Eventually, Alice is going to have to go through the looking glass, but until then, the queen of hearts is still tending to her generous garden. Katy B’s debut, On a Mission, was an endlessly rewarding adventure through clubland, with an easily pleased explorer at the center of its swirling collection of predominately Geeneus-produced genius. Her follow-up, Little Red, feels very much like a scene from a few hours later that same night, a little drunker, a little more emotionally volatile, maybe slightly more likely to either spill her needy guts out or just bounce to a pizza stand with her crew, depending on which cut the DJ cues up in the next few minutes.
Katy’s highly endearing gimmick has been to straddle the gulf between retro styles and the thrill of discovery in a way only reckless youth can capture, and it made for the sort of onanismic debut that had one rewinding to check for a hidden message: “This is a story about control. My control.” Whereas Janet’s story was unquestionably a reflection of self-actualization (born of her desire to step out from behind the shadow of her very famous siblings), Katy’s persona throughout On a Mission often felt like a put-on. Who is she to play “Hard to Get” when she’s as spaced out on sensation as anyone in the room? Her cool-blue demeanor was meant to be taken as dissociative, a block from someone who just really came to the dance floor to get ugly and not make cute, thanks.
On Little Red, some of that blue has fallen away, and the consequences of her aloofness are starting to hit home, if only in the moment. Two of the tracks that anticipated the LP’s release see Katy flirting with disaster, in fact. On “Aaliyah,” a merciless wash of acid house can’t quite mask the pitiful lack of self-confidence in Katy’s “Jolene” plea made to the girl whose tricks she won’t fall for or the late singer whose intoxicating voice she can’t compete with. “This is green envy, why must you taunt me girl? Aaliyah, please.” Far from just a holdover (it first appeared on Katy’s Danger EP), “Aaliyah” tempers the singer’s addiction to euphoria considerably, setting the stage for the first truly unpredictable move in her still young career: the torch song “Crying for No Reason.” While accented with hard-sell synths and a slow backbeat, the song is an elemental piano weepie, too powerful to be mere self-pity: “I tried my best to hold it all together/I know the strings have worn away and now I’m all exposed/I try to hide it all away on top of the shelf/I can lie to everyone, but not to myself.”
The floodgates don’t exactly open in its wake (“Crying for No Reason” is far more usefully sequenced as the opening track on the bonus disc’s continuous mix), but the cracks in her foundation now fully exposed, Little Red allows Katy the chance to be afraid of her feelings, or at least afraid of being guided by them. And that happens a lot more often and is reflected by the contradictions between the message and the music. The super-uptight rhythms of the bonus track “Sky’s the Limit” keep Katy (kissing off a not-so “Easy Please Me” partner) from achieving her lofty goal, constricting her nearly as much as the hits 2-stepper MJ Cole wraps her in throughout “Blue Eyes” (another bonus track).
The tension finally snaps in the album’s centerpiece, “I Like You,” a spare callback to the same 1991 vibes recently explored by Azealia Banks and Annie, giving Katy more than enough breathing room to explore the vast space between its title refrain and the qualifiers “a little bit” and “more than I should.” Both I and Looking’s Patrick know the feeling all too well, and if that HBO series gets a second season, I hope Katy’s internal battle with the pain and pleasure of emotions soundtracks every episode.