like it’s coming from an entirely different planet. On previous albums, the former Danity Kane and Dirty Money member often sang about love and life in the language of sci-fi and fantasy atop equally celestial beats. Her music likewise sounds interstellar throughout most of her sixth and newest album, Second Line: An Electro Revival (her first for an indie label, the beloved Durham institution Merge), but here, she sets an explicit goal of shouting out her homeland more than ever before.
Richard weaves New Orleans into Second Line more in spirit than in sound. Short but frank audio clips from Richard’s mother about her Louisiana upbringing and Creole roots open several tracks, but you won’t hear bombastic walls of bounce (save traces in the bassline of “FiveOhFour”) or bursts of Louisiana Indigenous zydeco. Instead, Richard shows us what being a “Creole girl” (to quote her mother) or “Creole King” (the fictional protagonist who supremely loosely guides Second Line) is like by just being herself. All her ambition, love and confidence stand in for her geography—Second Line is less about putting New Orleans on the map than Richard herself.
Thing is, Richard’s long been on the map given her old girl group days and Diddy affiliation, not to mention her solo music’s boundless sonic exploration, tales of romance vis-a-vis sexuality and striking, acclaimed music videos. On these fronts, Second Line brings few changes, especially lyrically, but Richard largely makes up for her retreading with some of her sharpest hooks to date. Sure, the aching cries of “Do you love me anymore?” atop the chorus of “Nostalgia” say nothing about Richard or the Ninth Ward, but the track’s Milky Way bass wobble and swirling clouds of ad-libs and hums are irresistibly catchy. “Pressure” positions Richard as a kayaker keeping full, commanding control amidst a vicious current. When all but the percussion drops out to reveal the sweeping reverb on Richard’s unbothered delivery, her command is strong enough to turn heads in all 50 states.
The far-above-these-skies vibe mostly holds on the slower songs, too. “Perfect Storm” is a midtempo ballad on which strings and the highest parts of Richard’s register dance in common time with synths that sound like a refrigerator beeping inside a space shuttle. “Radio Free” is neither an intimate confessional nor a club track, though its squelching, amorphous synths leave more space under Richard’s voice than usual and starkly elevate her pointed reflections on the challenges she’s faced in the music industry. “They only love her if she making money / When they stop they looking for the next honey,” she sings, as though she’s both holding her breath and about to scream, and amidst the relatively pared-back instrumentation, the tension is exhilarating.
Second Line would benefit from more of this forthrightness. “This is the last time I’m gonna write a song about you,” Richard belts at the outset of the stark piano ballad “Le Petit Morte,” but her lyrics rarely reveal much about her subject and what role this person plays on an album supposedly about New Orleans. “Pilot,” which comprises little more than synthetic cymbal hits and handclaps, is really just a series of disses not pointed at any specific target, though like “Le Petit Morte” and “FiveOhFour,” it’s technically an interlude, a format that perhaps doesn’t grant Richard enough space to fully develop her thoughts.
That said, when Richard does have enough space, it doesn’t always matter what she says. The dense programming of “Jacuzzi” and the constant body-shaking pulse of “Nostalgia” are so purely enjoyable that their lyrics about sex and love feel empowering even at their simplest—“Tryin’ to make you say my name from your lips loud” on “Jacuzzi” isn’t too creative, but it sure is assertive. “Boomerang” is exceptional, a track that sounds exactly like its titular object: The thumping yet porous groove extends in all directions and comes right back to its origin, and this loop is endlessly invigorating. Amidst this excitement, Richard’s image of a love that “keeps coming back to me like a boomerang” feels so life-affirming and familiar that the song’s galactic vibes feel deeply human.
Lines like this mesh neatly with how Richard’s mom explains the concept of the second line on “Bussifame”: “A second line is a dance where everybody is happy and they’re doing how they feel,” she says. “They’re just gettin’ down.” After this intro, Richard follows her mom’s lead and launches into the hottest house-rap track this side of “Anna Wintour.” It’s her doing how she feels, her most uninhibited electronic exploration—the kind of track that represents the platonic ideal of Second Line. Even if Richard sometimes stumbles, high points like these make the journey worthwhile.