Dirty Money Honeys: Dawn Richard And Kalenna Get Off The Bad Boy Train
When Last Train To Paris, the sole album by the hip-hop/R&B trio Diddy-Dirty Money, landed in stores 16 months ago, it would've been fair to assume it was the end of something, not the beginning. The mogul formerly known as the artist formerly known as Puff Daddy had been more of a professional celebrity than anything resembling a rap star for over a decade, and he had been listlessly threatening to release a concept album by his genre-bending group for a couple years. Even though Sean Combs had been the primary architect behind fusing hip hop with R&B in the '90s, pushing the Notorious B.I.G. and Mary J. Blige toward each other's respective genres, something about this latest project had the stench of riding the coattails of 808s & Heartbreak and T-Pain, who Diddy said would receive album royalties from Last Train To Paris simply for its use of AutoTune. Even Diddy's most aggressive promotion of the album came during promotional junkets for his supporting role in Get Him To The Greek.
But a funny thing happened on the way to Paris: the album turned out to be a masterpiece, not so much adventurous as deliriously generous in its cornucopia of off-the-wall synth and percussion textures, and ruminations on heartache so intense they almost circled back around to celebratory. And while Diddy and his rotating cast of superstar guests soaked up most of the attention, the actual sound and mood was driven largely by the two women who served as his Greek chorus of love and loss: Dawn Richard and Kalenna Harper. Richard first entered the Bad Boy fold via the third cycle of MTV's Making The Band, in which she was chosen as a member of the girl group that was eventually named Danity Kane. After two successful albums, Danity Kane was unceremoniously disbanded by Diddy. But he kept Richard on the label, ultimately teaming with her and Harper (a songwriter for Christina Aguilera and Ciara, among others) to create Last Train To Paris.
Diddy recently disbanded Dirty Money just as abruptly as he had Danity Kane, at the end of a long promotional cycle that yielded one pop crossover (perhaps the album's weakest and most unrepresentative song, "Coming Home") and three moderate urban radio hits, with album sales falling just shy of gold certification. Neither of the Dirty Money sirens has wasted any time in kickstarting their solo careers: February saw the release of Kalenna's mixtape Chamber of Diaries (DJ Kash), and two weeks ago Richard issued Armor On (Our Dawn Entertainment), ostensibly an EP but really an album, and moreover perhaps one of the best of the year.
Dawn Richard, "Bombs"
Last year Richard released a mixtape called A Tell Tale Heart, which featured some memorable songs that managed to survive a terrible or nonexistent mastering job. But it now sounds like a lifeless dry run next to Armor On, a fantastically assured record that takes both the forward-thinking production aesthetic and oversized emotions of Last Train To Paris to new frontiers. Although the single "Bombs" rides the same stomping eighth-note groove currently dominating urban radio, most of the other tracks feature unpredictable yet soothing detours into dance beats and almost ambient soundscapes. Just as the 80-minute Paris felt almost too expansive to be be a mere album, the 10-track, 40-minute Armor On is one of the most substantial records to ever be called an EP. It's hard to imagine how she could even top herself with the supposed full-length debut, GoldenHeart, that this is sold as a mere prelude to. Richard's voice has always had a raspy grain to it that brings to mind Brandy, but her forceful delivery on "Bombs" and "Automatic" matches her lyrical imagery, rife with military allusions and superhero metaphors (A Tell Tale Heart had songs called "Superman" and "Super Hero"; Kalenna's mixtape continues the theme with "S On My Chest").