Katy B - Little Red
If Katy B were a house - which I’m reliably informed she isn’t - the nurturing foundations would have been built by Rinse (with décor provided by the former’s Lawrence Llewellyn Bowen equivalent Geeneus), whilst the roof would come courtesy of Columbia.
Now that right there, is a crap metaphor for her creative and commercial artistic habitat, but it nonetheless neatly sums up the split-focus that has previously made Kathleen Brian such a revitalising figurehead thus far in the 10s. It also provides a suitable target for the necessary finger-pointing, the site of a schism which sends a debilitating echo throughout Little Red.
Rinse are intrinsically attached to Katy B as nurturers, influencers, promoters and collaborators, the connection developed to such an extent that it’s almost certainly what’s helped elevate her to a plateau of critical success and underground credibility. The Columbia effect meanwhile, taps into her pop qualities: her melodic sensibilities and the strength of her vocals acting as the glue which fuses this distinctive production with ever-increasing commercial success.
On her debut On A Mission the benefits of such a fusion were patent, laid out by a series of increasingly stellar singles. This time round though, the half-life of the pairing is diminished substantially, with the record’s particular downfall being the self-defeating attempt to satisfy two very different masters.
When this split focus does combine, it can do so to truly spectacular effect. Lead single ‘5AM’ and 2012’s ‘Aaliyah’ ranking as some of her finest work yet, hefty slabs of nuanced enormity armed with GM earworms for choruses. On both, there’s an emphasis on love within the club and without, a theme which dominates mind and body on Little Red.
There have of course been so many songs about “the club”, that even referring to it through the speech-mark armour of protective cynicism is as sticky, worn and shame-laden as an SU dance-floor. This is Katy B’s domain though: no one captures the weird, timeless, awkward out-of-body euphoric disappointment of love in a hopeless place in their lyricism like her. On ‘5AM’ in particular, she’s once again a documentarian of these specific sights and sounds. She’s a connoisseur of the clichés (“‘That beat’s so sick / This tune’s so ill’”); the speculative and misread glances across the room; the underlying desire for a connection and that crushing loneliness when you leave for the morning alone.
To reach the point of the word-splurge you’ve just waded through, the heights of perspective Katy B can reach is exactly why the all-too-frequent moments where she fumbles her ball-juggling is all the more deflating. When the insipid ‘Crying For No Reason’, dishwater ‘Still’ and off-kilter irritation of Sampha duet ‘Play’ arrive, the impact on the whole is an inordinately unsettling domino-effect. Ill-fitting or wonky production knocks into her vocal-delivery and renders it forced, the focus the latter draws resulting in undue attention to the smears of half-baked lyrics which find a home in the latter half of the record. There’s even a song called ‘Emotions’.
What compounds the frustration of this quality control topsy-turvy is that some of the best songs on the record - especially in terms of production - are to be unearthed in amongst the Deluxe Edition bonus-tracks. Though there’s a sense of Little Red being a concept record hooked around the rise-and-fall of a relationship, casting aside the likes ‘Blue Eyes’ in order to preserve such a limp narrative seems an oversight in the least, whilst the prevalence of blandly conventional pop songs smacks of typically circumspect major-label decision-making.
The result of this enforcement of a template upon an artist who made her name by defining an immensely highly influential new one, is to set your memory banks into a self-preserving state of immediate amnesia. Katy B’s firm grip on the leash of your attention-span is undone: streaks of vibrant red dulled by beige.