Many artists have that moment when they break out of their comfort zones and take a risk. It’s career defining, like when Kanye West released 808s & Heartbreak; when Solange shared Sol-Angel and the Hadley St. Dreams; when Prince doffed his “Raspberry Beret.”
Dawn Richard’s defining moment comes January 15. Right on the edge of innovation, the former Danity Kane/Diddy Dirty Money songstress pushes the envelope way past pop with her debut independent album, Goldenheart. There’s nothing pedestrian about the record’s gutsy retooling of R&B. She’s determined—doing it herself, her way. It’s not for tastemaker critiques or mass appeal. Love it or hate it, you’ll never see the break of Dawn.
EBONY caught up with the chanteuse to talk “progressive R&B,” breaking away from Diddy and becoming an indie artist. (Listen to a 22-minute sampler of her upcoming album here!)
EBONY: Goldenheart has a very fantastic, mythological feel. You say you feel like [the Greek king] Leonidas in your lyrics. Where did that come from?
Dawn Richard: I’ve been hurt so bad that I feel like I want to go back to the days of fairy tales. You know when. You were a kid and you believe there were white knights in shining armor. That’s what that is, the premise for the whole record. I wish we could go back to that naïveté. I wish I could have never seen pain. Once you feel what hurt feels like, you lose it. But it’s not the same as being a kid and really thinking someone is going to save me. I’m also in a fight. I’m fighting for people to love again. Hate is at an all-time high.
EBONY: You are doing this on your own as an independent artist, from writing songs to producing the album. Is that the ideal?
DR: We don’t write our records because we are bougie and we only want us to write it. I love Ester Dean. I want 11 number one hits like Rihanna. I am waiting for someone to say, “You know what? I don’t need the check. I’ll write this amazing record for you.” But that’s not how this game works. We are going to write our own records because we are songwriters too.
I don’t know if a [major label] would get it. I’m always asking my crew, “Are we going too far?” I’m okay with [labels] not understanding it. But I think the people will get it. Who knows what’s going to happen? We are making music for the people: the misfits, the rebels, the underdogs.
Michael Jackson was the king of pop, but he had a soulful delivery. Prince was soulful. It was crossover. Those are all just different variations of what the sound of R&B is. We can have that.
EBONY: The sound of Goldenheart is so different. What is your sound? Are you an R&B artist?
DR: I am vocally, and I think because my voice is so soulful, I can get away with much more, and that’s why I get excited. Many female artists, their voices are more treble heavy. They have higher voices. Their voices are prettier, where my voice is so tone heavy that I feel like I can push the envelope with the music and still have soul behind it. That’s why I say it’s progressive. It’s new age R&B. My voice is gritty. It’s raw. Chaka and Aretha [were] the same thing. Michael Jackson was the king of pop, but he had a soulful delivery. Prince was soulful. It was crossover. Those are all versions of R&B, just different variations of what the sound of R&B is. We can have that.
EBONY: You’re one of the only artists that’s left Bad Boy who still has a great relationship with Diddy. Has he ever given you any amazing advice?
DR: He never gave advice. Puff wasn’t that kind of person. Puff did it by actions and threats. Not in a negative way. He played this Jedi mind trick like, “Hey if y’all don’t want it, y’all don't want it. The rich people are the people that work.” He does it in a way where you wanted to punch him in the face, but then he was right, and he gets more out of you. He makes you go harder; I get him. You don’t have to like him. I don’t agree with a lot of the things that he’s done in his life, but who am I to say what he’s supposed to do? That’s not my place.
RaVal “Vee” Davis has interviewed legends like Chaka Khan, Prince, Quincy Jones and more at publications like EBONY, Essence and Vibe. A true cultural commentator, this girl-about-town always lets her cosmopolitan sensibilities be her guide. Check her out on Twitter @WatchHerWork.