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.
The evidence is written all over Little Red, a dozen tracks doused in reverb and peppered with vocal acrobatics, which picks up largely where On a Mission left off. Yet, there is a sense of stagnation to Katy B’s sophomore effort. Stylistically, little has changed. Any personal growth is funneled into “heavier” song themes and a stronger emphasis on emotion, which borders on maudlin. It’s not particularly dance floor fodder, but Katy B’s impressive pipes and an onslaught of synthesizers are able to endow anything with a slight pulse enough energy for a mild shuffle. “Crying For No Reason” is the epitome of this new direction. Alternatively candid and cliché, the track attempts to bring emotional baggage to the club with varying results. In lower states, it resonates with a weak sense of commiseration, yet anything above melancholia reveals it as failed emoting riding the coattails of a Céline Dion-caliber vocal performance. In short, the more mature Katy B is weighed down by the heftier feelings she tries to wrangle with, and rather boring as a result.
There are bright spots, however. “5 AM” is good fun, repurposing the tired trope of love as a drug for the millionth time, but making it work nonetheless. “I need somebody to calm me down / A little loving like Valium,” she sings, sounding trite on paper, but becoming anthemic with each repetition. This process is a common trend on Little Red, in which Katy B’s voice does the heavy lifting for enervated and often limp lyrics. The exception is “Aaliyah,” a Jessie Ware-assisted gem straight out of 2012 that somehow made it on to the album and manages to support much of the remaining songs upon its robust concept and efficient lyrics.
“Play,” a mid-tempo cut from the latter half of the album, gets little mileage out of its duet with Sampha. The soulful crooner undercuts his own vocal strengths via the production, a twinkling mess serving primarily as a compromise between a slow jam and the melodies that play to Katy B’s strengths. Ultimately, no one wins: Sampha’s mellifluous tones get torn up by the stardust shards, and Katy B sounds shrill by comparison.
Oddly enough, the bonus tracks on Little Red pack a greater punch than much of what actually made it onto the record. Cuts such as “Hot Like Fire,” “Wicked Love,” and “Sky’s The Limit” have stronger rhythms than the majority of the album proper, and their sheer vitality allows them to succeed in spite of their prosaic concepts. At the very least they deserved inclusion over the likes of “Tumbling Down” (a forgettable mid-album excuse to buy a drink), “Everything” (a subsequent pretext to purchase another drink), and “Sapphire Blue” (a low-energy ballad that glows with none of the jewel tones it invokes).
Little Red was in dire need of new tricks that never manifested themselves. While Katy B possesses formidable vocal prowess, a larger miracle is needed to save the stale songwriting and tedious themes that pervade much of her second LP. If she can tap back into the pure experience of the club, forego the syrupy emotion, and express herself more eloquently, then her next album will be something to look forward to. For now, Little Red stands as an example of what happens when the zeitgeist leaves you behind. C