Camps are neatly divided on Kathleen Brien’s debut album. For Brits, On a Mission is a chance to pontificate on any number of topics, from the legitimacy of anonymous vocalists to the nature of dubstep vis-à-vis chart pop to commercial dance music’s fashionability at large to the possibility of RinseFM producing another princess on Katy B’s level. For Americans, little such talk exists – many watch from afar and cast their two cents on what’s going to happen to dubstep/pop/the Rinse crowd in the wake of this album, but the impact is limited and the bubbling excitement over such possibilities feels voyeuristic.
It’s interesting because it’s so obvious, but it’s also interesting because we’re talking about a 21-year-old whose presence on the U.K. pop charts has already been felt: First single “Katy on a Mission” charted at No. 5, “Lights On” charted at No. 4, and this record debuted at No. 2 last week. She hasn’t not had a “hit” yet, and still she remains virtually innominate in the States, befitting her former life as a guest vocalist with limited long-term traction.
She could be a star, but one of the drawbacks in listening to On a Mission is that, in addition to the continental differences, Katy B also occupies a strange neutral territory between target audiences. On the one hand, she’s got an incredibly smooth voice comfortable among the elite names R&B has to offer, whether that’s Jazmine Sullivan or Brandy or Erykah Badu or, as I’m most often reminded of, Estelle. She can hug a groove with effortless ease (“Movement,” “Hard to Get”) just as readily as she can break from it and take over (“Katy on a Mission,” “Broken Record”). Songs stand out when she’s more aggressive, but her restraint throughout On a Mission is a curious approach that feels like it backfires even if the end result is probably more impressive and less clichéd than expected. There’s no moment where she holds a note and you’re left mouth agape thinking, yes, here is an impressive moment from an extraordinary talent. It is a record of finesse rather than outright power and the results are ambiguous.
Which leads to another problem: the music itself. Katy’s brightest moments aren’t hers alone. They’re hers and whichever producer she’s working with at the time. For this album, she’s enlisted some pretty heavy hitters in Benga, DJ Zinc (“Super Sharp Shooter,” “138 Trek”), and RinseFM founder Geeneus. Despite the assembly of talent, beats struggle to rise above inoffensive trip-hop or generic slow jams. This is another way of saying “Katy on a Mission” is still her best song, though “Go Away” is up there and “Disappear” gets your attention with minimal melodic tweaks and a lot of percussion.
Everything else sounds too smooth, which may be the biggest reason this record fails to inspire in the same way that, say, Janelle Monáe’s The ArchAndroid did last year. It’s not stunning enough on a vocal level to blow away listeners who lean that way, but its beats aren’t ambitious or divisive enough to merit much of a reaction. The future of dubstep? The life of the BRIT School party? Pop’s newest princess? Let’s just call it a modest success and save our enthusiasm for when she’s better figured out what she wants to be. On a Mission isn’t convincing as an answer.