Dawn Richard’s Second Line: An Electro Revival celebrates New Orleans and Black musical culture

DAWN at the SPIN at Stubb’s Party, SXSW, Austin, Texas 2016. Photo by Anna Hanks.

In January 2019, experimental/electronic pop artist released what would turn out to be her first of two albums about New Orleans. Entitled new breed, the LP melded together Dawn Richard’s sexually confident sung—or rapped—lyrics, pounding synths and keys, electrified trap beats, and ethnographic monologues about the Mardi Gras Indians from the Washitaw Nation, the tribe of which her family is a part. As Chief Montana narrates at the end of “dreams and converse”: “Many of the customs and traditions of the North American Indians are preserved today by the Black Indians of New Orleans. This is a practice.” With songs about perusing the city and eating snoballs, crawfish, po’boys and ketchup, Richard closes out (her portion of) the album by singing, “This a, a 504 story.” However, it is Chief Montana who gets the last word on the album, declaring, “Nevertheless, we’re here and we’re going to keep this going. And we gonna show Dawn that we are a tribe that’s behind her one hundred and fifty percent.” If you have ever seen the Mardi Gras Indians parading during—or after—Zulu or on Super Sunday or St. Joseph’s Day, then you know how deep these tribes roll. On new breed, Richard brilliantly intermixed the sounds, affects, and vibrations of the Mardi Gras Indians into her music, folding the cultural experiences of the city and her family into her own.

A mere two years later, in February 2021, Richard would announce her next album, Second Line: An Electro Revival, by simultaneously signing to Merge Records, an indie giant known for being the home for everyone from the Arcade Fire to Portishead. As the press release reads,

Much like the New Orleans–born artist who created it, Dawn Richard’s Second Line is an unapologetic genre bender that pushes boundaries, expands possibilities, and shatters expectations. It’s more than just an album: Second Line is a cohesive sensory experience that questions traditional ideas of sound, production, and visual aesthetics as they relate to music. Its interlocking parts tell an epic story about the quest for artistic expression, with Dawn describing her project as “a movement to bring pioneering Black women in electronic music to the forefront.”

Following in the footsteps of new breed, Second Line would be an album “about” New Orleans. But, more than that, it would be a “cohesive sensory experience,” one that uses sound, affect, and vibration to relay the experience of living—and loving—in New Orleans. Although she is often lazily thrown into the alternative r&b category, Richard has long fashioned herself as a pop music provocateur. After rising to fame as a member of Danity Kane, the all-female pop group assembled by P. Diddy on Making The Band 3, Richard soon began her solo career as an experimental pop artist after the group disbanded in 2009. Releasing her Armor On EP on her label, Our Dawn, in March 2012, DAWN assertedly inserted herself into the early 2010s synthpop—and synth r&b—revival, combining soaring vocals, experimental production, and trap machine beats to carve out a space in the indie pop sphere that was undeniably her own. From there, she would go on to record a trilogy of experimental pop bliss: 2013’s Goldenheart, 2015’s Blackheart, and 2016’s Redemptionheart. From an album of epic storytelling and sounds to one of electrified sounds of the African diaspora to yet one more of pristine electro-pop, Richard moved seamlessly between songs about falling in love and fucking out of lust. With new breed as a warm up of sorts, Richard simultaneously circles back to—and amplifies—New Orleans on Second Line.

As the first single for the album, “Bussifame” sets the tone, both circling back to the electronic roots that Richard accentuated on Armor On and signalling the next step in the evolution of her sound. In its early placement on the album, “Bussifame” also highlights the fusion of house, disco, funk, bounce, and pop that is the first third of the album. The video opens with a shot of someone doing footwork, the unique New Orleans form of dance that Richard will soon “teach” to her listeners through the song, at a second line. Over a 4/4 beat and blaring bass, Richard repeatedly talk-sings “bus-si-fa-me,” a New Orleans-style slurring together of “bust it for me.” Switching between a blue velvet one piece and a white outfit with rave lights, Richard visually illustrates the sonic blending of all the kinds of bass-heavy musics (from brass to bounce) that vibrationally make New Orleans. The song sounds like something one might hear at 3 a.m. at Set De Flo, the house-music driven party that took place at Hi Ho on Saturday nights (after taking over for a previous residency by DJ Soul Sista), or Ascen.dance, a monthly, astrology-themed celebration of the musics of both the African and Latin American diasporas at Cafe Istanbul, in the before times. The song tells the sonic story of the Black, queer, and house music cultures that drive so many of our musical relationships with New Orleans. When I first hear the song during the pandemic, I imagine myself back at these spaces, staying out all night dancing before getting up for the second line the next day.

Jacuzzi,” meanwhile, showcases Richard’s penchant for writing a banger of a pop/r&b song, the closest to a radio-friendly hit that she’s made since her days in Danity Kane. The song kicks off the second third of the album, one that showcases the r&b, soul, and hip hop influences on Second Line. “Jacuzzi” opens with a monologue where Richard’s mom declares, “So, I’m a Creole girl.” The drum machine and synth sounds then burst into the song, amplifying the looped vocal line from Richard’s mother. “I’m a Creole girl” soon fades into the synth bassline, becoming the rhythm of the song. With a chorus about coming so hard over someone that it’s “like a jacuzzi,” the song somehow one-ups what has always been a highly sexualized lyric-writing approach for Richard, a Leo with a penchant for writing many a great song about having sex and/or making love (and the ample space between both of these things). Through centering female pleasure, the song centers the bodily experiences of Black women. When I watch the NSFW video on my couch for the first time one Monday night, it makes me think of my friends (and sometimes more) who are Creole women, of the many things that they taught me about Blackness and/or indigeneity, femaleness, and queerness, knowledge that was/is both bodily and intellectual.

