Katy B: On a Mission – review

Katy B sprang to fame as a guest singer, but now she's a force in her own right, reckons Alexis Petridis

Commercial dance music isn't often a hive of longevity, but no one enjoys a career as brief as the featured vocalist. They're the expendables of pop, the singer or rapper plucked from the shadows by a producer, heading straight back to those shadows once their single starts to slide down the charts. Sometimes, that's understandable. With the greatest of respect to erstwhile Groove Armada collaborator Grandma Funk, if your big thing is saying, "I see you baby, shakin' that ass," in an American accent, then once you've made a record on which you say, "I see you baby, shakin' that ass," in an American accent, it's hard to see where exactly you can take your unique talent next: it seems unlikely that, say, Radiohead are going to avail themselves of your services. More often, it's no reflection at all on the featured singer's vocal abilities – the kind of leather-lunged diva called on by dance producers can invariably sing up a storm – yet somehow the solo singles never quite click and the debut album never comes. Admittedly, that's not always the way, but for every Craig David, there's a million Mad Stuntmen, residing in the "Where are they now?" file, regarded with a mystified and-you-are? frown even by the bloke from Stiltskin and the members of Doctor and the Medics: MC Mikee Freedom, Ya Kid K, Elroy "Spoonface" Powell, Maya – the latter briefly famous for using Tamperer's single Feel It to pose that most imponderable of questions: "What's she gonna look like with a chimney on her?"

Clearly it requires something more than vocal talent and looks to escape the fate of the featured vocalist, and whatever it is, 21-year-old Kathleen Bryan appears to have it. She began life as Baby Katy, guesting on DJ NG's Ministry of Sound-released single Tell Me (What It Is), yet seems to have ended up as a pop star in her own right as Katy B. Her debut solo single, Katy on a Mission, reached No 5; its followup, Lights Out, went one place better. Not only has she been able to make a debut album, but expectations of it are high, not least because of the way Katy on a Mission succeeded in finding the middle-ground between dubstep credibility – it was produced by scene stalwart Benga, released by the label offshoot of hugely respected pirate station Rinse FM – and massive chart success. It turned out all you needed to do was stick an immense, undeniable pop song over the top of the half-speed beats and wobbling bass after all.

It isn't being deliberately contrary, or intended as any kind of slight, to suggest the something more Bryan has is ordinariness. She's pretty rather than gossip-mag glamorous, and on her debut album she scrupulously avoids the kind of melismatic over-singing that is the female pop star's usual lot in a post-TV talent show world: the inevitable ballad, Go Away, isn't much cop, but at least you can't imagine her doing those I-really-mean-this hand gestures that people do on X Factor. It all fits perfectly with the music she makes, which, almost uniquely for pop music about clubbing, sounds like the work of someone's who's actually been to a club. Lights On finds her still dancing among an ever-dwindling crowd: "Some others at the cloakroom/ Some others out the door." Katy on a Mission is a song about seeking anonymity in front of the big speakers: "I sink into the tune," she sings, perfectly capturing what you might call the lost-in-the-moment-moment, the communal disembodiment of the dancefloor.

Her restraint seems to rub off on the producers she has worked with, including Benga, Geeneu and DJ Zinc. They use the stylistic traits of dubstep and funky house subtly: a lurch from four-to-the-floor house pounding to hiccupping, half-speed breakbeats here, a burst of weird, spacey echo there. It's all in service of the song, rather than to force a point about their respective genre, which on a pop record is exactly how it should be. Yet it doesn't feel like a pop record with a load of hip dance music references awkwardly bolted on. Witches Brew and Broken Record seem to have arrived at their own sui generis point – actually closer to early 90s breakbeat hardcore than anything else – organically, rather than as a result of market research. Nothing about it appears forced.

That's perhaps because Witches Brew and Broken Record are, like most of what's here, fantastic pop songs: hook-laden, melodically rich and crisply written, they don't hang about. In fact, the only thing that does is the closing Hard to Get, which features Katy B thanking everybody; after a while, you suspect even the most verbose Oscar winner would tell her to get on with it. It's the kind of thing you might do if you thought your fame might be as fleeting as that of most featured vocalists, that this was your only chance. Rather cheeringly, Katy on a Mission suggests that won't be the case at all.


Alexis Petridis

The GuardianTramp

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