In need breed, Dawn Richard treats us to a gorgeous, evocative journey through the versatile, vivid sound of her New Orleans hometown.
February 17, 2019 | by Dan Alvarez
Tucked away at the Eastern tip of New Orleans lies the Ninth Ward. Though it’s the largest of the city’s 17 wards, it feels a world away from the bustling French Quarter just over 10 miles down the road. It’s over 90 percent African American and roughly 33 percent of its residents live below the poverty line. Businesses are spotty, and there are ghosts of Katrina everywhere, almost 15 years after the storm.
Near the end of the Ward in Little Woods — just a few blocks from where the city gives way to dense, uninhabited swamp land — sits Jonlee Drive. Dawn Richard is from Jonlee Drive. And on new breed, her stunning fifth solo album, Dawn takes us all the way back: “I wanna go back to JonLee Drive, eatin' crawfish and watching my so-called life” she starts, recalling a simpler time. It’s a sweet memory but it also hurts, because she’s remembering a place she can never quite return to.
And for the next 30 minutes, the bold, shapeshifting 35 year old treats us to a gorgeous, evocative journey through the versatile, vivid sound of her hometown and the pain, pride, and passion that has made Richard a true original. At her heart, Richard is a fighter and a survivor — a 14-year industry vet who tasted massive, major label success with Diddy’s Danity Kane before pushing back against the machine and finding her own way. And though that ride has defined her wondrous life, it’s been riddled with pitfalls, as she describes on the opener of “spaces”:
Somewhere between Hollywood and Vine
I lost that girl from JonLee Drive, hah
I had so many men in power telling me I was too brave, too confident, too black, too ugly, too thin
That girl believed them
But deep inside, the girl from the nine said fuck them
If there’s ever been a stanza that has defined Richard’s career, it’s that one. She’s never been someone who played nice or compromised her ideals in search of a dollar. That defiant spirit has driven her fascinating back catalog and is on display all over new breed. From the futuristic synths of “spaces” to the sweltering, red light special “sauce” and the joyous, Gospel-tinged “we, diamonds,” Richard simply refuses to be boxed in, exploring all the sounds that are her massive imagination conjures. Best of all, there’s not an ounce of filler on here, with each song exploring a new sound and opening up the curtains on a different core element of her character.
And though her experimental, fiercely independent streak has resulted in some of the most unique, innovative R&B of the decade, she’s paid a price for it too. It’s hard to believe she wouldn’t have been a bigger star if she’d wanted to be, and she digs into it powerfully on the album’s heartbreaking centerpiece, “vultures / wolves.” “I keep getting in my own way,” she wails, admitting her culpability for her difficult reputation but refusing to apologize for fighting back against a system that was made to stifle her. And why should she?
Because no matter how far she got from JonLee and no matter how nice the view is from a Hollywood and Vine penthouse, she never stopped being that girl from the Nine. That imperfect, beautiful, talented dreamer from a part of the world most people would rather pretend doesn’t exist. new breed is the sound of Dawn Richard, scruples and all.
Listen to "spaces"