On “Aaliyah,” a fizzy collaboration with Jessie Ware, Katy B offered up a succinct summation of her subdued appeal: “As the beat rolls on/ I watch from afar/ and watch you sing along,” she breathes. The 24-year-old singer and UK basshead born Kathleen Anne Brien can sound like she’s at a calm remove, positioning herself quietly in the dark corner of a club and making keen observations about what she sees from her perch. She has a near-spectral presence on songs like “Why You Always Here,” from her debut record, where she communicates in icy, contemplative whispers: “Why do you persist to possess my kiss when she’s the one your heart beats for?” she asks.
But her sophomore record Little Red finds her easing ever-so-gently to the center of her world to confront her ghosts and objects of lust head-on. She confesses her unhealthy crushes using the second person, invites lovers into her heart and confidently admits to failure. Part of the openness and directness comes from a shift in production — she’s added a couple of new names into the mix (R&B vocal sample virtuoso Jacques Greene and grime’s Joker, to name a couple) and carved out breathing room in her typically dense dance arrangements. Now she feels less like an R&B singer sprung from the ashes of house, garage and dubstep and more like simply an R&B singer.
It’s a slick listen, particularly songs like “Tumbling Down” or “Play”, a shimmering, retro-leaning collaboration with Sampha. Still, fans of On a Mission will find that Little Red feels familiar — she’s been able to stretch her limbs a bit without sacrificing her unique brand of pop. She’s still one of the best at adding groove to pain without cheapening it, and infusing the beat with longing without dampening its impact on the dance floor: “Too many nights I stayed awake until the dawn,” she sings over a traditional house beat on “I Like You,” before adding: “Seems I’ve always got my mind and my heart torn.” Little Red shows that Katy is as effective watching from the sidelines as she is standing center stage.