[3 December 2006]
MIAMI - Apparently Lady Sovereign walks it like she talks it. The English rapper opens her hilarious, gregarious debut album - quite possibly the best hip-hop CD of 2006 - with “9 to 5,” a song about waking up after a night of partying and having to report to a round of media interrogations and photo shoots. In her foggy state, the track-suit-loving tomboy winds up “in FHM posing in a bikini next to a Lamborghini/Next up the theme tune for tweenies.”
In the early afternoon on a recent day just before the release of “Public Warning,” the woman born Louise Harman 20 years ago begins a day of interviews at the New York office of her label, Def Jam, with a confession:
“I’m still drunk from last night,” she says over the phone. “I’m trying to hang in there. I just went to a few bars and hanged out with a few more people.”
Unlike in the comic song, in conversation Sov firmly stands up for herself (despite a tendency to forget what she is saying). “I like to make points about everything in music that I need to say,” she says with unapologetic bluntness. “Whatever’s in my brain, whatever I feel like talking about, I just let people know.”
In a world of champagne-swigging high-rollers and pimp-goblet-clutching strip-bar fans, Sov is a pint-chugging (and pint-sized), pub-going chick-next-door. That’s precisely her appeal - well, that and her irreverent wit and dope beats. She may have been signed (and some fans fear co-opted) by the kingpin of American hip-hop (Jay-Z), but mi’lady built her reputation by spitting trash at power, and spreading the spit via her self-tended MySpace page.
On “Public Warning,” Lady Sovereign raps about hosting overflow flat parties filled with “waste kids” (“Gatheration”), bringing a bit of gutter to her flow (“Public Warning”), being the “biggest midget in the game” (“Love Me or Hate Me”), and being the kind of Brit who drinks spirits instead of tea (“My England”). Like a hip-hop Sex Pistols, the product of North London housing estates - the English equivalent of ghetto projects - reps for working stiffs and the underclass. Unlike so many of her American contemporaries, she does not rap about hot rides bought after dealing cocaine.
That doesn’t mean she’s not full of braggadocio. Lady Sovereign does not have self-esteem issues. “My prevalence means more than your irrelevance,” she raps on the CD’s rapid-fire, almost punk-rock title track. “I got a habit of absolutely damaging any track when I attack.”
Hearing a woman shouting “attack” over raw, wicked beats feels like the return of early `90s revolution girl style. Except unlike media-shy, underground riot grrrls, Sov has ruled the chart on MTV’s popular teen program “Total Request Live.” “Love Me or Hate Me” is being used in the ad campaign for the Chocolate mobile phone and has been featured on shows including “Ugly Betty” and “The O.C.”
Pretty remarkable for a woman who repeatedly mocks the glamorous mode that has seemingly become a requirement for female stardom; even Missy Elliott (who trades verses with Sov on the bonus remix of “Love Me”) wears false eyelashes. Sov raps repeatedly about her love of baggy clothes (in one verse, she wears them to hide her hairy armpits). She would never wind up in a bikini in lads’ mag FHM.
“I couldn’t do it,” she says. “On a personal level, I just, uck. It’s not me at all. No way. People know that I will not go there. Never. They know, they’ve never asked. And they’re not going to bother asking because it’s not happening.”
Sovereign is also not likely to be caught iced out anytime soon. “I don’t even like big fat jewelry,” she says. “I wear my house keys around my neck - to me that’s my own bling. It’s ghetto-budget bling.”
The rapper did get her name from a signature piece of jewelry: a sovereign ring. Wearing sovereign rings is an English tradition generally associated with the lower class. “I only wear it because I like it. I don’t wear it because it means something to me. That’s where the name comes from. I didn’t look in the dictionary and think sovereign means golden, powerful, whatever.”
Sovereign came up in the fertile club scene of English hip-hop, or grime, which seemingly every year tries to export one talent across the pond: Dizzee Rascal, the Streets, M.I.A. With her clear diction, funny rhymes and white skin, Sov has the most stateside commercial potential of these acts yet - although it’s unclear how a rapper who throws about so much British slang will dent the heartland or the hood. She’s been called “Feminem.” She certainly shares Marshall Mathers’ bad attitude and comic vulgarity.
But Sov has also earned the respect of much of the “backpacker” crowd, indie-rock-style lovers of hip-hop dedicated to craft, not image. She shares that scene’s disregard for today’s commercial sound; she says she listens mostly to old hip-hop, like Audio Two and EPMD.
Lady Sovereign’s outsider take on the American art of hip-hop is a breath of fresh air - or at least a beer-laden belch. As she puts it, with trademark puerile, juvenile glee on “Public Warning”: “I don’t wanna play none of your games, I wanna play all of my games.”