Mu­sic

Tune in to the best Bri­tish artist you’ve prob­a­bly never heard of

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At the close of Katy B’s third al­bum, Honey, the South Lon­don singer turns to ad­dress the lis­tener. “All I have is Lon­don streets, all I have is rhymes and beats,” she of­fers us on the pen­sive poem of an outro.

She’s just taken us on an ex­hil­a­rat­ing jour­ney through dance­floors and di­aries, from the eu­pho­ria of peak time to the emo­tional downs of nor­mal life, but it’s here that she sounds at her most vul­ner­a­ble.

“At least I have th­ese songs to sing – they might not seem like any­thing, but to me they are my truth,” she ex­plains, earnestly and slightly apolo­get­i­cally.

Kath­leen Brien is supremely mod­est about her own skills. Dur­ing the writ­ing of her al­bum last year, a chance view­ing of the film Dream­girls left her feel­ing as though, next to Bey­oncé and Jen­nifer Hud­son, she couldn’t even call her­self a singer. (The next day, in­spired, she laid down the hol­ler­ing vo­cal of Turn The

Mu­sic Louder, which be­came her first No 1 in Oc­to­ber.)

While record­ing the silk­ily swag­ger­ing third per­son ref­er­ence of Lose Your Head – “no one moves the crowd like Katy, no one does it like me” – she claims she was so em­bar­rassed she had to turn the stu­dio lights off. But in her deter­minedly ca­sual, down- to- earth way, Brien is ce­ment­ing her po­si­tion as one of the most unique and un­repli­ca­ble Bri­tish pop stars of her gen­er­a­tion.

She may de­scribe Honey as a pro­ject, rather than an al­bum – it was orig­i­nally con­ceived as an EP along the lines of the four-track free­bie Dan­ger in 2012 – but the 13- song col­lec­tion is per­haps Brien’s most for­mally am­bi­tious work yet.

Hith­erto, the bulk of her work has been in col­lab­o­ra­tion with Geeneus – the boss of Rinse FM, the leg­endary Lon­don pirate ra­dio sta­tion that went le­git in 2010, and the Tim­ba­land to her Aaliyah in terms of their pro­ducer-artist syn­chronic­ity. Honey, though, builds on Brien’s abil­ity to eas­ily bridge mu­si­cal di­vides – be­tween un­der­ground and main­stream, be­tween a plethora of dance sub­gen­res – to a log­i­cal end, bring­ing in a se­lec­tion of pro­duc­ers to cre­ate a tapestry of her ex­pe­ri­ences.

Club mu­sic in 2016 is in a pe­riod of flux and frag­men­ta­tion: the lo­calised scenes that nur­ture the chang­ing sub­gen­res that drive it re­main as healthy as ever, but glob­alised ease of ac­cess means that lis­ten­ers are si­mul­ta­ne­ously tap­ping into ev­ery­one else’s lo­cal scene. On Honey, Brien cu­rates her per­sonal favourites with a gal­lerist’s skill, ac­knowl­edg­ing both sides of the coin. From her home­town, she brings in its re­vived grime scene from dif­fer­ent di­rec­tions. Heavy Track­erz, the pro­duc­ers re­spon­si­ble for Merid­ian Dan’s 2014’s mo­men­tous Ger­man Whip sin­gle, cre­ate a bass-heavy, speaker-vi­brat­ing club prowl in Lose Your Head; vet­eran MC D Dou­ble E gets rowdy, bright young star J Hus turns smooth, and Brien her­self sings with a fe­line swag­ger that we’ve never heard from her be­fore.

Mean­while, Mr Mitch – founder of the Boxed grime night – con­trib­utes a min­i­mal­ist glass sculp­ture of a beat, a cloud hang­ing lightly but op­pres­sively, which Brien trans­forms into a nar­ra­tive of un­healthy code­pen­dency.

In a neat in­ver­sion of the usual pro­ducer-singer dy­namic, Brien’s cherry-picked pro­duc­ers are her muses: in most cases, beats were sent to her al­most fully-formed, and her songs were in­spired by them.

JD Reid’s Chase Me is a wonky, off- kil­ter take on the ‘ 90s sum­mer R& B that Brien grew up on; on it, she reaches for the Su­gababes re­sem­blance that’s al­ways been la­tent in her – the street-smart mid­point be­tween bore­dom and yearn­ing – and makes it real, team­ing up with fel­low South Lon­don singer Sasha Ke­able to have a go at be­ing a girl group of their own.

