Katy B’s Little Red is a snapshot of an era of optimism in UK dance music
Original release date: 7 February 2014
There’s a magical period at the start of many artists careers where their lived experiences are almost identical to that of their audience. Noel Gallagher felt things started to go awry for Oasis once the millions stacked up after Knebworth and the band’s lives became intrinsically different from those of the people at their gigs. Mike Skinner went down the route of a concept album after his life became more about VIP parties and trying to pull pop stars than relatable topics, like blim burning your favourite trackies and buying Mars bars at the 24-hour garage.
It’s precisely this predicament that Kathleen Anne Brien faced as she steeled herself to release Little Red, the 2014 follow-up to her cherished 2011 debut On a Mission. The former saw the BRIT School alum give underground sounds like UK funky and dubstep a pop sheen, pairing them with lyrics that firmly centred Brien as the everywoman at the dance. Three years and one hugely successful album later, that image wasn’t quite as convincing. “I still want to be the girl who goes raving with her friends,” the pop star protested in the Observer on the eve of Little Red’s release. “But my manager’s like, ‘You can’t go to Brixton McDonald’s at four o’clock in the morning anymore!’”
Attempting to construct a seemingly mature persona with Little Red, Brien took something of a one-foot-in, one-foot-out approach. Look closer at the credits and there are appearances from Rinse FM head Geeneus (who’d produced much of On a Mission) plus names like George Fitzgerald, Jacques Greene and Route 94 – producers who were all riding a high at the time, creating an updated house sound that catered to the bassheads.
But alongside those names you’ll find writing credits for Guy Chambers, the songwriting behemoth who’d masterminded Robbie Williams’ transition from boyband member to solo artist in the late 90s. The Chambers-penned Crying for No Reason could easily be a cut from an Adele album, an out-and-out piano ballad with lyrics about crushing inner demons (plus a smattering of rave-y signifiers to keep the whole thing from careening off-brand).
You can’t blame Brien for wanting to broaden her audience. After all, she’d paved the way for acts like Disclosure and Rudimental – acts who were fast-becoming festival headliners with unashamedly commercial takes on underground sounds. Still, the album’s best moments, perhaps inevitably, are when Katy reverts to her rave roots. 5AM finds Brien searching for a lover on the dancefloor once the lights have come up, while Aaliyah sees Brien team up with Jessie Ware for a modern-day version of Jolene.
Musically, the album’s an apt snapshot of where UK pop culture was in the early to mid-2010s. Opening track Next Thing bears more than a passing resemblance to Azari & III’s Reckless With Your Love, one of the biggest crossover house tracks of the era, while the Joker-produced All My Lovin’ shows how dubstep had been fully co-opted by the mainstream. Looking back now, the mid-2010s feels like a period of great optimism for British dance music. A time when genre boundaries were becoming increasingly blurred, and DJs and producers who had put in the years on pirate radio and basement raves were getting their dues with commercial success. Even the prospect of blowing up in America started to seem like a real possibility.
And though tracks like Aaliyah and the Sampha-assisted Play didn’t quite catapult Brien to the level of superstardom that they seemed engineered to do, the album’s lack of ubiquity makes it much more enjoyable to revisit than albums by some of her contemporaries, whose music became inescapable during that period.
Last year, the tenth anniversary of On a Mission elicited waves of social media nostalgia as Brien returned with the EP, Peace and Offerings, a sophisticated take on R&B, just as accomplished as anything being offered up by the UK’s current crop of neo-soul artists. Finally finding the voice she had been searching for on Little Red, maybe, back in 2014, Katy B was fine hanging with her mates in Brixton McDonald’s after all.