New Music Reviews: Dawn Richard, Olivia Rodrigo, Jazmine Sullivan

This week we look at three releases from contemporary female American artists – R&B artists Jazmine Sullivan and Dawn Richard, and actor Olivia Rodrigo, who’s rapidly become a pop superstar in 2021.

Olivia Rodrigo


2021, 7.5/10
Olivia Rodrigo came to prominence as an actor, appearing in Bizaardvark and High School Musical. She signed a recording contract in 2020, and has quickly become a pop superstar – her debut single ‘Driver’s License’ debuted at number one on Billboard, while third single ‘Good 4 U’ also debuted at number one. Her debut project was initially slated as an EP, but was quickly upgraded to a full album after the success of ‘Driver’s License’.

Rodrigo is supported by producer and co-writer Dan Nigro, who’s previously produced excellent pop songs like Sky Ferreira’s ‘You’re Not The One’, Carly Rae Jepsen’s ‘When I Needed You’, and Caroline Polachek’s ‘So Hot You’re Hurting My Feelings’. Rodrigo’s only 18, and hasn’t necessarily found her own style. There are echoes of other 21st century female artists like Paramore, Lorde, and Taylor Swift, while the bridge of ”Driver’s License’ sounds like Lana Del Rey. Sour is also brief at 34 minutes, and every song is about the same failed relationship.

But that’s the bad news – it’s easy to take Rodrigo’s side on these tales of romantic angst, as she’s a likeable and talented vocalist. There’s at least an EP’s worth of excellent songs. Along with the three singles, there’s a strong opening with ‘Brutal’ – like ‘Good 4 U’ it’s a guitar rocker with Rodrigo spitting out a laundry-list of complaints – “And they’d all be so disappointed/’Cause who am I, if not exploited?” ‘Traitor’ is also strong, a piano ballad that rhymes “date her” and “traitor”. The second half of the record is less memorable, making Sour a strong debut but not an all-time classic.

Sour has made Rodrigo into a pop superstar, and hopefully she delivers a classic pop record to match her newly found status next time around.

Dawn Richard

Second Line

2021, 8.5/10
We’re living through a golden age of arty R&B at the moment, with artists like Janelle Monae, Jamila Woods, and Frank Ocean making great music. Dawn Richard started her career as a member of Danity Kane, and has released a string of critically acclaimed but commercially underwhelming records over the last decade.

The title of Richard’s sixth album is a reference to a tradition in New Orleans, where parade watchers can dance along in a second line. The album is interspersed with interviews with Richard’s mother, recalling her Louisiana heritage – Richard’s family left New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. Dawn Richard grew up in New Orleans – her father is Frank Richard, lead singer of 1970s and 1980s soul-funk band Chocolate Milk.

Second Line isn’t an especially coherent album. Richard’s an imaginative artist who’s able to deliver everything from pop bangers like ‘Boomerang’ and ‘Jacuzzi’ to atmospheric and arty material like ‘The Potter’ and ‘Perfect Storm’ – always my ideal of an enjoyable artist.

Richard’s possibly too full of ideas for her own good, but she’s making consistently strong records.

Jazmine Sullivan

Heaux Tales

2021, 7/10
Philadelphian R&B artist Jazmine Sullivan hasn’t made a record since 2015’s acclaimed Reality Show. Heaux Tales is a 33-minute EP that still reached #4 on the US charts. With an appearance singing the national anthem at this year’s Super Bowl, Sullivan’s star is clearly in the ascendancy despite her slow release rate.

The eight songs of Heaux Tales are interspersed with monologues from Sullivan’s friends. I’ve never heard a record where the dialogue is so integral to the record, the interviews provide perspective on sex and empowerment. The interviews are often disarmingly pragmatic, matching Sullivan’s lyrics. In ‘Precious’ Tale’, Precious Daughtry states “I’m not dealing with anyone who does not have money/Because I know my worth”, before Sullivan opens ‘The Other Side’ with “I’ve got dreams to buy expensive things”.

It’s hard to become immersed in Heaux Tales as a musical experience when it’s so brief and interspersed with dialogue, but the songs stand up individually. Lead single ‘Pick Up Your Feelings’ mixes the smooth neo-soul of Lauryn Hill with a powerhouse vocal performance. The vocals are only accompanied by solitary guitar on ‘Lost One’, while Anderson .Paak cameos on the full production of ‘Pricetags’.

Heaux Tales is a little brief and unsatisfying musically, but it’s also effective at getting its themes across.

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Graham Fyfe is probably the only music blogger to appreciate Neil Diamond and Ariana Grande.
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  1. I’ve only heard ‘Sour’. It’s a pretty good record, however, with the rocking tracks placed at the beginning and the middle, I would at least expected for one more rocking track at the end to finish the album hard. She’s a pretty good vocalist and I can’t wait for what she has next in the future.

    • Yup, another rocker or two would have been good – it just feels a bit thin, and the rockers are two of the best songs (Brutal, Good 4 U). She’s a very good vocalist though – she has the trick of being likeable and the underdog even though she’s a big High School Musical star.

  2. I really liked SOUR at first and then was left a little cold after a couple more listens. I don’t expect much more from someone who recorded her first album at 17, and the angst is absolutely appropriate for this age so I give her props for at least putting herself out there like this. “Brutal” is one hell of an opener though, I just wish the rest of the album was similarly scathing musically.

    • It just needed a couple more big rockers, I reckon. ‘Brutal’ and ‘Good 4 U’ are two of the best songs.

  3. I like the new place Graham it looks really cool…Not in my wheelhouse but the Jazmine Sullivan song sounds good and most of all she has a killer voice.

    • There’s actually a lot of guitar-oriented stuff coming up in my review queue this year – more than usual.

      The site needs some tinkering, but I’m noticeably getting more page views per visitor already.

      • Cool, I’ll be here regardless but yes I’m looking forward to it…I’m glad you are getting an honest count…with WordPress it’s not always accurate.
        I must have looked over you yesterday in the reader…

  4. Sorry I missed so many posts, man – they didn’t show up in my reader until I logged in yesterday. Go figure. Anyhoo, I quite like this Dawn Richard. That’s one for the list. I listened to SOUR yesterday for the first time and really quite liked it. Loads of things to keep it interesting. She also reminded me of Phoebe Bridgers vocally. I don’t imagine it will take long before she knocks it out the park.

    • Richard is unfairly obscure – she seems to walk a pretty good line between being accessible and being weird.

      Rodrigo utilises her acting skills well I think – she’s expressive vocally without being too over-the-top.

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