There is a crew of cool people in the UK who are gaining mainstream popularity within the genre that is lately being described with any combination of the terms electro-soul/R&B/garage/dance-pop, etc. It’s a type of melodic, hook-heavy electronic/dance music that, until recently, had the sort of ‘90s-techno cheese factor that gets banished to the last 30 seconds of a Sex and the City episode.
However, new acts like Disclosure, along with their collaborators and contemporaries like Jessie Ware, Sam Smith, AlunaGeorge, and Sampha, are giving this style of dance-pop a fresher, hipper edge. Katy B, with her debut On a Mission, did a lot to popularize this sound, and continues to develop it on her new record Little Red.
As Disclosure did expertly with Settle, Katy B uses Little Red to address the thought I always have around 2AM before I invariably ditch my PBR and “Irish Goodbye” out of Glasslands, which is: “I’ve been dancing to this same beat for 20 minutes, why don’t they put LYRICS somewhere in here?!” The sound is heavily electronic and definitely scored for the late-night dance floor, but Katy B smartly pays enough attention to lyricism and melodic construction that it holds up as a straight pop record as well. “Everything” and “Crying For No Reason” are the best examples: both have huge, catchy choruses that warrant repeat listens, and importantly show off Katy B’s impressive range.
The album itself is called Little Red, and throughout the songs are many other splashes of color within the lyrics – “green envy,” “sapphire blue,” “emerald green,” and so on. This intrigued me on the first listen, as I thought about this article noting the frequency of synesthesia in modern pop musicians. Katy B actually addressed this in an interview for The Quietus, stating that she does not have synesthesia and thus putting a halt on my budding theory. Nonetheless, the colorful imagery adds vividness and warmth throughout the record – a nice contrast to the sound, which as dance music can be inherently distant and impersonal.
Likewise, as I approached the album I wondered how Katy B, as a burgeoning lady pop star, would fit ballads into her sound. Trained in the Mariah school of diva-hood, I am of the opinion that every self-aware diva needs 2-3 power ballads per album. Katy B’s style, full of propulsive beats and thumping bass, initially doesn’t seem adaptable to slower tempos. Interestingly though, she doesn’t ditch the electronics for the ballads on Little Red, but instead fits the slower melodies on tracks like “Crying For No Reason” and “Emotions” within her dance-ready framework. This is probably the most impressive aspect of Little Red, as Katy B seems to be positioning herself as a full fledged pop star, the more down-tempo jams are where her uniqueness as an artist manifests the best.
Is Katy B going to be a super diva? Right now it’s a tough call and I think will become clearer with the success of future singles, or even her next move after Little Red. Truthfully, she is totally outshined by the much more distinctive sounding Jessie Ware on their duet “Aaliyah.” Little Red is a strong album with some really great moments, but a few filler songs stop it short of excellence. Overall though, Katy B deserves recognition for being an early adopter of the new electro-soul sound, and for making an electronic album that crosses over into the pop world so easily.