The opening run of Little Red is appropriately anthemic. After "Next Thing," a song about clubbing that picks up where the last album left off, "5AM" sneaks into view with a killer descending hook that rolls off Brien's tongue like liquid, showing how much her vocal delivery has matured in just two years. That's followed by "Aaliyah," last year's collaboration with Jessie Ware. Both tracks are blindsided by "Crying For No Reason," a majestic power ballad with orchestral touches that Brien nails like a diva. Her charm has always been her coyness, which made the belter moments of On A Mission feel a little forced, but here she balances both qualities perfectly.
Brien's improved singing is matched by streamlined production from Geeneus, who tones down his beats for the record. The result sounds less underground than his usual work, but subtler than much else you'd hear on the radio. A cast of guest producers add some diversity. Joker's minor key dubstep on "All My Lovin" harks back to Brien's roots. George FitzGerald's "I Like You" is the album's only misstep, draping a snaky melody over a tech house beat that the Hotflush artist could have made in his sleep. Jacques Greene delivers the twinkling ballad "Sapphire Blue," and Dream one-ups everyone else with "Everything," which seems to have a new earworm at every turn.
Let's not kid around here—Little Red is a major label pop album, and even with its connections to Rinse FM it's not likely to drum up much favour among dance music snobs. There are vague hints in that direction ("Emotions" unleashes the breaks, and bonus track "Blue Eyes" is a classic MJ Cole production), but Brien is less concerned with paying her dues than she is with laying down great pop songs. The closer "Still" makes this especially clear. As she soars over the song's complex emotional contours like a pro, you have to admire how much she's grown in just a few years. It always felt like the UK dance community was collectively cheering for Katy B's success, and Little Red shows how much she deserves it.