Release Date: Feb 3, 2014
Record label: Columbia
Genre(s): Electronic, Club/Dance
An immediacy and fluidity lie deep within the DNA of Katy B’s Little Red, the follow up to 2011?s On A Mission. Across a clutch of edgy and brilliantly radio-friendly cuts that raise the bar for UK pop, the record succinctly captures the essence, talent and appeal of the 24-year old South London-born Kathleen Brien. Her debut was a fun but messy take on dance-floor politics – the thrill, danger and joy that litter the living-for-the-weekend lifestyle – and it came authenticated by her savvy club credibility and academic empathy (BRIT School/Goldsmiths).
Katy Brien has the kind of street cred most pop stars could only dream of. Brought up on Rinse FM and introduced to the world through brilliant Geeneus tracks like "As I," she was sent to the pop charts with shipping-and-handling care of the UK's dance music underground. Her 2011 debut, On A Mission, was an ambitious attempt to reach the top of the charts, which mostly worked, despite a few clunkers.
In a just world, Katy B's 2011 debut – a tightly paced sequence of ecstatic pop hooks and state-of-the-art club wobbles – would have made the London singer a first-rank star in the States. It didn't come close, but that's no reason to ignore her equally lovable follow-up. Little Red showcases her vivid R&B songwriting over chic, chilly electro beats, from the aching "Jolene" reboot "Aaliyah" (co-starring fellow U.K.
With the Mercury nominee’s soundbites about ‘Little Red’ all hinting towards the M word – maturity – and growing up, it’s a relief to find that Katy B meant it literally: songs about being twenty-three instead of about being eighteen. Yes, it seems Kathleen Anne Brien has gone from being on a mission to having something of a quarter-life crisis, and facing, in her own words, “those questions you ask of yourself as an adult”. As a result, ‘Little Red’ is an extension of and also natural progression from her 2011 debut, a record that felt authentic, not just because Katy’s prior guest vocalist credentials on the club scene meant its dabbling in UK garage, funky, dubstep and R&B came off as the real deal, but because it was written from her life as she lived it.
It shouldn’t matter on a dance record, but because Peckham’s tough-girl diva has gone more personal and a bit darker for her second album it has, alas, become an actual problem: Katy B writes some bloody awful lyrics. Giving her the benefit of the doubt, Little Red, the long-coming follow up to the mercury nominated On A Mission, has songwriting input from classy populist and serial Robbie Williams collaborator Guy Chambers, and we don’t know where his hand was at play. That said, you can’t quite see him churning out “I like champagne but you don’t like the taste/ So I drink yours so it won’t go to waste” on bonus track ‘Blue Eyes’, nor indeed ”My feet won’t stop, I can’t keep still/rock it 'til the morning light/ that beat so sick, that tune so ill” on post-party anthem ‘5am’.
In the grand narrative of post-millenial British pop, Katy B is a crucial plot point. London’s culture of pirate radio stations has produced some of the world’s most vital music over this period, but those scenes—be it garage, grime, dubstep, or funky house—inevitably faced the glass ceiling that is the country’s pop charts. To be sure, tracks from the underground did eventually hit big: garage architect Artful Dodger scored massive pop hits with Craig David, while Dizzee Rascal and Wiley did the same for grime.
Katy B is in the company of Adele, Florence Welch, and Jessie Ware for her bionic vocal capabilities, but unlike those other English singers, it’s relatively hard to ID Katy on a musical level. The 24-year-old, lava-haired South Londoner has been grouped with way too many dance music subgenres to keep track of, the moral being that your typical Katy B song is part of a package deal rather than some fleeting, fizzy truffle. Disclosure didn’t enlist her for Settle like they did her peers Ware and AlunaGeorge, but it’s easy to imagine Katy making an appearance; few voices are so suited to the dreamy kind of succinctness that defined that excellent album’s vocal work.
On a Mission was eagerly anticipated and didn't disappoint. A creative synthesis of underground club sounds and pop, fronted by a seriously skilled and charismatic singer and songwriter who detailed scenes relatable to her generation, it was glowingly reviewed and almost topped the U.K. chart. Almost three years later, Katy B follows it with another intense set that features another round of collaborations with producer Geeneus.
Eventually, Alice is going to have to go through the looking glass, but until then, the queen of hearts is still tending to her generous garden. Katy B's debut, On a Mission, was an endlessly rewarding adventure through clubland, with an easily pleased explorer at the center of its swirling collection of predominately Geeneus-produced genius. Her follow-up, Little Red, feels very much like a scene from a few hours later that same night, a little drunker, a little more emotionally volatile, maybe slightly more likely to either spill her needy guts out or just bounce to a pizza stand with her crew, depending on which cut the DJ cues up in the next few minutes.
Fame and success has a way of completely changing a person and their music. Justin Bieber and Miley Cyrus went off the rails, Shia LaBeouf isn’t even famous anymore, Kanye West has pushed the boundaries of what hip hop means and sounds like, and others, like Katy B, manage to not stray too far from their roots. With her second album, Little Red Katy B manages to produce an effort that has her sticking to her roots, the clubs of South and East London, garage, dubstep and brilliant production.
It’s safe to say that Kathleen Brien, commonly known as Katy B, has set the standard pretty high for herself. 2011’s On A Mission not only hailed the arrival of one of the UK’s most memorable and promising pop singers, it opened the door for a whole cadre of artists whose music revelled in a sophisticated electronic blueprint and brazen R&B roots (hello Jessie Ware and AlunaGeorge). In the three years that passed since the release of her debut, the BRIT school graduate and erstwhile underage raver had the ramifications of success as well as a markedly altered musical landscape to negotiate while developing her sophomore effort.
Pop music isn't normally as concerned with notions of authenticity as rock music usually is – with dues-paying, provenance and what you might mischievously call terroir. In Katy B, though, this theoretically disposable genre has a deeply authentic voice that comes with both a manor and a pedigree: south and east London clubland, funky house and a little drum'n'bass. She comes from somewhere and something, a bit like the early Madonna came from the New York night.
Back in July, when Kathleen Brien was adding what were supposed to be the finishing touches to her second album, she told the Guardian, revealingly: "I can't go out on the weekend and have my mum do the washing any more," adding that she had been "finding a way to stand on my own feet". If you detect an air of reluctance on her part at having to grow up, then recent comments only serve to reinforce that impression. "I still want to be the girl who goes raving with her friends," she told the Observer.
Are we all agreed – Katy B is our best pop star? She effortlessly links underground club music and Heart FM. She writes songs that you can hum in a voice that you recognise straight away with clever lyrics that put new twists on love, life and dancing. She set the stage for the current house revival, and quite possibly had the only ever real UK funky hit (‘Lights On’ is UK funky, right?).
opinion byJEAN-LUC MARSH In the three year span between On a Mission, Katy B’s debut album, and Little Red, her sophomore follow-up, the UK underground dance scene has exploded. The likes of Disclosure and Jessie Ware have been catapulted to ubiquity among anyone with a knowledge of music extending beyond a dilettante preoccupation with Top 40. Yet, Katy B, a prominent player during the transitional period, and a likely factor in its success, has fallen from the vanguard.