Just about the time Lady Sovereign’s debut Public Warning came out (October 2006), the television show Ladette to Lady premiered on ITV in the UK. In it, a series of wrong-side-of-the-tracks girls competed at a finishing school to master facets of traditional etiquette such as flower arranging, cooking and elocution. The very idea of the show is problematic, because it’s essentially anti-independent woman dressed up as girl power. The contestants are encouraged to “take charge of their own lives” and “remake themselves” and other clichés, but what they transform into is an 18th century ideal of submission, receptivity and even inequality. As you might expect, it’s lowest-common denominator reality television at its worst, which revels in these girls’ embarrassing behavior by repeatedly showing them flashing their breasts, charging drunkenly through Eggleston Hall while local aristocrats make classist jokes or fumbling to overcome their Northern accents.
One supposes the series became popular for the same reason people feel compelled to watch the worst contestants fail on American Idol—the uncommon appeal of the “Victorian freak show” (to borrow Andy Millman’s phrase). But perhaps “Ladette to Lady” had some other effect. Perhaps it drained the character of the “ladette”, previously somewhat fascinating in its incarnations through Mike Skinner, Jade from Big Brother and Lady Sovereign, of its exoticism. We began to see that, maybe, these characters weren’t so appealing—maybe, their honesty and defiant anti-intellectualism wasn’t an admirable and refreshing trait.
Listening back to Public Warning now, Lady Sovereign’s beefs and boasts sound that much less convincing than they once did. Mike Skinner, through his Brit-hop moniker the Streets, at least had this exquisite power of observation; the smallest details of yob life were made human. In contrast, Public Warning lacks one ounce of remorse. But, of course, Sovereign also sprang out of London’s grime scene and through her debut retained something of the authenticity of that scene’s dirty-bass sound. Now, four years after she first appeared spitting heckles over “Random”, Sovereign reshapes herself as, well, something closer to a “ladette”, a grotesque clown. Ditching the grime for straightforward house beats and slower choruses, Lady Sovereign has, as her new target Wiley’s “Wearing My Rolex”, a surprise post-grime crossover hit.
This is an unfortunate choice. Lady Sovereign—in the larrikin, I-don’t-give-a-fuck incarnation she paints—is now an uninteresting character. Without the hard edge of a grime sound, her thoughts reveal as close to nonsense and not in the good, Weezy, running-rings-around-language way. “Student Union” is the worst offender, unaware its ignorant stance has been previously parodied in the character of Chris Finch in The Office. Elsewhere, she just sounds a bit too rehearsed. Although she can still pen an interesting phrase, Lady Sovereign spends most of her time cultivating her own image to inject her raps with the attitude they need to become something more than novelty.
Perhaps she’s given up on the American market. The simple, synth-driven songs on Jigsaw are catchy and upbeat enough to slip into Slough club-night playlists—the same demographic that provides the fodder for “Ladette to Lady”. Her wholehearted embrace of this dumb dance music and her insistence, “No, I don’t go to Uni” and her stale Facebook jokes are all part of this. It seems a calculated move; Sovereign doesn’t care about the respect of over-educated, over-analyzing Internet indie rock reviewers.
Elsewhere, as on the hiccupping track “So Human”, Sovereign goes for the Lily Allen market. Her singing voice all across Jigsaw, like Eminem singing, makes you shudder slightly. She indicates tenderness by multitracking the vocals and aching earnestness, and when she breaks into sing-song rap in the middle of a slow ballad, the juxtaposition with her aggressive rap style shocks. “Jigsaw”, the title track, reminds of a late-era Limp Bizkit single—mellow in the hungover, self-pitying way. Rejected in love, Lady Sovereign expresses herself with characteristic eloquence: “I’m kinda pissed off / I miss the way that we used to get off”.
Truth is, Lily Allen started doing the say-it-like-it-is routine with more wit and humour; M.I.A. started doing exotic electro-rap with more interesting music and better production. What Lady Sovereign had, previously, was a character, sketched out through a stuck-up middle finger and choice tales of miscreant life. This brings us to the real problem with Lady Sovereign in 2009: Her punch lines haven’t gotten smarter, but her listeners have.