Lady Sovereign: Public Warning

Lady Sovereign
Public Warning
Def Jam

Exhibit 1. MySpace Page Views (as of 9/13/06)

If you made a graph of the press/blog/fan time devoted to the three latter-day queens of British hip-pop, Lady Sovereign’s star burns least bright (see Exhibit 1). M.I.A. somehow managed to ride a year-plus-long wave of hype, including a mixtape incorporating just about her whole album, before Arular finally dropped, and it still proved one of the defining records of 2005. Lily Allen’s gone the opposite direction — from breakthrough blog single to Top of the Pops in a few short months (and the backlash hasn’t even begun). In between those two, Lady Sovereign has been a perplexing, on-again off-again mix of tantrums, brilliant grime-but-not-quite club hits, major-label deals, and even a Verizon commercial.

To fully understand this nonchalant phenomenon, it’s helpful to refer to the BBC comedy sketch show, Little Britain. There’s a character called Vicky Pollard; if you’ve seen her “breakdance” fighting (she’s so rotund that she requires her crew to spin her around on her back) or her sex talk (“No but yeah but no but yeah but no but yeah but no but yeah but no but yeah… all done?”), you know well this working-class stereotype is ripe for parody. Lady Sovereign plays up to the same stereotype with only some of the humour — you get the sense that, while she realizes it’s a ridiculously over-the-top persona, she really does revel in being “not posh”, in preferring Heineken to champagne. There’s no equivalent in the panoply of American rap, perhaps because U.S. rappers take themselves too seriously (if anyone comes close, it would have to be someone like, say, an intelligent and self-effacing Bubba Sparxxx). And even after a host of leaked MP3s and a couple of EPs, it’s still an open question whether America’s taste will run towards “the biggest midget in the game” (or, as she would put it, whether America’s ready for her). The truth is, Lily Allen’s lighthearted everywoman character may be easier for the average Internet-reading, chic-Brit-fascinated American to relate to than Sov’s antagonistic independence. And M.I.A.’s backstory was so fascinating it almost wrote the cover articles itself. Not that growing up in a Northwest London housing estate’s uninteresting, just that there’s bound to be less interest post-Dizzee and the whole grime explosion, 2003-2004.

What this all adds up to is that, more so than either Lily or M.I.A., Lady Sovereign still needs to prove herself. In an ideal, non-Sov-saturated world, Public Warning would be definitive. Lady Sovereign is a miniature miracle — a compact, skillful, and outright funny MC who, over the course of a couple of years, has written a handful of must-hear songs for fans of any style of hip-hop, gangster to backpack. For an on-point analysis of the general tenor of Sov’s work, check out Dan Nishimoto’s review of the Vertically Challenged EP; to sum up — “her music just wants to have fun”. And that fun is spaded out throughout Sov’s debut, from the get-up-and-dance grime-pop classics from Sov’s ancient history to some surprising originals (we’ll get to those in a bit).

The trouble is — and this grumble’s sure to be aired publicly in the coming weeks — we’ve heard so many of these tracks before. “Ch-Ching” is the only one of Lady Sovereign’s hits not to find its way onto Public Warning, but everything else — from “Random” to “9 to 5” to “Gatheration” to “Hoodie” — appears pretty much unchanged from its original form. OK, so she adds a verse at the end of “Random”, but is this enough? It is, and here’s why: when you place all these songs together, it dawns how varied and interesting Sov’s musical ideas are. She’s not being watered down for her major label debut; her range naturally runs from peppy pop (“9 to 5”) to scatter-mouthed grime (the aforementioned “Random”).

The new tracks are more of a mixed bag. Title track “Public Warning” impresses with its cleverly tongue-twisting nursery rhymes (Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers; she sold sea shells on the sea shore) over an overdriven garage beat. Perhaps the biggest surprise on the album is “My England”, popping out of the album fabric with an oompah brass accompaniment and an unexpectedly lush chorus, drawn-out and orchestral (there’s even a pretty flute countermelody). All the while, Lady Sovereign turns the portrait of the stereotypical Briton squarely on its head, with characteristic, brutal wit: “Another glass of Chardonnay? Nah, we ain’t no Bridget Jones clones”. But “Tango”‘s dogged adherence to “orange” grates (and wastes a “Pranging Out”-esque garage beat), and reminiscence-jam “Those Were the Days” just comes off as insipid, without earning emotional resonance.

Most artists could glide by on singles as strong as “Love Me Or Hate Me” (Lady Sovereign’s tongue-out attitude over candy-electro addiction), “Blah Blah” (its bassline is from Damian Marley’s “All Night”), and maligned-though-catchy “Hoodie” (the Basement Jaxx remix is fuller and better). But on Public Warning, Lady Sovereign explores the natural edges of her characteristic sound and emerges a more fully-realised artist. The disc ends with a track called “Fiddle (With the Volume)”. The most outright electro of the songs on the album, its broken beat is as dirty as any Summer ’06 dancefloor hit. Even though it steals M.I.A.’s Bin Laden quip from “I Got Grapes”, the afterglow is sweet — like a bite-size candy bar, the familiar taste still leaves us wanting more.

RATING 7 / 10