A couple of weeks ago, Katy B tweeted a photo of herself posing in front of a fly poster advertising Honey that was taller than the singer. The large format was necessary: beneath Brien’s blingy logo and the album’s title was a list of 21 luminary producers, singers and rappers who’ve contributed to her third record. With no images or particular design flair, the poster looked more like a nightclub bill than an album cover, and took on a sort of pulverising approach to proclaiming a record’s pedigree: everything you need to know about this album, it suggested, is there in the credits sheet.
That promotional direction marks a change: the last time Brien was plugging an album, 2014’s Little Red, the emphasis was on the singer and her songs, with her past as a voice-for-hire at raves and credibility as a stalwart of the Rinse FM family passed over for personality-building confessionals and Radio 2 approachability. By and large, it worked, too – ‘Little Red’ was a successful dance-pop album – but for all its achievements, it also left Brien at a fork in the road: she could just as easily continue down the smooth blacktop of Janet Jackson Blvd and its attendant solo-diva respectability as re-embrace the slightly murkier collaborative London club scene that bore her, and in doing so reinforce her aesthetic personality as the pirate-radio fist in a Capital Radio glove.
Two years on, the path she’s chosen is clear. Brien has rejected the singer-as-star aesthetic with which she toyed on ‘Little Red’ almost completely, returning to the chameleonic sense of stylistic exploration that defined her imperfectly engaging debut: ‘Honey’ sees golden-voiced neo-soul slide into dubstep, skeletal grime give way to UK bass, and peppy chart-topping deep house fill in the cracks. Crucially, too, the lyrical candidness of ‘Little Red’ is all but gone, rendering ‘Honey’ not so much a Katy B solo album as a compilation of massively varying dance music united by a common voice.
Perhaps inevitably, that approach lives and dies based largely on the collaborative tenacity of each track’s guests, and while ‘Honey’’s best moments come when Brien is made to feel integral rather than auxiliary, its worst resemble grinding gears. Accordingly, where the slinky Kaytranada-produced title track and Sasha Keable duet ‘Chase Me’ both sizzle around Brien’s delicious RnB vocals with the sort of serpentine sass last seen from Destiny’s Child, J Hus’s slack verse in ‘Lose Your Head’ leaves Brien sounding correspondingly groggy. At the other end of the energy spectrum, too, the relentless self-confidence of a reinvented Craig David, reduces ‘Who Am I’ to a honk-off that’s less duet, more duel (and one which David rather tactlessly wins).
Equally, Four Tet, Hannah Wants and KDA each demonstrate how to get the best from Brien in a more uptempo context – chiefly by keeping productions crisp and uncluttered, building interest with texture rather than volume or frill – which, while all addictively propulsive in their own way, also amplifies the frilly, slightly corny restlessness of ‘Dark Delirium’.
However, if the contrasts in quality, and the ever-shifting styles, make for an inescapably bumpy listen, there’s a concurrent sense that ‘Honey’ was never designed to be heard from front to back in one session: in the weeks before its release it was consistently billed as Brien’s latest “project” rather than “album”, with tracks teased one by one and left to stand alone, and the overall effect of that is curious: in the modern climate of skip-culture and single-track listening, ‘Honey’’s many highlights are allowed to gleam with Brien’s undeniable joie de vivre, unconcerned with such jejune ideas as wider consistency. However, that’s also tantalising: those same highlights leave more old-fashioned listeners longing for a complete Katy B album – one that delivers more than just the sum of its heavily advertised parts.