“Haaa!” squelches Lady Sovereign, tossing her “ginger ale” all over a fan in the front row. “Didn’t think I would do that, did ya?”
If there’s one thing to know about this British-born rap star, it’s that she’s not in the rap game to be polite. Politeness and modesty were left behind long ago in the grimy, London neighborhood where she grew up. This self-proclaimed “biggest midget in the game” has recently tough-talked her way into fresh hip-hop fame, and she now carries herself with a healthy sense of her own grit.
Even more fascinating than her take on the audition she did earlier this year for Jay-Z (“I was shakin’,” she said in an interview) or her distaste for lady-like refinement (“Never have my nails done/ bite them down until they’re numb”) is Sovereign’s in-your-face personality. She’s outspoken and brimming with attitude, but, at the same time, personable and even girlish. It’s what gives her performance a certain spark: there’s a real person behind all the fun-filled grandstanding and witty rhymes.
As the show begins, Sovereign struts onstage in oversized sunglasses with a scarf wrapped around her neck. Neatly-crafted braids adorn the sides of her head and her oversized blue T-shirt seems to swallow her. It’s clear from the beginning, seconds into “Ch Ching,” that, against all logic, this girl is trying to be both a build-a-bear and a badass.
To her credit, Sovereign (a.k.a. Louise Harman) packs as much badass as she possibly can into her tiny, 5’1” frame. She eventually sheds the glasses and scarf, gliding around the Ballroom stage with the confidence of a teenage bully just let loose from detention. Picking on her band, calling an audience member Osama Bin Laden, exclaiming that the laws in America suck (particular our laws concerning alcohol), and so on—it’s all a bit Eminem-ish. What makes Sovereign so interesting, though, is that she can and will smack you in the face at any second—either with her songs or, if you’re not careful, her hands.
Sovereign manages to mix up the set with songs from both Vertically Challenged and her Island/Def Jam debut Public Warning. She belts though smart-alecky tracks like “Blah Blah” and “Tango,” commanding attention with wide-eyed stares and staggered flow, while keeping hands in the air and feet moving with party-time numbers like “Random.”
“Do you guys like the Sex Pistols?” she asks the crowd at one point.
Before they can finish answering. Sovereign bites into her cover of the Sex Pistols’ “Pretty Vacant,” dropping a punkish groove impressive enough to suggest that if her hip-hop career falls to the floor, she can always take up a Mohawk and learn the guitar. Of course, there’s also her hit single “Love Me or Hate Me,” which stands as her French kiss to those who dig her and middle finger to the rest. The audience has no problem flipping the bird to the tune of this little bomber’s discontent.
Discontent, of course, is one thing that Sovereign knows a lot about. Lyrically, she has no problem telling the world that she thinks the girl in the corner has a fake tan (“Tango”) or that humans have become nothing but superficial assholes (“Pretty Vacant”). And, despite her fun-loving persona, she recently hit some recent stress-related fatigue on the road (a breakdown would come only days after this show). But, on stage, Sovereign takes that aggression and molds it into something for the lighter side of life. After years of family issues and working mundane jobs, you’d think she’d have every reason to take her newfound, world fame quite seriously. The beauty is that she does nothing of the sort, jiving about the stage with youthful exuberance. Hell, she even takes off her sneakers halfway through the set and throws her socks into the crowd. A fan picks one of them up and puts it in his back pocket.
“Oh, by the way,” says Sovereign, “be sure to clean those socks before you use them.”
Sovereign closes the show with “Public Warning,” her encore and official “warning” that she’s landed in the States. It’s a snarly tune, further delcaring that Sovereign has no intention of doing exactly what she’s told. Is this a novel concept? No. Will it matter to the listening public in the next year or so? Who knows? But, while we wait to find out, Lady Sovereign will continue to spray her uncouth antics all over the hip-hop scene, while we, the listening public, enjoy every bit of it.