“People have this kind of problem with me,” says Lady Sovereign over the phone from her London home. “They think they know me, and they don’t know me — and it’s disgustin’.”
TEEN TAUNTS: “If you love me, then thank you/If you hate me, then fuck you,” Sov chants on the electro banger “Love Me or Hate Me.”
Oddly enough, that’s the adjective jealous wanna-bes might use to describe this British 20-year-old’s meteoric rise. A few years ago, the one-time Louise Hartman was a high-school dropout from a suburban London housing project selling doughnuts. But then she hooked up with DJ Medasyn and took on the name Lady Sovereign (Lady Sov, or just Sov, for short), and soon she was performing with renowned British rappers the Streets and Dizzee Rascal, and electronic dance music’s celebrated Basement Jaxx were asking whether they could produce a song. Then about a year ago she was invited to freestyle before Def Jam’s head honcho, Jay-Z, and it’s reported that she signed to his label on the spot.
Yet even now, as she prepares to headline at the Paradise next Thursday (October 26), in advance of the Halloween release of her Def Jam debut, Public Warning, Sovereign remains an outsider. In the commercial rap game where Def Jam and Jay-Z rule, she’s a novelty, not just British but female (obviously) and white (not so obvious, especially if you hear her before you see her). Equally important, this major-label rookie was never accepted as a full-fledged player on her erstwhile farm team, the underground London rap scene that invented grime. She knows it too. When I suggest she’s the first grime artist to be signed directly to a major US hip-hop label, she protests, “But I’m not a grime artist!”
That kind of disavowal is not supposed to happen. From the Beatles to the Sex Pistols, successful English acts define their own sizzling scenes first. And grime isn’t just sizzling; it’s the most captivating hip-hop genre ever to ricochet back to America. Although it’s a direct descendant of British electronic dance styles (2step and UK garage), it resembles New Orleans bounce and Atlanta crunk, only knocked off-kilter by dancehall rhythms and black British accents rooted in West Indian patois, and often sped up to double time, if not faster. Where crunk swaggers with a bully’s insolence, grime sprays and staggers with a contender’s anxious fury.
At first, the grime scene’s preliminary rejection of Lady Sov doesn’t make musical sense. On the essential 2005 anthology Run the Road (Vice), her “Cha Ching” stands its ground with the speedball contribution by Dizzee Rascal, “Give U More,” and the multi-artist pile-up “Destruction VIP” by Jammer, the scene’s central producer. But as Sean Fennessey points out in the current Blender, the “diminutive MC” (she stands about 5’1’’ in her Adidas) was never accepted because she “made her name not in the clubs and on pirate radio, but on-line.” And even on-line, the reception hasn’t always been glowing. When I first got a copy of the self-described midget MC’s late 2005 debut EP, Vertically Challenged (Chocolate Industries), I found English message boards filled with disparaging remarks about her authenticity.
“I tried to get involved, you know!” pouts Sov in a cockney accent that would make even Eliza Doolittle furrow her sooty brow. “I wasn’t wanted, but I’ve done it in my own way, like. I started, like, MCing to UK garage, you know. And then UK garage formed into grime, man, and I was still MCing frew all of that, yeah. And, you know, like, I had a bit of a couple tunes out, yeah, but people weren’t spinnin’ it anyway! Like, because no one liked it! So that’s, that’s, you know, I ain’t get rejected, but I was more like the odd one out, jeknowwotImean?”
Two minutes into our brief interview, I think I do. As her comments zip from indolent to indignant to innocent and back again, Harman sounds like a conflicted teen who wants to charm the world one minute and spit on it the next, a conflict that’s united disenfranchised youth across the Pond since the teenage John Lennon was inspired by the barely post-teen Elvis Presley. It’s made explicit in the chorus to Public Warning’s current single, the electro banger “Love Me or Hate Me,” in which Sov chants, “If you love me, then thank you/If you hate me, then fuck you,” hitting the “thank you” in a falsetto curtsy and dropping the “fuck you” in a punky bark.
What’s more, she has the talent to turn that emotional/sonic pitch switch into music. Like so many good rappers (especially her most common comparison, Eminem), she can coin a catch phrase as insistent (or grating) as a playground taunt, like “Just do something random,” the rallying cry on one of several early tracks that appear on both Vertically Challenged and Public Warning. And then, like too few good rappers, she makes her chants sing, with choruses that have real melodies and time-shifting verses that act like counterpoint. On “Love Me or Hate Me” there are the slowed-down lines “I can’t dance and I really can’t sing/Yeah/I can only do one thing/And that’s me Lady Sovereign.”