Just Like Honey: The Rise of Katy B

On Katy B's attempt to bridge the gap between underground UK dance music and pop stardom. Peter Holslin tells you why.
By    May 23, 2016

katy b

Peter Holslin invented pillows.

If anyone has the credentials to bring underground UK dance music to a pop audience, it’s Katy B. A veteran raver at 27 years old, the singer/songwriter born Kathleen Brien first started hitting the London club scene over a decade ago, defying age requirements with a passport doctored with MS Paint and partying until dawn with the help of some very supportive parents.

Back then she was still known as Baby Katy, but the folks at pirate radio station Rinse FM were piqued by the demos she’d send over and took her under their wing. She spent three years recording her debut album, and by the time Skrillex came around in 2011—when most Americans equated dubstep with asymmetrical haircuts and diarrhea bass—Katy was way ahead of the game. “Katy On a Mission,” her sub bass-flexing collab with dubstep pioneer Benga, not only hit No. 1 on the British dance charts but also became a smash with audiences and critics across the pond.

Since that breakthrough, Katy’s stature has only risen, and with the release of her 2014 effort Little Red it seemed like she was primed to blow up on a global pop level. The album was released on Sony/Columbia in conjunction with Rinse, and it went in a more glittery, hook-laden direction—perhaps best exemplified in the ballad “Crying for No Reason,” driven by the kind of icy synths and anthemic vocals you’d expect more from a Swedish pop singer like Robyn than an artist reared on UK funky and FWD club nights. But it also kept the syncopation and foundation of the underground, as it was executive produced by Rinse FM founder Geeneus, who’s been working with Katy since the beginning.

With Disclosure popping on the charts as well, it seems like Katy could’ve marshaled the UK underground to reach ever higher. But the world of Max Martin and Taylor Swift is totally different from that of bass music club nights and illegal warehouse raves. In an interview with The Fader from earlier this year, Geeneus bemoaned the pressure they were facing on all sides to make hits for Little Red. Last year Katy also struggled with the untimely and tragic passing of her brother. So it makes sense that on her new album, Honey, she would return to the environment she knows best.

Honey isn’t quite as engaging as Little Red; few of the tracks rise to the level of previous hits like “5 AM” or “Aaliyah.” The glittery sheen of yesteryear has been muted in favor of subdued textures and slow-burn pacing, and there are points where things start to drag because of it. But Honey nevertheless represents a victory of the underground over commercial machinations.

In it Katy cements her street cred by teaming with some of the boldest underground beatmakers working today (Kaytranada, Four Tet, Major Lazer). A flexible vocalist, she navigates banger beats and avant-garde productions alike. And meanwhile she advances a pop interpretation of London grime right as Skepta has also been pushing the genre to new directions and a wider audience.

Katy’s songs are the stuff that warehouse raves and late-night assignations are made of, and Honey naturally comes with its moments of pure bliss. The album’s remake of 2015 single “Turn the Music Louder (Rumble)”—still with KDA on the beat but sans rapper Tinie Tempah—explodes with all of the shameless abandon of a C+C Music Factory song (but with much more style).

“So Far Away” rides on piano vamps and a drum ’n’ bass beat, courtesy of producer Wilkinson. “Calm Down” finds Katy thinking about dialing back her club-going lifestyle, only to dismiss the idea outright. The latter track is the trickiest one on the album, and also a perfect display of her vocal strengths: Four Tet and Floating Points’ serve up an off-kilter groove and Katy answers it like a basketball player on the court, bouncing repetitions of the word “down” off her tongue in a play of melodic and rhythmic tension.

Other tracks find her pushing in even more alluring directions. “Heavy” is like a fever-dream with grime producer Mr. Mitch’s conjured electronics. “Lose Your Head”—a collaboration with MCs J Hus and D Double E and producers The HeavyTrackerz — rounds off some of grime’s serrated edges but still bursts with a manic sensuality.

And then there’s the title track, an utterly hypnotizing synth jam in which Katy oozes over a crush—”Waiting for your kiss, red veinous lips”—while producer Kaytranada punctuates each measure with a throbbing pulse of bass.

Katy’s songs are powerful because they give you feelings and passions to get lost in. But they also speak to why these experiences in the club are so important. The final track, “Honey (Outro),” is a summation of her ethos. In it she pairs up with her longtime Rinse mentor Geeneus and with the young grime MC Novelist to deliver a poetic celebration of the power of music.

“All I have is who I am,” Katy says, in a half-spoken, half-sung cadence over a dreamy guitar loop. “All I have is London streets / All I have is rhymes and beats.” The track feels less like a song than a statement. No matter where Katy B goes, no matter the ups and downs, this world she grew out of will always be her home.