In 2012, after gradually losing interest, Combs broke up the group over email, and Richard successfully requested a release from her contract. (She and Combs remain in touch.) She met with multiple major labels, which all passed. Undeterred, she committed to going independent, and began working on a trilogy of concept albums with experimental electronic producers such as Andrew “Druski” Scott, Noisecastle III and Machinedrum.
“I was instantly taken aback by how talented she was, and how she gravitated towards the stranger beats,” Machinedrum said in an interview. “A lot of artists these days are sucked into social media; they seem like they’re not all there. But you could tell that she’s there to work.”
After nearly a decade of having her creativity dictated by others, tapping into this freedom was like uncorking a bottle. “I was a grown person who had never been able to say ‘I want to wear what I want to wear,’” she said. “So I just started doing what felt good. I had been rejected so much, I didn’t care if people got it. I just needed to get it out.”
While she received critical acclaim, there was a slight backhanded element to the praise for her post-girl group career. “It made me feel like maybe Danity Kane was a joke — like everything that I had done before had been seen as some bubble gum thing, and now I’m a legitimate artist,” she said. “I was mind boggled by that because I hadn’t changed anything; I just literally got an opportunity to write more.”
Over the next few years she worked incessantly on full-length records, loose singles, feature appearances, remixes and ornate music videos — most of it self-funded, which made it even more disappointing if it didn’t make the impact she had hoped for. Drained, Richard decamped to New Orleans for an extended period for the first time since she’d moved away. There, she reacquainted herself with the city’s creative rhythms, which had changed dramatically post-Katrina, and settled on translating that into her music. (Instead of dialing down her production values, she covertly audited a finance class at the University of New Orleans to better manage her funds.)
“You can take people outside of New Orleans, but you can’t take New Orleans out of them; no matter where we are, the culture lives inside of us,” said the jazz musician Trombone Shorty, who’s known Richard since childhood. “She wanted to add her taste and her style to what we already have here and move it forward, while at the same time respecting the culture and where it comes from.”