If you read much about pop music last week, you may have come across some highbrow praise for Britney Spears, an artist who has occasionally, and near-secretly been one of the most innovative in her field: Amazingly enough, it’s now the job of music-critic types to buttonhole a skeptical public and insist that really, seriously, Britney has put out some terrific music. Her new album, Femme Fatale, does a mixed job of backing up that claim. It collects some excellent dance-pop productions from the usual, mostly Scandinavian, suspects. And each of them possibly on the logic that Britney seems, at this point, way too distant, checked-out, and/or vacant to get anyone to invest in a vocal performance turns out tracks that feel friendly and eager-to-please, tracks built to accommodate that noncommittal wisp of a voice. At times it feels like they’re summoning up every last emotion-triggering synth trick to put feeling into the music and lighten the vocal’s load. Britney sounds like a series of samples bouncing around inside a happy machine. It’d be great, I think, if only the singer sounded more involved.
Thankfully, this week brings us a great and lovable album that succeeds precisely where Femme Fatale fails — Katy B’s On a Mission, one of the most comfortably human dance-pop records you’re likely to hear this year. Ms. B’s a British singer; she’s spent the past few years doing guest vocals for the kinds of dance producers who, upon bringing in a pop singer, have to worry about people discussing their changing levels of underground “credibility.” Last year she released her own standout single, “Katy on a Mission,” the most graceful collision I’ve yet heard between straightforward pop and the English dance subgenre called dubstep. The mission she’s on is simple: The lyrics have her striding past someone into a dark club and staking out her spot on the floor, and her performance of the song actually makes it feel as if you’re inside her head, humming along with the track booming through that room. You can tell why dance producers like to work with her — she has a tremendous knack for singing in a way that sinks neatly into a track, that seems to be living and dancing inside the production rather than perching on top of it, or getting mechanically processed into just another synth.
And that, essentially, is the appeal of On a Mission: Katy B sounds like a normal young human woman whose ordinary range of emotions plays out in London clubs, against the sounds of London club music. There are many, many sounds of London club music, but this is not a record that requires you to differentiate between all those mutant strains and subgenres — it whirls casually and seamlessly from realm to realm, as if Katy’s running around the city from party to party. (There’s slinky, funky house music; hints of upscale U.K. garage; deep and woozy dubstep; even flashbacks to the skitterybreakbeats of the nineties.) I specify that her personality is that of a normal young human woman for a reason. The dance-pop dominating the U.S. charts lately has been, for the most part, buzzy, mechanized stuff — chromed-out, friendly robot music — which always leaves the singers negotiating between sounding like humans and sounding extra-human, like cyborg superstars or world-straddling titans. But British dance music contains a massive amount of Caribbean influence — e.g., that “dub” in “dubstep” really does refer to Jamaican dub reggae — and Katy uses it to lilt and swagger in a way that feels warm and playful. She’s terrifically, reliably life-size. It’s just like on that first big single: Her most charming mode is that of someone who’s entirely lost in the music, quietly grinning and smirking to herself about how good it feels.