The album as we know it is dead. So argued Variety’s controversy-courting Bob Lefsetz last November when Katy Perry’s spiritual journey of pop record, Prism, sold an unimpressive 287,000 copies in its first week. “Everybody’s interested in the single, and no one’s got time to sit and hear your hour-plus statement,” he wrote. The successful artists aren’t the ones crafting a cohesive body of work, they’re the ones outrunning unforgiving hype cycles by cranking out hit after hit.
If there’s any Katy out there who could prove Lefsetz wrong, it’s not going to be Perry—it’ll be London’s Katy B. In the four years since she raced onto the UK charts with “Katy on a Mission,” 24-year-old Kathleen Brien has evolved from “dubstep princess” to a high priestess of house music, and her latest release demonstrates that, sometimes, great pop music succeeds when it’s not steadily chipped off into pieces.
Her sophomore album, Little Red, arrives this week in two editions. The first is likely the most familiar: a 12-song collection of English electronic music that offers its biggest hooks up front. The second option, taking its cues from Madonna’s 2005 disco tribute, Confessions on a Dance Floor, is a deluxe edition that includes a continuous, hour-long mix featuring a re-ordered song sequence and a handful of bonus tracks. It feels like a completely different record.
Fans could make the case either way for which version is the more “traditional” listening experience, but it’s the continuous mix of Little Red that reveals just how much thought Katy and her collaborators put into the project. On the standard-edition opener “Next Thing,” Katy promises to keep the night moving and leave listeners wanting more, but it’s only when the song shows up much deeper into the continuous mix that it lives up to its lyrics. When “5 AM,” the album’s propulsive first single, plays as the second song on the standard edition, the party peaks too soon. But in the continuous mix, it arrives more than 30 minutes in to deliver the dance-floor high usually achieved at its titular hour.
In either format, the songs of Little Red are sharper, tauter, and more vivid than those on 2011’s On a Mission, but Little Red may be best remembered as the ultimate '90s dance party of 2014. "Everything" is an admirable successor to Robin S.'s 1993 hit, "Show Me Love," while songs like "I Like You" approach the same kinetic energy of sporting-event staple “Get Ready for This.” The album cuts that aren't straight out of the time capsule pay their tribute in other ways, like their titles: On the seductive "Aaliyah," the album’s best track, Katy B and fellow UK crooner Jessie Ware team up to take on a woman trying to steal their boyfriends.
For all of Little Red's strobe-light fun, though, Katy never sounds like she breaks a sweat. Her hooks are simple, gentle, and repetitive, often built entirely around one long, feathery ooooooooooh that makes Silly Putty out of its vowel sounds. It's a testament to her allure as a performer that she can succeed with subtlety on tracks best suited for crowded dance floors, but it also highlights a limitation about Katy as a songwriter: She rarely delivers the big, booming, hits-you-over-the-head chorus Little Red hints she's capable of. The closet she gets is "Crying for No Reason," a piano-driven number appropriate for both night clubs and solo sob sessions alike—a sweet spot most reliably satisfied by Robyn songs and Adele remixes. (Go figure: Katy B and Adele were classmates at London's prestigious BRIT School.)
Perhaps that’s why Katy B hasn’t reached the kind of career heights of that other Katy, where 287,000 copies sold is a mild disappointment. The hours between when the club hits capacity and when everybody goes home can be the hardest times to keep up the energy, and even the continuous mix of Little Red can't quite shake the sensation of the evening dragging on a little too long. But maybe there's a good reason why Katy B chooses to hold back and spread herself thin over so many songs: A memorable night out, she reminds us, is a marathon, not a sprint.
In a release-day Twitter Q&A, Katy said she put out a continuous mix so fans would have something to listen to as they got ready to hit the bars and clubs. In a musical culture that demands iTunes exclusives, buzz singles, bonus tracks, and b-sides on top of a steady steam of hits, however, Lefsetz might argue that releasing multiple editions just feeds the same, insatiable consumer appetites that already undermines the album format. Yet what makes Little Red a compelling case for the relevance of the album is how Katy B tries to have it both ways: Sure, the songs work better when they're mixed in together, but Katy recognizes that "the album" is too lofty a concept to be confined to just one way of listening. Experienced in pieces or as a whole, Little Red is living, breathing, shape-shifting dance party.