- Lady Sov left her Def Jam audition feeling like a clown. An hour later, she was signed.
"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. 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 dissed this way; it's her job. Lady Sovereign's rude, unmanageable city-girl persona -- tough chick hanging with the boys -- 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 hipsters know her from her tracks on both Run the Road compilations. 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 No. 1. It's a genially heavy piece of Atari thump, similar to Lil' Flip's "Game Over." In it, Sov shows (or feigns) her impatience with Stateside pop fans who barely know her yet: "Love me or hate me/It's still an obsession."
On record and in person, her voice is unmistakably London. If there were any doubt, she says, "I'm English, try and deport me,'" at the end of each verse of her hit single. 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 whether she feels pressure to drop her cockney slang for fear it might not go over with a U.S. audience. "Naw," she says, blasé. "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 rough and tumble U.K. of council flats, Run the Road, and weed -- not the Queen and not Tony Blair. 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 little of the grime world in the U.S. pop imagination.
But her Def Jam bosses are betting it will work. After exploding in the U.K. with singles "A Little Bit of Shhh!," "9 to 5," and "Ch Ching" (as well as a slew of internet-only tracks), she secured a boardroom audition with Jay-Z, Usher, and L.A. Reid just last year.
"I was scared," she says. "I was shakin'. I felt like a clown for hire."
Someone cued some beats on a boombox, she did some verses, she free-styled. "Jay was noddin' his head and kind of grinned at me," she says. "I just wanted to get out of there!"
After she left, 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 hung-over world-weariness and general distrust that undercut all the hype-the-party work the music is doing. The lead track -- "9 to 5," an easy sing-along that's as much music hall as dancehall -- offers 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 as if she totally approves. Following that is "Random," built on an uptempo bongo loop and a seesawing synth line that sounds 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 show Sov flexing her best lyrical muscle: the diss. Taking down overprocessed girls, as she does here, her flow is drum-roll relentless and hilarious: "You said you're like Christina, so you dyed your hair black/But now you look like the vicar of Dibley . . . on crack."
Sov revels in the amoral glee of shredding someone to bits. It's just too bad that the album doesn't include "Sad Arse Stripper," her career-murdering "cover" of now-unhip Britpop singer Jentina's "Bad Ass Stripper."
The 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. Sov remains suspended between two continents, balancing the street and the playground, as well as the weight of expectation.
"I feel like the odd one out," she says. "I feel like I'm in my own league, and I'm at the top of that. And well, whatever."