Picture the hunter: With one hand on an antenna and the other wobbling the dial, the hunter paces around the room, pausing now by the window, now in the bathroom, wherever the signal seems strongest. The hunter is looking for a new kind of music — music that radio doesn’t play. The trail leads in between official stations, into the lawless bandwidths, straight to pirate radio.
Any history of the UK music scene since the turn of the millennium (and Kathleen Brien is an important character in that history) has to include pirate radio. Most urban centers hide some of these rogue broadcasters, of course, but the relative weakness of their signals (too strong and the authorities will come knocking) means that they tend to flourish among denser populations. In London in the aughts, before streaming services but after globalization, these pirates became a musical force: grime, dub, and the vague catch-all genre called “UK garage” blossomed and infiltrated first the clubs and then the mainstream. Some stations, like Kiss and Rinse FM, became so popular that they sought official licensing. And practically the moment that Rinse FM went straight, one of their favorite artists, a 21-year-old calling herself Katy B, shot to the top of the UK charts.
The success of her excellent first album On A Mission opened commercial avenues for other underground artists like Rudimental and Disclosure, who went even further, crossing the Atlantic to scale the American Billboards. When Katy B released her strong sophomore LP Little Red, she seemed certain to do the same. And then she didn’t.
Perhaps it’s because Katy B looks like a normal young woman, while Americans prefer to hear dance music from the mouths of pubescent fantasy. Or perhaps there are elements of London club culture that don’t translate for a country as dispersed and diverse as the States. Or perhaps her catchy dancehall dramas weren’t quite catchy enough for audiences accustomed to the earworms of Max Martin and Ester Dean. Whatever the reason, Katy B seems determined to invade foreign markets, and for her third album, Honey, she’s called in reinforcements.
The most likely candidate for world domination is “Who Am I”, the album’s second track, featuring Craig David and produced by heavyweight hitmakers Major Lazer. The euphoria of the beat is pure sugar, and an unmistakable indication that Katy B is inching into a new, more commercial direction. But her appeal was never just her unusual sounds; here, the darkness of the lyrics, the feeling that you’re watching the singer’s self-esteem go into a nosedive, adds weight to what sounds, at first blush, like disposable fluff.
The opening title track, produced by KAYTRANADA, is a sip of silky R&B and another lottery ticket for mainstream success. The prospective hits are front-loaded, and not necessarily the best tracks. Honey is the rare album that gains momentum as it goes, peaking late in the second half with “Dark Delirium” and “Water Rising”. The former is the best pure dance track of the LP, a smasher made all the more powerful by its descriptions of an unhealthy relationship with a lover who is definitely manipulative and possibly even abusive. The way that Katy B blends fun songs with serious subjects is reminiscent of all-time dance great Robyn, and on tracks like “Heavy”, she captures some of that legend’s swagger.
But the emotional climax of the album is “Water Rising”. In a lesser artist’s hands, this might have been a dreary mid-tempo ballad, but here it’s turned into something that is no less gorgeous for being bizarre, and no less majestic for making a breakup sound like the apocalypse. Coming as it does at the end of a long night of love, lust, and self-doubt drowned in drinks, it’s easy to imagine a character with smeared mascara, leaning against the wall of the bar, holding her jacket and a cigarette and waiting for the world to end. After all, this is Katy B’s great talent: miniaturization, shrinking all the drama of the human experience down to the size of an underground club. Katy B is a master of capturing that oceanic feeling when individuality melts away, and every soul rises and falls together on the wave of the beat.
Essential Tracks: “Water Rising”, “Dark Delirium”, and “I Wanna Be”