By Greg Salter
Sean Combs’ Diddy Dirty Money emerged at the tail end of 2010 as a bit of a surprise – no one had been expecting Diddy to produce anything of real note for around a decade, let alone a loose concept album that acted as a kind of bridge between R&B of the past and future, treaded a fine balance between egotism and soul-searching in the lyrics, and came laced with some of the finest pop hooks in recent memory. The album was remarkable not only for the way it brought together some of the finest or more interesting MCs of the last few years (Drake and Lil Wayne for starters) but also in that Diddy was flanked by two women whose songwriting and vocal contributions arguably lifted the album way beyond the ruminations of a load of drunk and heartbroken blokes in the club – Kaleena Harper and Dawn Richard inhabited the roles of spurned lovers, eye-rolling exes, and yes, drunk and heartbroken women in a manner that made Beyonce and her ilk seem hopelessly one-dimensional.
Since Diddy Dirty Money was unceremoniously disbanded last year, Dawn Richard has been plotting her next move – 2012 seems like it could be a big year. Armor On, billed as an EP through stretching beyond half an hour in length, is designed as an introduction to her debut solo project – three more full albums will follow this with the first, GoldenHeart, arriving this year – and if the material here is anything to go by, we’re in for some R&B of the same depth, ambition and vision as The-Dream that filters outside influences as creatively as Drake and his team of producers. Richard herself has a vocal timbre that recalls Brandy, though the way these releases have been planned brings to mind Robyn – another woman who had to strike out on her own to fully realise her own vision.
Richard promised to build on the R&B template with Armor On and she’s more than delivered – working alongside producer Druski on all but one of these tracks, Richard has created an album that selects bits and pieces from other genres carefully, rather than grafting dance elements on to the tracks so that they become ugly, charmless things (take note Alexandra Burke and Nicki Minaj in ‘pop mode’). Early highlight ‘Black Lipstick’ works in drum and bass rhythms and off-kilter synths, providing a skittering, unnerving backdrop to Richard’s powerful vocals, which are themselves allowed to bleed into each other beautifully. This could well be R&B re-pilfering from up-and-coming house music producers like Jacques Greene. Meanwhile, lead single ‘Bombs’ hurtles out of the blocks as one of the finest singles of the year so far – Richard sounds at her most confident delivering lines like “Just feed me beats and watch me eat up all y’all” before letting the harmonies take over in the bridge.
Elsewhere, the experimentation continues – an earlier track ‘SMFU’ is remixed with the kind of attention to space, reverb and warped vocal samples last heard on The Weeknd’s tapes, and is then swallowed up by ‘The Battle (Outro)’, where Richard’s vocals are layered and auto-tuned to an emotive climax, a bit like Brandy covering Bon Iver’s ‘The Woods’. Richard has still got her eye on the pop landscape though – ‘Faith’ is clearly indebted to Calvin Harris’ production of Rihanna’s ‘We Found Love’, but works a lot harder for its pay-off. The driving 4/4 beat is there from the start, but they build slowly and Richard’s lyrics (“we’ve been deep in the trenches, you never left me”) suggest that some serious shit has been come through. When the track eventually explodes around her “You never lost faith in me” chorus at the third time of asking, she sounds as battle-scarred as she does ecstatic.
‘Faith’ pretty much encapsulates Richard’s appeal and the strengths of Armor On as a whole – she’s clearly operating in a pop/R&B sphere while also complicating these pop songs with little touches, extra depth and a sincerity in her lyrics (much needed, when the rest of the mainstream R&B world seems to have followed Diddy to ‘the club’). Here’s hoping she gets the opportunity to follow through on this project – we’ll be waiting for it.