In 2016, the pop album is an inherently collaborative medium. The only pop artists whose work is entirely their own tend to exist in the independent sphere, like Grimes or Tame Impala, but bigger artists perceived as auteurs, like Beyoncé and Kanye West, actually have huge teams of writers and producers working with them on their music. Usually, one has to look through the album’s credits to find out about these collaborations, but not with Honey. For her third album, Katy B has chosen to make an album based entirely around highlighting her collaborators, attributing the producer of every track in the song title, and basing the album’s promotion heavily around the production. It functions as much as a mixtape for influential, London-based community radio station Rinse FM (where Katy B initially gained prominence), as much as it does a Katy B record, and as such, it feels like a microcosm of underground UK electronic music.
Katy B’s second album, Little Red, was much more focussed on pop sounds than her decidedly dubstep-based debut, and whilst it was a strong record, it felt less distinctive than her earlier work. Honey both regresses to her underground focus, and then expands her sonic palette wildly, drawing from her varied lineup of producers to incorporate sounds like grime, and drum ’n’ bass. Every track on the album feels like it exists in its own little sub-genre of electronica, and yet Katy B’s distinctive voice and mannerisms hold the whole affair together.
Pre-release single Calm Down begins like a Katy on a Mission-era Katy B song, with Four Tet’s lurching house beat pulsating smoothly in its minimalism, but in the chorus Floating Point’s string arrangements enter the mix, and it becomes an exciting evolution. The track takes on a particularly tasteful style, with the strings creating tension, instead of artificial drama. It’s a marvellously subtle pop song, that sticks in the head over many plays, instead of jumping out at the listener. The string motif continues on Dark Delirium, possibly the best track on the album. Over a beat from house music legend Jamie Jones, Katy B sings of a toxic relationship with one of the album’s catchier vocal melodies, surrounded by sweeping strings and harps. It sounds lush and vibrant, but not to the point of overwhelming the essential sadness in the lyrics.
The most pop-oriented track on the album is the Major Lazer produced Who Am I. It has all the ingredients of recent smash hits like Lean On, but processed through Katy B’s more melancholic persona. She duets with Craig David, singing of a devastating breakup that robs her of her identity, apparently about a relationship she had as a teenager. It feels less mature than the other tracks on the album, but functions as a fun exploration of Katy B’s ability to make a more pop-oriented song, but still be able to sound fundamentally like herself.
It’s difficult to pick standout tracks from Honey, since every track is so different, and since every track is of a remarkably consistent quality. The Kaytranada-produced Honey is one of the smoothest, sexiest R&B songs in recent memory, the Wilkinson-produced So Far Away mixes tropical house piano and drum ’n’ bass beats to intoxicating effect, and Dreamers, produced by Hannah Wants, feels like a return to Katy B’s 2-step roots. Like an expertly mixed radio show, the 52 minutes of Honey absolutely fly by, as the variety, and the sheer force of Katy B’s likability meld together into a perfect snapshot of what UK dance music can be.