BRIT School product Kathleen Brian, better known as Katy B, rocketed to UK stardom in 2010 with a series of three straight Top 10 singles — “Katy on a Mission,” “Lights On,” and “Broken Record” — that inhabited a sleek, stylish middle ground between contemporary vocal pop and the preceding decade of UK dance trends. A successful debut studio album, On a Mission, followed in April 2011, and found Katy and collaborators like producers Geeneus and DJ Zinc continuing to explore the marriage of underground club sounds and chart-friendly melodies and structure. It was pop music imagined for a near-future hip boutique: cool, clean, relentlessly hooky, and compulsively danceable.
An Olympic collaboration with Mark Ronson and Coca-Cola (“Anywhere in the World”) and a solid free stopgap EP (2012’s Danger) filled in the blanks between On a Mission and new album Little Red, out Tuesday on Sony/Columbia. It’s almost immediately clear that Katy’s vision and style haven’t decayed a bit in the three years since her debut: Little Red is both a refinement of the sound that led her to stardom and a collection of subtle steps in new directions. The album’s list of collaborators serves as proof positive that Katy’s greatest asset is her taste, as she strikes a neat balance between old friends (Geeneus), British pop contemporaries (steely diva Jessie Ware, rising electro-soul talent Sampha), and sharp producers (George FitzGerald, Jacques Greene).
Its best songs explicitly grapple with the concept of control, whether it’s how we lose it — weakness of the heart, a romantic rival, getting struck by the perfect beat — or the steps we take to regain the upper hand. The grappling typically takes place in the context of the club, a setting that’s transformed by Katy’s nimble hand into a combination of battleground and bacchanal. On single “5 AM,” she loses her friends and longs for a lover as night starts to creep into morning; the script is flipped on lead-off track “Next Thing,” where she navigates the dancefloor like a veteran, handing out tips and demanding attention. The success of these songs hinges on her versatility as a vocalist and personality: she can play both cool, composed club queen and steaming, emotionally overwhelmed diva as if they’re natural states.
That versatility shines in Little Red’s two duets, both of which are highlights. The grand “Aaliyah,” a Jessie Ware collaboration held over from the Danger EP on the merits of heavy British radio airplay, evokes the influential late R&B star’s name to represent a transfixing, tricky night-time rival: “Aaliyah, please, this is green envy / Why must you taunt me, girl?” Katy’s seething pleading contrasts nicely with Ware’s ultra-cool, mannered take, but it doesn’t matter — neither approach keeps Aaliyah from entrancing the DJ. The sparkling, sighing “Play,” featuring Sampha, strikes a happier note: it’s a love song couched in musical terms, stuffed full of charming cues and bright, technicolor synths. (Katy sings, “The pitch shifts,” and her voice is warped into another realm; on “A hundred harmonies,” she melts into a handful of voices combining to produce a lovely little descending run.) In a way, the successes of the duets refutes the ideas about control expressed elsewhere on the album: Katy might need to hold the upper hand in the club, but sharing the spotlight here elevates her to new heights.
And while much of Little Red’s action does take place on the dancefloor, proof that Katy’s comfortable stepping outside of that context lies in the album’s finest moment, the sweeping torch ballad “Crying for No Reason.” An ace display of vulnerability and vocal power, it’s a song that’d fit in nicely on an Adele record, a testament to its strength — you want to hear it rendered by music’s great emoters, its powerhouse vocalists, its ultimate divas. Katy tackles the challenge with aplomb.
Little Red does soften through its middle stretch, where a handful of tracks that are pleasant and competent on their own start to blur together; given the way the album is front-loaded with advance singles and candidates for future release, it’s not surprising that something had to give. But the relatively weak sequence does little to detract from the album’s strength at its beginning and end, or the overall impression it makes. Nearly a half-decade has passed since Katy’s debut on the charts, but she hasn’t been dragged back to the present: this is dance-pop that’s a step ahead of the curve, and she’s showing no signs of slowing.