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Dawn Richard’s Sprawling ‘Second Line’

We Review the New Album From the Electronic, R&B Musician

On May 3, 2021

Every week, we tell you about an album we think you need to spend time with. This week’s album is Second Line, the sixth album from Dawn Richard.

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Dawn Richard’s Second Line is a lot of things, all at once. It’s her re-emergence, after years as a roaming indie artist, making her own releases and appearing on Dirty Projectors albums, on Merge Records, officially making the degrees of separation between Neutral Milk Hotel and Aubrey O’Day a single degree. It’s her love letter to her native New Orleans, where she was raised by a musician father and a choreographer/dancer mother, its title devoted to the impromptu performances that make the Crescent City one of the best places on earth. But, most importantly, as she’s said in interviews leading up to Second Line’s release, it’s an assertion of the role of Black women in electronic music, a thoroughly electric album that aims to blend styles, forms and genres under Richard’s own vast umbrella.

Richard’s previous five solo LPs, and to some extent, her time in the underrated Diddy-Dirty Money in the early 2010s, were a blending of R&B and club music, a way of blurring the lines between the genres. Second Line is more forcefully electronic, even as the subject matter here is more autobiographical than Richard’s previous albums; there’s an interview with her mom that serves as the album’s narrative backbone, that covers moving to New Orleans, appropriate dance moves during a Second Line and why Louisiana women are different. There’s voodoo (and the intermission track “Voodoo”), and New Orleans’ bounce (the album’s standout track “Bussiframe”), and piano ballads with French names (“La Petit Morte”), and a song that sounds like a French Quarter bachelorette party gone pop (“Jacuzzi”). But the biographical deep dive doesn’t end at her roots; on “Radio Free” she also dissects her time in the music business.

While Richard’s voice is as strong as ever here, and is ultimately what got her noticed by Diddy in her Making the Band days, what makes Second Line repeatedly rewarding is Richard and producer Ila Orbis’ glossy, futuristic production; the cover art imagining a Mardi Gras Indian in the year 3000 is as much cover art as it is statement of purpose. These are drum- and horn-heavy productions, heavy on low-end and synths from the distant future, and every song sounds unique to itself. At a time when the history of women in electronic music — which has been historically ignored or minimized — is being told for the first time and re-evaluated, Second Line is an album to be celebrated and lauded; it’s a remarkable album by an artist fully coming into herself, nearly 20 years after she first made the band.

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Andrew Winistorfer

Andrew Winistorfer is Senior Director of Music and Editorial at Vinyl Me, Please, and a writer and editor of their books, 100 Albums You Need in Your Collection and The Best Record Stores in the United States. He’s written Listening Notes for more than 30 VMP releases, co-produced multiple VMP Anthologies, and executive produced the VMP Anthologies The Story of Vanguard, The Story of Willie Nelson, Miles Davis: The Electric Years and The Story of Waylon Jennings. He lives in Saint Paul, Minnesota.

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