"I wanna go back to JonLee Drive/ eating crawfish and watching my so-called life." This is how Dawn Richard begins new breed, her fifth studio album that doubles as a love letter to New Orleans. From start to finish, across 33 minutes and 10 tracks, new breed hums along in a fluid manner, fueled by an emotion deeper than hometown pride – something more like ancestral heritage, a profound sense of where one’s roots lie. In 2005, Hurricane Katrina displaced Richard’s family from the Ninth Ward of New Orleans to Baltimore, and her music career formally launched with her casting in MTV’s Making the Band 3. In 2016, her parents moved back to New Orleans, so she did too, for a brief time, to in order to reconnect with the city that raised her and her forbearers. Suddenly, her 11-year odyssey through the music industry had come full circle.
To say Richard’s career arc has been unconventional would be an understatement. For years, she operated under the umbrella of Sean “Diddy” Combs, first with the ineffectual girl group Danity Kane, then with the more adventurous electronic-R&B outfit Dirty Money. She ultimately landed on her feet as an independent artist and, over the course of the Heart album trilogy that culminated with 2016’s REDEMPTION, earned a reputation as one of pop music’s foremost experimentalists. With the help of producers like Noisecastle III and Machinedrum, she forged a futuristic, larger than life sound that seemed to suggest the vastness of the cosmos. She utilized asymmetrical song structures to underscore the sense that she was a round peg that the industry kept trying to hammer into a square hole.
After her REDEMPTION tour, Richard took a short hiatus from music; she accepted several acting gigs, including a stint in Issa Rae’s Insecure, filmed an Adult Swim pilot, and went to New Orleans to decompress. When it came time to get to work on her next musical project, she tapped a new set of producers that included Hudson Mohwake, Cole M.G.N., and Kaveh Rastegar. While new breed retains the electronic foundations that characterized much of the Heart trilogy, it adds layers of funk, R&B, and gospel that imbue each song, and the project as a whole, with a dolphin-like sleekness. The album does contain a few unexpected turns, achieved largely through clever sequencing, but it never strays far from Richard’s insistent, grounding NOLA POV.
"[New Orleans] is such a beautiful city, it is something so different," Richard said in an interview with NPR. "I took it for granted because I thought it always would be there. And then when I got home, I said, You know what? I'm going to make an album that tells people why I am the way I am, and why we are the way we are, and maybe it could connect to those other breeds out there, who are like us. In the midst of the worst of times, we find a way to dance." In this case, “we” refers to New Orleans residents, and more specifically, to the Mardi Gras Indians and the Washitaw Nation, a black tribe native to Louisiana. Most songs on new breed either begin or end with a clip of a Washitaw member speaking, often amidst hollering and cheering. By weaving these clips throughout the album, Richard cultivates a palpable sense of community and makes these Washitaw speakers the album’s emotional marrow, much like the way that the voicemails left by Kendrick Lamar’s parents, simultaneously peripheral and essential, formed the heart of good kid, m.a.a.d. city. Drake’s interpolation of Magnolia Shorty on “In My Feelings” and Beyoncé’s interpolation of Big Freedia and Messy Mya on “Formation” feel inconsequential compared to the way Richard constantly centers the voices of the Washitaw.
Stylistically, new breed does not draw particularly heavily on New Orleans’ musical traditions. “Shades” does briefly sample “Groove City,” a song by her father’s funk band Chocolate Milk. Rather, Richard frames New Orleans as the well from which she draws her strength. She shouts out “the nine” (the Ninth Ward) several times, most notably on the stunning early-album climax “Spaces,” in which she sings of her experiences navigating an unforgiving music industry: "“Something about them girls from the nine/ Somewhere between Hollywood and Vine/ I lost that girl from JonLee Drive, hah/ I had so many men in power telling me I was too brave, too confident, too black, too ugly, too thin/ That girl believed them/ But deep inside, the girl from the nine said fuck them.”
Though Richard occasionally dwells on relationships and sex, she explores those themes in service of the album’s larger goal of affirming her self-worth. This emphasis is evident in the way she sequences the tracks. The first and last tracks of new breed, “the nine (intro)” and “ketchup and po’boys (outro)” are overt New Orleans tributes. The tracks positioned just inside those bookends, “new breed” and “we, diamonds,” both read as the sort of inspirational self-talk Richard might give herself every morning. On “we, diamonds,” she compares herself to an unlikely array of athletes: Steph Curry, Tony Hawk, and Bayou legend Bobby Boucher. On the title track, she intones, “I am a lion/ I am a woman” and declares herself not a queen, but a king. It only becomes apparent that Richard is herself present at these Washitaw meetings that new breed samples in the album’s final seconds, when she is mentioned by name for the first time. “Nevertheless, we're here, and we gonna keep this going,” says a tribal elder. “And we’re gonna show Dawn that we are a tribe that's behind her one hundred and fifty percent.” This sentiment dovetails nicely with the album cover, on which Richard reclines on a modest wooden porch, wearing a resplendent, massive white headdress sewn by the Washitaw leader, Chief David Montana. It is an image that gestures at once towards the past and the future; towards the tribe’s lineage and traditions, and towards a young matriarch that will help lead them forward.