Even if you’re one of the many who’s been following dubstep since its auspicious beginnings as an expanded child of the relatively self-contained UK 2-step and garage scenes or since Burial’s prescient sophomore record, Untrue, whispered its way past some headphones into your noggin, it’s hard to pin a flag exactly on what the hell the term even means at this point. It’s a ubiquitous synonym for the endless gyrating bass wonk gracing even the most lay of American dance floors as well as a broadly misinformed descriptor for everything from Los Angeles’ Brainfeeder circuit to Sweden’s thumping 4/4 synthpop output. It’s a pervading underground electronic theme. It’s everywhere except taking a deserved stand atop the charts.
Katy B joins the marketable begging-to-crossover variation of dubstep-based pop, grabbing for the same broader audience as other UK acts such as Jamie Woon and indie boy wonder James Blake. But where Woon turns quietly solitary tales along empty metropolis boulevards – trying on some downbeat R&B emotionalism – and Blake obscures downright silence with complexly minimal arrangements and an emotionally soaked croon, Katy B pushes her brand back onto the dance floor with the earnest full-bodied rapport of a self-described pop star. On A Mission‘s meaning is pretty self-evident even before the title track rolls around.
Despite a very specific stage being set at Katy B’s feet with the backing of the grander UK bass scene, the twenty-one year old Englishwoman brings a fierce personality that’s simultaneously felt in her raw vocal delivery and nuanced approach to pop music underpinnings. On opener “Power On Me,” she matches the track’s steady house drive over a behind-the-beat hollowed out synth groove before launching into a long “Ooooooh” and the chorus “Does it make you feel good / Knowing that you could / Have power on me.” Katy’s grounded wail is powerful and the thrust pushing things into the vocal red isn’t rounded at the edges whatsoever. The most arresting moment of the whole record comes on “Go Away” following a detailed account of fed up misunderstanding when, after a fervent ultimatum of “never enough,” she tears into the track with an eyes-wide burst of wordless frustration. It’d be unnerving if it wasn’t so beautiful. Katy commands rather than guides and it matches the grinding bass lines and the bite of honest detail in her words.
On the surface, the lyrical subject matter fits right in with the record’s pop leanings, but Katy manages intricacy in the over-worn areas of love and relationships. There’s enough detail and insightful notions of emotional tug-o-war that it’s more than worth making pace with her words. On the R&B-leaning account of identity loss, “Disappear,” she opens things up with this little sharpened dagger of truth: “It’s sad that we’ve lost all our innocence / Something that was pure now covered in red / Tainted by the role to become a woman.” Keep in mind this is dance-ready swagger-friendly electro pop record. She then goes on to detail identity at odds with romantic devotion and sexual impulse, throwing in the hands-up-frustration of “It’s mad / How something so real / Could be so conditional,” delivered with perfectly exacting discontentment. Katy does find some time to have fun on tracks like “Katy On A Mission” (“Now I’ve reached my element, you better move over”) and “Lights On” (“Might wanna turn now and might watch me / Step on to the floor”), but she spends more time outlining these troubled meditations of romantic deliberation over dance-til-you-can’t drum and bass tracks.
The beats themselves are more than willing to oblige to the hungry front woman with a helping of 90s house stomping its way through chewy bass synths and busy drum programming. The infectious wavering groove on the title track is a robotic hymn gliding along gleefully behind Katy as she dictates her mission statement, giving her message enough weight to lock eyes with, but enough playfulness to cast a knowing smile upon. On A Mission is more than melodically sound, especially on tracks like “Broken Record,” with its airy momentum, taking momentary flight over the otherwise muddy production. These are dance beats, but they’re the kind that’ll have your fists balled and your fingernails digging into your palms as you tear into the floor.
It’s hard to discern how On A Mission will fare in its ambitious goals as a crossover platform, but it’s consistently compelling enough to throw any postulation aside and be left with a great record. Katy B shows she’s a vital voice to the smaller UK bass scene and her pop imbued form of garage has enough substance and personality to back her play for something bigger.