It’s tempting to play Name That Genre with the songs on Katy B’s Mercury Prize-nominated debut, On A Mission, given how they trip through the trendy, club-friendly realms of drum-and-bass, dubstep, deep house, R&B, funky garage, and rave. But doing so would be pointless trees-over-forest scrutiny—all the tracks are pop songs at their core, calibrated for mass appeal over niche indulgence. And the game fails to get to the real heart of the matter, which is Katy B herself. The 22-year-old Brit displays maturity and nuance in her vocals that are unusual for both her age and her chosen musical style; she has a seemingly innate sense of when to hold back and when to blow in order to achieve maximum emotional catharsis, and rarely gives herself over to gaudy vocal gymnastics. Her voice is cool but not remote, never letting listeners lose sight of the fact that there’s a real person amid the high-gloss, showy work of her production cohorts, Benga, Geeneus, and Zinc.
Like most dance-oriented music, On A Mission is primarily concerned with celebrating youthful exuberance, late-night good times, and the fuzzy euphoria brought on by love (or “love”). But as fun as Katy B is when she’s being flirty and seductive on tracks like “Katy On A Mission,” “Witches Brew,” and “Lights On,” she’s even more intriguing when she showcases her vulnerability on the down-tempo numbers “Go Away” and “Disappear.”
Which isn’t to say she ever gives herself over to raw emotion: Both she and the record are fiercely controlled at all times, almost to the point of cold calculation—and indeed, On A Mission is calibrated for pop-crossover success, packed with would-be singles that have already had serious play in Katy B’s home country, where the record came out in April. On A Mission goes down almost too easily, but a record needn’t be challenging to be exciting, and Katy B is an exciting new ambassador of fun, dumb music. She proves that “frivolous” doesn’t have to mean “anonymous.”