"I thought I'd lost it all," Dawn Richard sings on the opening of her wildly imaginative sophomore album, "Blackheart."
After the year she's had, the sentiment is understandable.
Last summer, Richard's grandmother died. Her father, Frank, former frontman of '70s funk-soul band Chocolate Milk, was diagnosed with cancer. And there was the collapse of a reunion with Danity Kane, the girl group assembled by hip-hop mogul Sean "Diddy" Combs that first launched her to fame. That project's abrupt end became tabloid fodder, sending disappointed fans on the (virtual) attack. ("We had noble intentions," Richard said of her former group. "We are really good on paper, but I don't think our personalities gel together.")
The 31-year-old decided to cope by rebuilding her solo career with "Blackheart," an album released last month that she had previously put on hold when the group reconvened. Originally scheduled for release in October, the album is the sound of a singer coming back from the edge.
"I'm not a very open person," Richard said over lunch in Hollywood. "But I was at rock bottom. It was one thing after the other after the other. 'Blackheart' was the moment for me to really open up and let people into the world that is me."
Co-produced by Richard and L.A. producer Scott Bruzenak (a.k.a. Noisecastle III), "Blackheart" raises the bar on her idiosyncratic approach to music.
"Blackheart" is the second installment of her "Heart" trilogy, which launched with her 2013 debut, "Goldenheart," and will eventually conclude with the currently in the works "RedemptionHeart." On "Blackheart," Richard weaves richly complex tales of loss, heartbreak and triumph through a fantasy world where Greek mythology, sci-fi and medieval allegories run free, a combination reflected in the self-funded, sci-fi-inspired video for album outtake "Tide: The Paradox Effect," which debuted in January.
"She looks very far into the future. And she's very open creatively," said Bruzenak, who recorded the bulk of the album in his living room.
Where early works saw Richard coloring far outside any conventional boundaries of pop and R&B, she goes even further on "Blackheart," shape-shifting her voice over productions that move just as quickly. Traditional song structures are abandoned in favor of freewheeling narratives and layers of polyrhythms.
Times pop critic Randall Roberts wrote: "The result is magnetic future funk, rife with Roland 909 tones, British drum and bass accents and much left-field surprise." That's just one of a number of raves, which also include the tastemaking music site Pitchfork. The album hit No. 2 last month on Billboard's Dance/Electronic charts.
For Richard, "Blackheart" and the sound she's pursuing are about breaking free of labels. "I hope by the end of it all, no one can really put me anywhere. I hope they get that I am not a genre," she said. "It doesn't bother me when I'm labeled, but it's so ... limiting. It's so boxy. When you listen to the music, it's not just those things.... I just feel like why does it have to have a name at all?"
Richard's solo career has always been somewhat of an anomaly.
After flourishing in Danity Kane and Combs' sleek hip-hop fusion project Diddy-Dirty Money, Richard spent years building her identity outside of pop music.
While in Dirty Money, Richard issued a free mixtape in 2011, "The Prelude to a Tell Tale Heart," which introduced her enigmatic take on R&B and logged a million downloads within a month. "Goldenheart" followed a set of EPs — 2012's "Armor On" and an unconventional take on holiday-themed music, "Whiteout" — and the disbanding of Dirty Money.
Looking to avoid the constraints of label politics, Richard asked Combs to release her from her contract. She's been proudly independent since.
"There is no day to day. It's week to week. I don't sleep, but it's OK," Richard said. "Someone asked if this was a feminist album and I said, 'This is a feminist act.' It's well beyond music. We're saying it's possible for you to maintain a level of sophistication and sleekness and quality in your music and still be independent. We are raising the bar on what independence looks like."
Richard's DIY hustle is remarkable, considering she originally found fame via MTV's "Making the Band," a 2005 reality show that chronicled the makings of pop group Danity Kane. Her imprint, Own Dawn Entertainment, employs a team of two — the singer and her assistant.
Ultimately, Richard just hopes to inspire other artists, particularly black artists, even if she continues flying under the radar.
"This is way bigger than any album. I thank all the critics, but the cool [thing] is to see the young kids say, 'You're making me feel like I can move a little bit better,' " she said. "I want to show that you can be just as amazing as labels and compete as a business and work as a business even though you're an artist."