Kathleen Anne Brien, aka Mercury-nominated Katy B, has had compliments by the truckload bestowed upon second album, Little Red. Almost three years in the making and festooned with proclamations that suggest it is destined for nothing less than ‘instant classic’ status, the album arrives with ludicrously high expectations pinned on. The London singer and BRIT School alum, through no fault of her own, stands in danger of being buried alive in hype.
There’s no denying that Brien has a great voice. Like Jessie Ware, the underrated Py, and Aluna Francis, she has a fantastic set of R&B pipes; Brien, with ease, can flip from intense emotional balladry to dancefloor bait at the flick of a switch. Her voice’s power and sense of honesty is unrivalled in UK pop, channelling the ghosts of ’90s dance/R&B/soul icons – people liken her with Aaliyah, for more than the obvious reason. She doesn’t sound like she’s singing for her supper, á la Jessie J or Ellie Goulding, but rather to get deep-rooted pains into the real world.
Aaliyah, the song, featuring Jessie Ware, is pretty bangin’. Sultry, lilting synths and future-garage digi-blips commingle with house-pop glitz. The gorgeous vocal work dominates the track, fleshing out the relative hollowness of the ’90s throwback noise; Jessie Ware is particularly on form, a quivering, gasping darkness slotted inbetween Brien’s flighty pop sounds.
5AM is another cut well worth a mention: acting as the OST to a delirious afterparty, or the drunken trek home, heels clutched in hand. It’s a gargantuan dream-dance number chock-full of hooks and euphoric chorus: “I need someone to calm me down/ a little loving like valium/ I need somebody to knock me out.” It’s a morbid tale though, of despair, loneliness, desperation, fear and addiction. Not what you’d expect in a nightclub environment – from the music, anyway.
I Like You is a joy, a dancefloor classic of its kind whose latter half ramps up the synths to an intoxicating, throbbing finish that’s not just hookladen but, in its knowing innocence, fun with it, while recent Guy Chambers-produced single Crying For No Reason stakes a claim to a sizeable patch of pop world beyond the disco by underlining her ballad chops, without breaking the album’s electro aesthetic. It also demonstrates that Katy B is not all about assembling a production line of producers and writers; here is melody, holding its own in the mix.
Sampha‘s addition is… okay. It’s a bit like Drake doing grime, some edge, some feelings are shared, but ultimately, trying too hard to sound like no effort is exerted. And as the only moment on the album where a male voice is heard, it’s jarring on first listen. It just needs a bit more seasoning – something to lift it off the flat. This song makes it sound a little like Brien is guesting on her own album, a mouth-for-hire as opposed to the leading artist.
The tracks for the most part blend seamlessly into each other, a la Madonna‘s Confessions On A Dance Floor, a little like one long DJ mix. As such, Little Red is clearly bound for the discotheque. Amongst the stainless-steel beats and chrome-plated hooks, Brien’s vocals drift endlessly, intoxicated by emotion. They don’t always dissolve into the rest of the music, and the result is in places perilously close to a kind of crooked, soulless corporate-dance vibe. While her debut On A Mission was a bold hashing-together of genres, equal parts R&B-feels and electro bombast, Little Red rides a comparatively low tidal ebb. But there’s more than enough here to suggest Katy B will be bringing the tunes a while yet.