Music

Lady Sovereign: Public Warning

The major complaint is that we've heard so many of these tracks before. Most of her previous singles appears pretty much unchanged from their original form. Is this enough? It is, and here's why.


Lady Sovereign

Public Warning

Label: Def Jam
US Release Date: 2006-10-31
UK Release Date: Available as import
Amazon
iTunes

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.

7
Music


Books


Film


Recent
Music

12 Essential Performances from New Orleans' Piano "Professors"

New Orleans music is renowned for its piano players. Here's a dozen jams from great Crescent City keyboardists, past and present, and a little something extra.

Music

Jess Williamson Reimagines the Occult As Source Power on 'Sorceress'

Folk singer-songwriter, Jess Williamson wants listeners to know magic is not found in tarot cards or mass-produced smudge sticks. Rather, transformative power is deeply personal, thereby locating Sorceress as an indelible conveyor of strength and wisdom.

By the Book

Flight and Return: Kendra Atleework's Memoir, 'Miracle Country'

Although inconsistent as a memoir, Miracle Country is a breathtaking environmental history. Atleework is a shrewd observer and her writing is a gratifying contribution to the desert-literature genre.

Music

Mark Olson and Ingunn Ringvold Celebrate New Album With Performance Video (premiere)

Mark Olson (The Jayhawks) and Ingunn Ringvold share a 20-minute performance video that highlights their new album, Magdalen Accepts the Invitation. "This was an opportunity to perform the new songs and pretend in a way that we were still going on tour because we had been so looking forward to that."

Music

David Grubbs and Taku Unami Collaborate on the Downright Riveting 'Comet Meta'

Comet Meta is a brilliant record full of compositions and moments worthy of their own accord, but what's really enticing is that it's not only by David Grubbs but of him. It's perhaps the most emotive, dream-like, and accomplished piece of Grubbsian experimental post-rock.

Music

On Their 2003 Self-Titled Album, Buzzcocks Donned a Harder Sound and Wore it With Style and Taste

Buzzcocks, the band's fourth album since their return to touring in 1989, changed their sound but retained what made them great in the first place

Reading Pandemics

Chaucer's Plague Tales

In 18 months, the "Great Pestilence" of 1348-49 killed half of England's population, and by 1351 half the population of the world. Chaucer's plague tales reveal the conservative edges of an astonishingly innovative medieval poet.

Music

Country's Jaime Wyatt Gets in Touch With Herself on 'Neon Cross'

Neon Cross is country artist Jaime Wyatt's way of getting in touch with all the emotions she's been going through. But more specifically, it's about accepting both the past and the present and moving on with pride.

Music

Counterbalance 17: Public Enemy - 'It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back'

Hip-hop makes its debut on the Big List with Public Enemy’s meaty, beaty manifesto, and all the jealous punks can’t stop the dunk. Counterbalance’s Klinger and Mendelsohn give it a listen.

Music

Sondre Lerche and the Art of Radical Sincerity

"It feels strange to say it", says Norwegian pop artist Sondre Lerche about his ninth studio album, "but this is the perfect time for Patience. I wanted this to be something meaningful in the middle of all that's going on."

Books

How the Template for Modern Combat Journalism Developed

The superbly researched Journalism and the Russo-Japanese War tells readers how Japan pioneered modern techniques of propaganda and censorship in the Russo-Japanese War.

Film

From Horrifying Comedy to Darkly Funny Horror: Bob Clark Films

What if I told you that the director of one of the most heartwarming and beloved Christmas movies of all time is the same director as probably the most terrifying and disturbing yuletide horror films of all time?

Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews

Features
Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.