A little over one year ago, Katy B was a slight mystery. In Spring of 2010, the London songbird began popping up as the guest vocalist on tracks by producers orbiting Rinse FM, the then-pirate radio station known for blazing the newest trails in dance music. Materializing first on a cover of Inner City’s “Good Life” transformed into a UK funky house bass whomp by Rinse boss Geeneus, the lithe power of her voice was striking; that track’s a dance classic, the kind of sacred cow one imagines new producers should never touch, and yet she held her own with a gilded warble. Google-Image her then, and you’d find a slightly unkempt white girl in light-wash denim and a hoodie — in other words, your typical college student, a soon-to-be graduate of Goldsmiths, who majored in pop music. In 2008, she’d come in on UK funky in its nascent stages, releasing a collaboration with DJ NG under the moniker Baby Katy that sounded even wispier and more mysterious, but other than her raw talent, there was no indication that she was en route to pop stardom. Baby Katy was refreshingly average.
Fortunately, the UK’s had a long-running love affair with around-the-way girls. Rinse FM was afforded its official broadcasting license last June after 16 years of operating underground, and with its rise, Katy B ascended, too. As a celebratory gift, the station unleashed “Katy on a Mission,” her first official single as a solo artist and the initial entry in a repertoire filled top to bottom with love laments and party-yearning. Produced by longtime dubstep hero Benga, a fact that will get dance fans flocking regardless of who’s on the hook, her presence was transformative, a helium and distinctly feminine presence atop bass oscillations in a genre largely thought of as a dude annex. “Katy on a Mission” was like a meditation prayer to rave DJs. This right here I swear will end too soon/So I sink into the tuuuuune, she crooned, a window into the troubled thoughts of a club girl who might die if the party ends. Nightlife problems… universal concerns. Feel it! It was an instant hit, capping at five on the UK pop charts and number one on the indies. She donned doorknockers.
The syncopated patterns and R&B leanings of UK funky house had been ushering in the return of the true-blue dancefloor diva for a solid year at that point. But even after genre linchpins like Crazy Cousins and Meleka’s “Go” or Paleface and Kyla’s “Do You Mind” (a Brit radio staple later covered by The XX), no one vocalist had broken out as a godhead. Katy B has high-profile producers from arguably the most innovative dance radio station in the Western world –an advantage to be sure — but more importantly she has the emotional believability and the right club queen chemistry that turns showgoers into superstars. Magnetic Man, the supergroup comprised of Benga, Skream and Artwork, officially mainstreamed dubstep in Britain last summer with their debut album (out in the States last week). But even with their formidable composer’s braintrust, it was clearly Katy B’s sweet soprano that elevated the group into megastardom, her R&B-honed vulnerability softening all that sub-bass and junglist’s aesthetic. “Perfect Stranger,” their first single together, hit so hard the BBC demanded an orchestra collaboration. If Magnetic Man’s deep-level dance music sometimes felt too self-serious for hot-stepping in the club, Katy B’s etherealism paradoxically brought it down to earth. But even with the almost-comical ad lib something, something, something, which reminded us that she was still a recent university grad, her boy-love on “Perfect Stranger” aspired to something higher. Your energy when you touched me/ lifted me off the ground, she sang. Your words to me are like music.
“Perfect Stranger” landed on her first album, Katy on a Mission, too, which dropped this month, but it’s possibly one of the low points on an album packed with bangers. The producers kept in the cut to give her the ultimate vocalist’s proscenium, and the album is an endless cycle of heartbreak-rave-heartbreak-rave, of meeting dudes and getting hurt and dancing it off and meeting more dudes. It’s the quintessence of the twin pillars of the classic diva house era: What is life for if not love and dancing? Katy B’s range is exceptional, but it’s her fundamental understanding of this rubric that transformed her from disheveled sprite to shiny, be-dimpled dancefloor princess. Whether this will usher in another era where free-spirited female singers reign the danceclub is debatable, but at the moment Katy B is enough.