In this week's New York Times Magazine, there's a fascinating article about how the language a person speaks affects his or her worldview called "Does Your Language Shape How You Think?" Revisiting an old, supposedly disproved theory regarding the limitations one's native tongue places on cognition, writer Guy Deutscher spends a lot of time describing the ways of those who speak the Australian aboriginal tongue of Guugu Yimithirr. That language contains no words for egocentric directions (directions in reference to oneself such as English's "ahead" or "behind" or "right" or "left") and instead relies solely on geographical ones. The bug in front of your foot is north of it (if, in fact, you're facing north) or the glass on the table is south of the magazine pile. The result is that those who speak languages like Guugu Yimithirr are instilled with an impeccable sense of direction, virtually from birth, since a large part of their communication depends on having just that. In reference to our own language, you could think of a Guugu Yimithirr speaker as being at an expressive disadvantage, but if you ever find yourself lost in the forest with one, surely you'll see the upside.
I wonder if U.K. dance singer Katy B is similarly informed by vocabulary. Born during the peak of the London acid house wave, or soon after as rave was exploding (her Wikipedia says she was born in "1989 or 1990"), it's possible that this young artist never knew pop music that didn't contain self-reference to dance culture -- overt language imploring everyone to dance now, to get on up and pump up the jam. Her debut solo single, "Katy On a Mission" (above), feels like the work of someone who's going with what she knows, as Katy B exhibits a preternatural capacity for enveloping you in her scene and showing you around the club. Sharp and evolved, "Mission" is not your typical dance song about dancing. For one thing, it's dubstep, which, like its genre ancestor drum and bass, is confounding as dance music until you see people who know how actually dancing to it (its lopsided beat patterns initially seem to beckon hopscotch or wobbling). More importantly, Katy paints her time at a club (her "element") as a multi-sensory experience: she tastes a drink, she looks into the eyes of some guy, she hears the subwoofer go "boom," she inhales fumes, she feels herself letting go ("My limbs seem to move what the beat dictates to me"). The senses then mix ("I'm pushing to the middle, the sound becomes a part of me"). "Mission" is one in a long line of deceptively simple songs about a night out, but it's certainly among the most detail-oriented. This South London native shares her mastery of the language of clubbing down to what it's lacking: permanence (the song's refrain is, "This right here I swear will end too soon"). The come-and-go world of pop music seems like the perfect venue to express this.
The intoxicating hook of "Mission," in which Katy's voice repeatedly jumps up an emphatic octave, confirms mounting evidence suggesting that Katy B is one of the most exciting new voices in pop. In the 10 or so tracks she's sung lead on (mostly guesting on the work of other artists like DJ Zinc, Geeneus and the Count & Sinden), she's shown a stunning versatility, taking on dubstep, drum and bass and UK funky house (which, like UK garage, is not exactly the same as its U.S. namesake, but is also close enough for you to see why the name-sharing isn't such a stretch). Her voice is sweet enough to provide a satisfying counterpoint to the cold and frantic breaks she sings above, and it's tart enough to alter the flavor of milquetoast house. She's able to wail like a pitched-up sample, like on her recent collaboration with Magnetic Man, "Perfect Stranger." A perfect dance partner, she can give a track exactly what it's asking for, like when she adds joy on top of the joy of the Count & Sinden's "Hold Me" on their recently released Mega Mega Mega (you aren't likely to hear another album so invested in the concept of fun for the rest of the year, by the way). On her solo singles, she plays it cool, eschewing the melisma that R&B-worshiping British white girls with something to prove tend to run into the ground (Joss Stone she ain't). Most impressive, though, is that this girl really can blow, as evidenced in DJ Zinc's two-years-old "Fade Away," in which she sounds like a cross between Amerie and Lady Kier on her very best day with a dash of N'dea Davenport. There's something wonderfully modest, yet impressively secure in the fact that Lady B can sing this way, but often chooses not to. Instead of showing off, she's interpreting felicitously, choosing her vocal battles to fit the occasion. How many young people do you listen to who do that? How many old ones?
Lady B's followup to "Mission" is "Louder," a portrait of one young person's perpetual thirst for more. Over a housey beat that's more straightforward than that of "Mission," and a wiggly bass line that sounds stripped down to its essence but enveloping -- this unassuming yet massive entity -- Katy talks about having been up for 24 hours thanks to her ever-evolving whims. She doesn't have time for hard work, because "there’s always somewhere new to go, and I can never say no, say no." Let's hope that music stays as fun for her as it sounds (as opposed to being actual hard work) and that "there's always somewhere new to go" is, in fact, a promise. I have a lot of faith in her sense of direction.