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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”).
Chamber of Diaries is a far less cohesive and creatively satisfying work than Armor On, mainly because it’s very much a mixtape, with forgettable versions of radio hits like Drake’s “The Motto” and an unending parade of terrible anonymous guest rappers with names like Lil Play. But Kalenna’s tendency towards swag and bravado is a good counterpoint to Richard’s heavily armored vulnerability. And when Chamber is hot it’s on fire: “Matte Back Truck” is a fist-pumping breakup anthem that promises “if you leave I’ma crank Wu Tang,” while the twisted synths and snapping drums of “Poison” rival Last Train To Paris‘s most expensive production jobs. “Stop playin’ motherfuckin’ games with my heart,” as the chorus to “Ladder” goes, is an appropriate echo of the “Ass On The Floor” lyric that perhaps best epitomized Last Train To Paris: “Got to find my way back to your heart, you motherfucker.”
On Dirty Money’s 2011 Valentine’s Day mixtape LoveLOVE Vs. HateLOVE, Diddy laid bare the group’s dramatic, dirty-talking ethos in a series of spoken interludes between remixes of Last Train tracks and sumptuous outtakes like “Sade”: “This Dirty Money shit, it ain’t for everybody, man. It’s a motherfuckin’ vibe, it’s for motherfuckers that’s patient, motherfuckers that like to take their time, and close their eyes, and dream.” For the album’s fervent cult of patient motherfuckers, its expanded universe of mixtapes and solo efforts is the ultimate immersive experience. I have a five-hour playlist consisting of Last Train, LoveLOVE, Chamber of Diaries, Armor On, and A Tell Tale Heart on my iPod, and I can cycle through the whole thing without tiring of that vibe.
Both members of Dirty Money are currently casting out on their own—Richard asked Diddy for a release from her Bad Boy contract after it became clear she’d have to get in line behind the rest of the resurgent label’s swelling roster of up-and-coming rappers. The self-released Armor On debuted at No. 145 on the Billboard 200. At the moment, R&B is having something of a DIY awakening, both with the deafening critical buzz of free internet releases by The Weeknd and Frank Ocean, and with established hitmakers like Trey Songz and Miguel taking to stopgap EPs and mixtapes with moodier, more experimental sounds in between albums. Until recently, R&B singers were the most likely stripe of mainstream artist to surrender career momentum to the unforgiving whims of major label release schedules with no other recourse, but they’ve finally started adopting hip hop’s self-starter attitudes as well as its sounds and language. The Puffy that brought together Mary and Biggie would be very proud.