The sheer ambition on Blackheart is immense. Even before pressing play, the fact that this is the second album in a trilogy and that every track (barring the intro and interludes) is over four minutes hints at the grandiosity of the project. The most arresting thing about Blackheart is that it gives equal weight in its narrative to the lyrics and music. At times, Dawn Richard’s voice becomes obfuscated in the mix, making lyrics unclear. It’s a purposeful and effective artistic choice, one that allows the vocalizing, production, and mixing to all magnify the emotional intensity of these tracks. As Richard’s stated in different interviews, her history as a dancer leads her to emphasize music’s ability to evoke visuals and movement. Nothing is a better example of this than “Calypso”, the first full song on Blackheart. Certain samples made me smile this past month—the “Hey Ma” and “Club Goin’ Up On A Tuesday” interpolations from Korean rapper Gaeko and company, the unexpected “Only” sample at the end of Jason Lescalleet’s “New Age Fake Cupcakes"—but nothing was as striking as "Calypso” naturally incorporating two Twin Peaks themes into its chaotic whirlwind of a pop song. Later, the seven-minute “Adderall / Sold (Outro)” constantly shapeshifts in conjunction with its heavy lyrics. Sparse production highlights the sincerity and innocence of a line like “she only wanted the pop life” but it soon turns into “oh the days when she slept ‘til noon / she was living like she’s dying soon” sung in vocoder a capella. The song eventually becomes aggressive and dark, ending with the repeated phrase “get thee right / don’t believe the hype” over urgent bass wobbles.
Songs like “Projection” and “Castles” follow a more straightforward verse-chorus structure but even then, they still seem uncharacteristic of most of the r&b that’s coming out now, much of which can be accredited to the detailed and thoughtful production here (all of which is provided by Noisecastle III). Before the album spirals off into its outro, the album ends with the moving piano ballad “The Deep”. There’s been a lot of tragedy in Richard’s life recently:Goldenheart did poorly in sales, the crowd-funding campaign for Blackheart failed, Danity Kane reunited but quickly disbanded after Richard got in a fight with Aubrey O'Day, her grandmother passed away, and her father (who co-wrote “The Deep”) got diagnosed with lymphoma; the track acts as a reminder of how personal the entire record actually is. On “Billie Jean”, she reframes the original song’s lyrics into that specifically of a groupie’s. In an interview with FACT, Richard states that “there is a thin line between the whore and the artist starving and willing to do whatever to make it on her label” and claims that “by the end of the record I’ve become [Billie Jean]. I had to do what she did just to get a number one record.” This sentiment is made clearer on “Warriors”, where Richard declares "fuck failing, I’m it / kings wear crowns for a reason and royalty’s the robe that we’re wearing". It’s a boastful statement but it also feels like the sort of mentality that you need in the midst of adversity. Either way, everything about Blackheart proves that if there’s anyone that can get away with saying something like that right now, it’s her.