Are you writing with an Etch-A-Sketch over there, mate?" Lady Sovereign asks me with perfectly honed boredom as I scribble down her last few words between questions, letting the line go dead during our brief phone interview. Oh, this is going well. I tell her sorry, no, just a sec, let me write out a couple of things, I'm taking this all down by hand. "Ah yeah," she deadpans, "keepin' it real."
I shouldn't feel too bad about getting sonned this way; it's her job. Lady Sovereign's persona -- rude, unmanageable city girl; tough chick hanging with the bwoys -- was formed in the competitive crucible of London grime. The diminutive 19-year-old U.K. MC with the braids on one side of her head and the ponytail on the other has made her name spitting out hilarious diss tracks.
Stateside musos know her from her tracks on both volumes of Run the Road, punctuated by her signature call-out "Ess-Ohh-VEEE." A wider slice of the country has been hearing "Love Me or Hate Me," the lead single from Public Warning, in rotation on hip-hop radio and on TRL, where it recently hit #1. It's a genially heavy piece of Atari thump similar to Lil' Flip's "Game Over." In it, Sov shows her impatience (or pretend impatience) with a Stateside pop population that barely knows her yet: "Love me or hate me/It's still an obsession." Her big, splashy intro single is about not winning anyone over: "If you love me, then thank you/If you hate me, then fuck you" (screwed for radio into "fwwwr you"). The trilled "thank you" sounds more dismissive than grateful.
Her voice, on record and in person, is unmistakably London. If there was any doubt, she says, "I'm English, try and deport me" at the end of each verse in "Love Me or Hate Me." It threatens to sink the song, but she has to address the elephant in the living room somehow. Her need to explain her origins and language reveals an instinct to reach out and make a connection, to be liked. I ask her what it means to have such a strongly local expression and take it into the U.S. market. Is there pressure to do things differently? She's blas: "Naw, I mean, that's what got me here, fuck -- why let that slip?"
She plays tour guide on the woozy "My England," ambling through the U.K. of council flats, Run the Road and weed -- not the Queen, not Tony Blair, not "crumpets, it's one big slum pit." It's a little stiff and unmoving to hear her map out her own context and try to convince us that London is a rough town.There's a fear that there's nothing in the U.S. pop imagination of the grime world, and that teenage exuberance, raw talent, street cachet and the universal "fuck you" may turn out not to be so universal. Language is local; the vocabulary of American MC language carries a kind of linguistic tariff that has to be explained away.
Her DefJam bosses are betting it will work. Again triggering her press-junket pro's boredom, I ask: "Okay, I know you've told this story a million times --" "Jay-Z" she answers immediately. "Yeah. There, I saved your breath." And then, boredom slowly giving way, she tells the story for the million and oneth time of her audition in a boring New York office filled with biz luminaries: Jay-Z, Usher, L.A. Reid. "I was scared, I was shakin'. I felt like a clown for hire." Someone cued some beats on a boom box, she did some verses, she free-styled. "Jay was noddin' his head, and kind of grinned at me. I just wanted to get out of there!" She wandered the streets in a daze. "I thought, that's that. An hour later, my phone rings. They were like, 'So yeah, you've been signed. We love you.' I was like... oh my days. "
Public Warning is split between older tracks already released in the U.K. and new ones minted for her U.S. foray. Both the strong tracks (mostly the old ones) and the weak ones (whenever a guitar shows up) show a hungover world-weariness and general distrust inherited from grime that undercuts all the teenage hype-the-party work the music is doing. The lead track, "9 to 5," an easy sing-along as much music-hall as dancehall, has the chorus, "Oh my gosh, my days are getting longer." "Gatheration," with its string-stab bounce, is a party track about how much of a drag parties are; "Who's getting fucked up?" she demands, not sounding like she totally approves. Following that is "Random," built on an up-tempo bongo loop and a seesawing synth line like a robot's nursery rhyme. We're not supposed to get hype or get loose, but "get random, just do something random."
The closest thing to uncomplicated fun comes on "Tango" and "Hoodie," both showing Sov flexing her best lyrical muscle: the diss. Taking down overprocessed enemy girls, as she does here, her flow is drum-roll relentless and hilarious, pausing only for head-snap effect. "You said you're like Christina, so you dyed your hair black/But now you look like the vicar of Dibley...on crack." British media glimmers with the unbridled ferocity of its teenagers (seriously, Google "happyslapping"), and native daughter Sov revels in the amoral glee of shredding someone to bits. It's too bad the album didn't include "Sad Arse Stripper," her career-murdering "cover" of now-nowhere Brit pop singer Jentina's "Bad Ass Strippa," but then again (no small thanks to Sov), we'll never hear the original, so it won't make much sense. See, transatlantic context is a bitch.
Her last line on "Love Me or Hate Me" is, "I can't dance, and I really can't sing/I can only do one thing/And that's be Lady Sovereign." Exactly what that means is still up in the air. Suspended between the party and the hangover, between the mythical street and the playground, between the short-girl defenses of cuteness and menace, and now between two national mike vocabularies, we'll figure it out as she does. As ever, she makes it out like it's no thing: "I feel like the odd one out. I feel like I'm in my own league, and I'm at the top of that. And well, whatever." Lady Sovereign performs Friday, November 24, at the Meridian, 1503 Chartres, 713-225-1717.
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