Katy B: Little Red – review

She comes from somewhere and something, a bit like the early Madonna came from the New York night.

Pop music isn't normally as concerned with notions of authenticity as rock music usually is – with dues-paying, provenance and what you might mischievously call terroir. In Katy B, though, this theoretically disposable genre has a deeply authentic voice that comes with both a manor and a pedigree: south and east London clubland, funky house and a little drum'n'bass. She comes from somewhere and something, a bit like the early Madonna came from the New York night.

Two albums in, Katy Brien's husky, Brit-schooled warble still retains its casual Londonista phraseology. She could have been bowdlerised by chart success, or the presence, on Little Red, of pro scribes like Guy "Robbie Williams" Chambers. The chorus to All My Lovin', a solid track from her second album, goes like this: "I'll give you all my lovin'/ And it shows, don't it, don't it, don't it/ I ain't bluffin'…" By contrast, Adele – born: Tottenham, raised: Brixton – isn't allowed to be from anywhere any more.

There's obviously an ocean of sales between Adele and Katy B, but the best thing about Little Red is how much it still sounds of a piece with On a Mission, her breakout debut; this despite the presence of Chambers and some big-drum power balladry. On a Mission was recorded on a shoestring, helmed by Geeneus, the head of ex-pirate radio station-cum-label Rinse FM ; he's still at the desk here, alongside Rinse production hands like Joker. Thanks to her years spent at raves underage, Brien is steeped in niche genres; she knows what works under strobes. These are the qualities which propelled On a Mission, and that keep Little Red real, despite the increased industry input.

Last November's single, 5AM, may have stalled at No 14, but it's typical of how Little Red moves Brien on: she's still out raving – "That beat so sick/ That tune so ill," she lip-smacks – but nowadays she needs to chill out a lot more. She needs some "lovin' like Valium". Her time in the parallel night-time universe is increasingly mined with relationship trouble. The Little Red of the title isn't just Katy B, it's the little red light on a boy's Blackberry when a message comes in. Who's it from?

Sometimes the heart works in tandem with the feet. Released on a free EP last December, Aaliyah is a subtle masterstroke. Roping in fellow Brixtonian Jessie Ware, Brien relocates Dolly Parton's Jolene to the area around the DJ booth. Being a DJ's girlfriend is no fun when you're outflanked by some exotically named temptress.

That big-money ballad isn't as flaccid as it could be either. Penned with Chambers, Crying for No Reason begins with the obligatory pensive piano. It's swiftly undercut by some synth stabs, just to remind you this isn't actually Adele. Katy B's delivery is acutely aware of its diction here, but it's saved by a lyric full of nuanced guilt.

The real trouble is, the latter half of Little Red trickles away without catching at your heels overmuch, as though Katy B's fretting about feelings outweighs the joy of keeping moving with the lights on.

Play pairs up Brien with Sampha, a dulcet-voiced writer-singer-producer, but the duet never sparks. Someone has chosen to hive off a slew of superior tracks – like the sharp Blue Eyes – to the deluxe version, leaving shuffly offerings (Sapphire Blue, Tumbling Down) in the main tracklisting. They're not bad tunes but won't detonate a dancefloor either. Brien's not quite as much fun as she was, then. But you still trust her voice, the way she remains rooted in nocturnal subgenres despite her pop appeal, and the authenticity of her writing; reflecting 24 years, not 19.

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Kitty Empire, for The Observer on Sunday 9th February 2014 00.06 Europe/London

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