Ke­able’s lower range is a per­fect foil for Brien’s clearer peal – the Mutya to her Siob­hán, to take the Su­gababes anal­ogy fur­ther – and as their voices in­ter­twine, the fe­male sol­i­dar­ity be­comes the sub­text to the guards the song erects against boys.

Brien will prob­a­bly al­ways be de­fined by her Lon­don con­nec­tions, but at heart she’s also a fan of dance mu­sic wher­ever she finds it. As she muses on

Calm Down, a glitchy col­lab­o­ra­tion with Four Tet and Float­ing Points: “When we ever gonna calm down? I know I should do, but I love the sound.”

Honey finds her ex­cit­edly ex­pand­ing her pal­ette be­yond the cap­i­tal. Mon­tréal’s Kay­tranada pro­vides the sin­u­ous soul of the ti­tle track, a lop­ing groove dap­pled with per­cus­sion like sun­light through a win­dow, that gives Brien the op­por­tu­nity to sing the kind of sen­sual come-ons rem­i­nis­cent of one of her mu­si­cal hero­ines, the New Or­leans R&B singer Tee­dra Moses.

Im­pres­sively, too, Brien’s ear to the ground has caught the rude health of the Mid­lands house scene, all murky basslines and re­lent­lessly rough grooves, and has cor­ralled two of its lead­ing lights here.

Chris Lorenzo’s I Wanna Be is pure rush, the ten­sion of its lu­di­crously long build dis­si­pat­ing in eu­phoric echoes as Brien be­comes a dis­em­bod­ied and spec­tral pres­ence in the mu­sic. Mean­while, Han­nah Wants’s

Dream­erz is a jit­tery rev­e­la­tion, a paean to friend­ship and mu­tual sup­port that aims to do noth- ing less than stretch ephemeral plea­sure into eternity: “We only got 60 days of sum­mer, but if we just let it roll on…” Brien sug­gests, and for an in­stant, her ring­ing voice and Wants’s un­du­lat­ing synths make it seem pos­si­ble.

Honey comes off the back of two par­tic­u­larly tough years for Brien. The mak­ing of her se­cond al­bum, 2014’ s Lit­tle Red, had been an ar­du­ous jour­ney. Brien and Geeneus, who had cre­ated an ef­fort­less mas­ter­piece in her 2011 de­but On A

Mis­sion, sud­denly found them­selves with a plethora of voices to an­swer to in the ma­jor la­bel sys­tem, as well as stu­dio ses­sions with ma­jor la­bel writ­ers and pro­duc­ers whom Brien didn’t gel with.

The ef­fects could be felt on the fi­nal prod­uct, an al­bum with its share of high­lights but which still suf­fered from awk­ward se­quenc­ing, stand- out cuts rel­e­gated to bonus track sta­tus and, in toto, a slight air of un­cer­tainty as to what kind of pop star Katy B could be.

In ad­di­tion, Brien em­barked on its pro­mo­tional cam­paign un­der a cloud of per­sonal tragedy: the coma and, a year later, death of her older brother.

As a re­sponse to that, Honey is a tri­umph: it’s an al­bum that knows dread and dark­ness but ul­ti­mately seeks and trea­sures joy – whether fleet­ing or long-last­ing, whether in fe­male friend­ship or the kind of pure dance­floor plea­sure of­ten dis­missed as shal­low.

It’s a re­turn to Brien’s roots that widens her rai­son d’être. It’s a bril­liant pop al­bum be­cause it com­pletely ducks any te­dious tri­an­gu­la­tion be­tween a main­stream vs un­der­ground bi­nary that Brien’s al­ways sought to erode, and in­stead sim­ply re­turns to her forte: writ­ing vivid po­etry about life and love over the beats which in­spire her.

Katy B doesn’t shout her artis­tic im­por­tance from the rooftops, and so nat­u­ral is her mu­sic that it might be over­looked at first – but make no mis­take, no one else could have made this al­bum.

Alex Macpher­son is a free­lance jour­nal­ist who writes for The Guardian, New States­man, Metro, Fact and At­ti­tude.

In her deter­minedly ca­sual, down-toearth way, Kath­leen Brien is ce­ment­ing her po­si­tion as one of the most unique and un­repli­ca­ble Bri­tish pop stars of her gen­er­a­tion

Honey Katy B Rinse Dh60 Tracey Welch / REX / Shutterstock

Katy B takes lis­ten­ers on a jour­ney through the bonds of fe­male friend­ship to dance­floor he­do­nism, on Honey.

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