Hello there! I've spent the majority of the morning watching the baby wear his brother's snow pants like a cape and spin around in circles while eating cheese, so it's nice to move on to a bit more of an intellectual pursuit. And this R&B album truly is a bit intellectual, since despite the fact that Dawn Richard got her start in manufactured girl group Danity Kane (incidentally, the name for that band was based on one of her manga drawings, per Wikipedia), her solo work comes from a literary perspective, and she cites Phil Collins and Björk as her biggest musical influences. I even found an interview on Interview where she describes this record as "like a modern-day Joan of Arc. Think of it like medieval times-cum-2045 or Lancelot and Guinevere in 3025". In other words, suck it Bieber, Richard's got you beat by 13 years (husband, since I know you won't understand this reference, I'm talking about the lyrics to his single with Nicki Minaj, "Beaty And A Beat". listen to the radio once in a while, geez!).
Anyway. Even more surprising than Richard's influences is the fact that you actually hear them on her still-R&B-flavored record. "Return of a Queen" begins on a cinematic note, with an intro that evokes a foggy battlefield on the morning after the event, before sparkly synths and a shuffling beat take over ("I'm searching trying to find (find) my (my) way back/Way back to the throne"), and "Riot" starts with keyboard and a vocal interlude which ramps into a club beat full of effects straight out of a robot mechanic's garage ("The smoke is in the air-air/Flames start to appear/Bright lights everywhere-ere/Show that love is here"). Then of course there's "Frequency", which is both one of the best tracks on the album and Richard's version of a slow jam, featuring a smattering of blinking synths dancing around a lazy, late-coming beat ("Static when we touch/So magnetic/When we love/Inside there is a rush/So hypnotic/Don't pull the plug"). "In Your Eyes" is another good one, and a play on the Peter Gabriel tune, twisting elements of the original into a compelling mix of EDM build-ups, thick pillows of vocals, and just the slightest hint of the same new wave world vibe that characterizes Gabriel's music. And between these tracks we have plenty more of the same, with pretty much all of them living up to some facet of Richard's description of her work.
So what sentiment, exactly, does a love and/or folk-heroine story of the future entail? In general, the lyrics on this album compare Richard's personal struggles to an epic battle, with each relationship a war, each success a triumph earned through bloodshed and strife. Richard's voice reminds me of a thinner version of Brandy's, and many of the tracks utilize the same drawn-out vocal layering that I associate with Brandy's music as well ("Return of a Queen", "Goliath", "Northern Lights", the list goes on and on). This is both a blessing and a curse: while it's interesting to hear the technique in the context of pluckier beats and more futuristic synth effects, some of the songs drown in the vocal bridge, and become almost indistinguishable from one another. The Rhapsody reviewer notes that the album "has a too-long hour-plus length" and I have to agree - much like The Weeknd's newest release, this would have been more effective with a shorter play time, if only to keep the novelty sounding fresh and tight. But it IS novel even with its references, and I appreciate both the battle imagery that ties the album together while presenting age-old struggles in a unique way, and the laid-back-dance-club-on-the-moon production values which permeate most of the songs. Basically, I'll be interested to see where she goes from here - I'm hoping for Valhalla... of the future!