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 Little Red, though, Katy pares down the dubstep-rinsed production of her 2011 debut On a Mission and achieves a more personal resonance. And even if they don’t start in the same spot, these songs do end in similar places, which would make it a too-selfsame album if we weren’t dealing with a surplus of replayable pop power moves.
Though she’s not a regular target of American gossip sites, Katy already has the vocal poise and charisma of a transatlantic pop star. However, she’s more of a spongy, studious type than she is an of-the-moment hook heroine. Witness the Jessie Ware collab here, the electro-house dart “Aaliyah”, which uses the late R&B siren as a yardstick of club dominance. Like Dolly Parton’s 1973 “Jolene”, it’s a song of both reverence and envy for a somehow superior woman (“Why do you taunt me, girl?” is the refrain). Accordingly, even though it has some of the temperament of the usual head-rush pop album, Little Red is rooted in feelings of longing and separation. “A little loving like Valium/ I need somebody to knock me out,” Katy sings on lead single “5AM”. Those lines are almost flagrantly unoriginal — 2013 had Justin Timberlake’s “Pusher Love Girl” and 2010 had Ke$ha’s “Your Love Is My Drug”, to say nothing of previous decades’ love-as-narcotic lyricism — but as is often the case with Little Red, it’s hard to sweat the details when you can instead marvel at the HD spotlessness filling the rest of the screen.
Because, be assured: Whether or not sales ever reach six figures stateside, this is a milestone album for U.K. bass music. As with On a Mission, Katy ropes in songwriters like London’s Guy Chambers and The Invisible Men to go along with producers like Geeneus (he of the London-based pirate radio station Rinse FM). These are powerful names, especially so in the United Kingdom, and the album wouldn’t have its like-a-million-pounds sound and flawless inner mechanics without them. That’s not to say it’s never majestic to a fault: Fifth track “I Like You” is practically its own city, but if every song here were like it, Katy would be headed for whatshername status. Luckily, Little Red doesn’t need to deviate much from its own mold to shine, as is evident when the blippy, twitchy “Hot Like Fire” reinvigorates the album in its closing stretch.
The album has its share of clumsy and dull lyrics (see pretty much all of “5AM”), but Katy tends to sound unstoppable. She’s a graduate of the BRIT School — also the former stomping grounds of Adele, Amy Winehouse, and Leona Lewis — and her vocal acumen is next to, uh, seemingly no one that didn’t attend the institution. Just as the first atomic bomb was kind of sarcastically called Little Boy, Little Red, presumably Katy’s oldest nickname, is a knockout taking cues from Whitney Houston’s eternal wing-flapping. The piano ballad “Crying for No Reason”, which rivals the emotional scope of Florence and the Machine’s “Shake It Out”, sweeps and soars thanks more to Katy’s vocal than the arrangement (though it is infinitely better for the crystallized production). It, in short, makes plain that we shouldn’t be ID’ing Katy as an underdog. What she’s given us, here, is an album that sustains the energy of the party while prioritizing the real, complicated human feelings in the middle of it all. It’s quite something.
Essential Tracks: “Aaliyah” (feat. Jessie Ware), “Crying for No Reason”, and “Hot Like Fire”