Ex-Danity Kane / Diddy Dirty Money vocalist Dawn Richard. (Dimitry Loiseau )
The common image of an indie musician may be one of up-and-coming rock or hip-hop artists turning to self-funded videos and social media to scrape together a following, but singer Dawn Richard is bringing a rare, independent-minded approach to contemporary R&B.
After flourishing in groups under the tutelage of hip-hop mogul Sean "Diddy" Combs, Richard released her debut solo album, "GoldenHeart," last Tuesday and it quickly soared to No. 1 on the iTunes R&B albums chart.
It's a remarkable feat considering Richard doesn't have any label backing or a hit song on the radio.
"We needed this.... Labels are great, however they are taking a bit longer than we want," Richard said. "But we need this to be done right. This is a good transition for us."
Transition is vital for Richard. The 29-year-old has spent the past two years building her solo identity with risk-taking, progressive R&B after stints in two sonically different groups: urban pop girl group Danity Kane and the hip-hop fusion project Diddy Dirty Money.
While in the Combs-fronted trio, Richard issued a free yet fully realized mixtape, "The Prelude to a Tell Tale Heart." It logged 1 million downloads within a month in 2011 as she was busy promoting the group's debut album, "Last Train to Paris."
When Diddy Dirty Money disbanded in 2012, Richard asked Combs to release her from her contract. Armed with a tiny team — her producer/creative partner Andrew "Druski" Scott also handles management and publicity — she released the EP "Armor On" exclusively on iTunes. It sold more than 30,000 copies and went to No. 4 on Billboard's Heatseekers chart, as well as going No. 1 on iTunes' R&B albums chart.
"I thought [listeners] were gonna hate it because I felt like we were so ahead and I saw what happened with Dirty Money," she said, referencing that album's disappointing sales figures as compared with Combs' other projects. "When ["Armor On"] hit No. 1 for me that was the 'go' sign for the album. The feeling of knowing that whatever we were doing was OK."
"Armor On" and an unconventional holiday EP, "Whiteout," served as a prelude to "GoldenHeart." Though the record was slated for release last October, she reluctantly held the album until January after she inked a distribution deal with indie company Altavoz Distribution to bring physical copies to brick-and-mortar retailers.
Having enjoyed hefty label budgets twice over, Richard has relied on reaching fans through social media and self-funded videos, primarily on YouTube, that are as polished and visually engaging as those from marquee artists. Videos for singles "Bombs," "SMFU," "Wild N' Faith," "Automatic" and "'86" have notched more than 1.6 million views and appeared on BET and MTV.
"It was literally cents rubbed together," Richard joked of her shoestring budgets. "But I wanted to challenge myself. The [worst] part about being independent is we can't get those TV looks. I have to succeed in the video and it has to be perfect because it's my only shot."
The first of a trilogy of albums ("BlackHeart" and "RedemptionHeart" will follow), "GoldenHeart" showcases Richard's sumptuous harmonies and emotional complexity with Scott's sinewy production, which blends meaty urban sounds with house and electro blips.
"R&B needs to see a new light. It doesn't have to be pigeonholed," Richard said. "It's just R&B with movement, it doesn't have to be so linear."
Stories of heartbreak, both romantically and professionally, are so tightly intertwined through Richard's imagery (fantasy, sci-fi, warfare and religious themes are frequent touchstones) that multiple listens are rewarding. "It flows sonically. The lyrics flow. It's chapters. You never open a book to Chapter 50," she explained.
"I want to push people, and I'm scared that sometimes I'll push too hard and they will miss it," she said. "But the way we are doing it, I'm not scared anymore."
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