Available on: Rinse LP
It’s been faintly embarrassing watching a clueless mainstream media labelling Katy B as the “voice of dubstep”. Not just because ‘Katy On A Mission’ is an anomaly on her debut album, one of only two tracks at anything close to a dubstep tempo – but because the point of Katy B seems to be that she is not a figurehead for any particular style. As she has put it: “I don’t feel like I have to box myself into being ‘funky’ or ‘dubstep’ or whatever. What I love is anyone can come from anywhere, if someone’s got the sickest tune, it transcends all that other stuff and it just gets recognised, away from any other politics.” It’s an admirable stance – the antithesis of the dry debates and tedious genre wars that have too often dominated coverage of British dance music – and a distinctly feminine one. Fuck the boring nerdy boys rabbiting away online: let’s hit the floor and dance ’til the lights come up.
It’s an approach that will serve Katy B well in the future, given the traditionally rapid turnover rate of UK dance subgenres – and it pays off in practice now, too. Despite Katy B’s breakthrough coming with her vocal of a Benga dubstep instrumental, the idea of churning out a bunch of commercially safe ‘Katy On A Mission’ clones doesn’t seem to have occurred to her. It should surprise no one that the woman who first made her name singing on UK funky classics – Geeneus’ ‘As I’ and DJ NG’s ‘Tell Me’ – operates from a solid house base on her debut album, leavened with the occasional excursion into dubstep, drum’n’bass and rave, and topped with distinctly R’n’B-influenced vocals. In this context, ‘Katy On A Mission’ (which was always a better pop song than dubstep track) feels like a Trojan horse, riding a sound on the verge of crossover explosion all the way to pop triumph – before revealing how much more there is to Katy B.
Bar that anthem and a couple of Magnetic Man contributions – including their own hit ‘Perfect Stranger’ – On A Mission‘s production credits are divvied up between just two men, Geeneus and Zinc, who frame Katy’s airy vocals perfectly with a combination of depth, drama and lightness of touch. ‘Power On Me’ kicks proceedings off with an immaculate funky house groove; ‘Go Away’ turns the sluggishness of the dubstep tempo to good use as the foundations of a shimmering, languorous ballad; a wandering bassline and excellent trumpet work lend ‘Hard To Get’ an irresistibly smooth jazz bar vibe. Early ’90s jungle and rave is the guiding principle for On A Mission‘s most shameless dancefloor-ready moments – in particular, the memory of Baby D’s ‘Let Me Be Your Fantasy’ looms beneficently over ‘Broken Record’ and ‘Perfect Stranger’. And perhaps the best beat here is ‘Witches’ Brew’, with its hypnotic waves of synths giving way to an astonishingly effective broken beat breakdown.
What feels even more significant than her sound, though, is the way in which Katy B redresses the balance in a scene that’s long been producer-centric, privileging the figures behind the mixing desks and treating the vocalists up front as disposable and anonymous voices. She is unquestionably the star of the show here: the production’s light touch serves as much to get out of her way as an effective aesthetic strategy in its own right. Of course, it helps that she has a voice and personality that can sustain a whole album: warm, natural, the raver next door – but also with an alluring aloofness, a slight distance warning you not to get too over-familiar. Her forte is the way she manages to simultaneously ride the beat and sink into it: witness that moment in ‘Katy On A Mission’ as she delivers the line “keep up with me as we lose control” coolly and slowly even as she steps off the edge of the bass. It’s reminiscent of Ciara’s classic performance on 2005’s crunk classic ‘Oh’.
It’s a vocal approach that’s indicative of an artist who’s actually familiar with the real, lived clubbing experience – and on Katy B’s singles to date, this is what she has documented. (In this sense, she is also the antithesis to the try-hard up-in-the-club aesthetic otherwise dominating the pop charts, which always tends to come across like what a 15-year-old who’s never been inside a club would imagine they were like, based on too many repeat viewings of Jersey Shore.) Katy sings about the way the music punches you in the stomach, the encounters with strangers that are half-hostile and half-flirtatious, the way you lose yourself in the crowd and the music, the way being in motion on the dancefloor feels comfortable after a while, the dread in the back of your mind of the night ending, the next day when you keep reliving the best moments and just want to do it all over again. She does this with tangible, vivid detail – a level of craft which she retains as she expands her themes to love and relationships elsewhere on the album.
Katy B seems so natural and unforced that it’s strange to remember that she’s doing something that literally no one else is at the moment: personality-driven music with a distinctive feminine voice that’s deeply rooted in underground scenes, but whose blithe lack of concern for their phallocentrism erodes the self-imposed boundaries they set up. On A Mission feels like a significant landmark album for both British dance and British pop. Let’s hope, too, that her path to success paves a way forward for the many talented singers in the UK urban underground who have rarely seemed to receive their due, from Ny to Kyla to Tanya Valensi to Katie Pearl. Katy B may be a one-off for now, but she could be even more important as a trailblazer.