More than that, I keep thinking back to the presence of Richard’s mom on this track, reminding me of a section of L.H. Stallings’s Funk the Erotic on the author and her sisters snooping around for her mom’s porn collection that I recently taught in my queer and affect theory seminar. Richard’s inclusion of her mom on this track speaks to the affective connections across generations of Black women, as shared through music. From Beyoncé twerking in a former plantation house with Serena Williams on “Sorry” to Solange’s (and Bey’s) mom declaring, “I think part of it is accepting that it’s so much beauty in being black, and that’s the thing that, I guess, I get emotional about because I’ve always known that” at the start of “Tina Taught Me” on 2016’s A Seat at the Table, Black women have increasingly brought their family herstories into their pop songs over the course of the past five years. In “Jacuzzi,” the vibrations of generations of Black women collide, a celebration of their bodies and sexualities and Blackness-es. As Richard’s mom later declares on “Voodoo (Intermission)”: “Don’t mess with a Louisiana girl.” On Second Line, Richard updates this formula to sonically declare: “Don’t mess with a Black Louisiana girl.”

In the slowed down third and final section, “Perfect Storm” is a highlight. One of the best pseudo-ballads that she has yet to write, the song is, according to Richard, about “literally being in a storm—having lost everything and being in Katrina… and that breath of fresh air that you feel when you realize that you’ve lost everything and you’re still alive.” For those of us who did not have to endure the magnitude of Hurricane Katrina, the song also works as a metaphor for jumping in and out of love, as many critics have also interpreted the song in their reviews of the album (and as I literally did two times in my three short years in New Orleans). Beginning with some synth beeps and light drum machine programming, Richard soon enters with some fast but beautifully quiet piano-synth chords, over which she soon starts singing in her upper registers. As she nears the chorus, a violin enters to add to the epicness of the song. Once she actually gets to the chorus, Richard sings, “Got me drowning/ Falling deep for you/ Looking for my life support/ Caught in a perfect storm with yo-ou-ou.” The structure and narrative of the song recalls Bjork’s “Bachelorette,” the second single from her 1997 Homogenic album that established her as one of the most exciting experimental pop artists. The song simultaneously soars and glitches, a testament to Richard’s strength as an electronic music producer. The album then proceeds to a two-part outro, ending with “SELFish (outro),” where Richard sonically connects full circle with the trap beats of the beginning of the album.

When you go to Richard’s YouTube page, the video that automatically starts playing is “Boomerang,” the fifth single and not-so-subtle homage to Michael Jackson, an artist that Richard has shouted out before (“MJ on the radio, so we blast up,” as she sings on “LA”). With some disco whistles, kick drum, and hi hats to kick things off, Richard soon sings in (unusually for her) vocoder vocals “Relax, enjoy the ride I’m giving you.” After repeating the line once more, Richard soars up in her vocals to sing, “And your love keeps coming back to me like a boom-boom.” In true house music production style, when the bass comes kicking in at 0:25, it simultaneously rattles up and coalesces the different sonic elements with the song. Coming in the house/bounce/pop opening section of the album, “Boomerang” illuminates the bigger Black pop herstories of which Richard’s Second Line is a part. Although visually the video is most obviously a reference to MJ, sonically the song channels Janet (Jackson)’s move towards house and disco in her 90s repertoire, particularly on “Throb” on janet. and “Together Again” on The Velvet Rope. As my friend and colleague Ayanna Dozier writes about in her brilliant book about Janet’s The Velvet Rope, Black women in the pop sphere are often up against mediated histories, turning to sonic cues to both protect and express their stories. Within the longer arc of the album, “Boomerang” is yet another sonic, affective, and vibrational connection to the exploration of Blackness, bodies, and sexuality that is Second Line.

In some reviews for Second Line, critics have bemoaned that the album is not really “about New Olreans” in the same way that new breed was. But anyone who’s lived or spent a significant amount of time in the Crescent City—particularly in its Black and/or queer music scenes—knows that Second Line encapsulates what it feels like to be in New Orleans. Writing this on the verge of making the same move from one LA (Louisiana) to another LA (Los Angeles) that Richard made earlier in her career, I cannot think of an album that better affectively conveys my experience of the city over the course of the past three years. New Orleans is a place in which you can fall deeply in love, both with the city and the people you encounter within it. It is a place where you jump in and out of moving with the rhythms of those around you, from the street to the bedroom. It is so culturally and emotionally rich that you can completely lose your sense of the world outside it. Second Line sounds to the electronic backbeats of this city, amplifying the emotionality inherent in them all along. Even as it is Richard’s most electronic album so far, it is also her most human. On Second Line, DAWN intertwines her electronic music chops with her personal experiences as a Black woman to put New Orleans on the map for the future of pop music. If you are not yet familiar with her music, then now is the time to jump right in.

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