* * *
A couple of weeks ago, Lady Sovereign topped MTV’s video countdown “Total Request Live,” garnering hype as the first Brit and one of the only white rappers (don’t call her “Feminem”) to do so. In reports of her triumph, gender wasn’t much discussed. After all, more than half the acts appearing on TRL that week were women: Beyonce, Jessica Simpson, Christina Aguilera, Pink and JoJo vied with the tomboyish London MC. Female voices are everywhere in pop right now. No need to single out one for being particularly tuff.
The videos, however, show a picture of femininity that’s fairly uniform, if lingerie can be considered a uniform. Whatever powerful roles these singers assume -- boxer, circus performer, furious woman scorned -- they do so in states of dishabille that stress their bodies over their spirits. Only the wholesome teen pop star JoJo stays fully clothed, and even she gets drenched by conveniently revealing rain.
Then there’s Sov, as she likes to be called, spitting rapid-fire rhymes over a cute electro synth in the video for “Love Me or Hate Me,” from her Def Jam Records debut “Public Warning.” Tricked out in Adidas, punky T-shirts and trousers (her boyish tops tighter, it’s true, than what she wore before her major-label makeover), she trips through a gritty urban landscape, surrealistically transforming. She’s fat, then she has a Playboy model body. Seconds later, she’s enveloped within a weird hairball, a visual reference to her often-mentioned unshaved armpits. She burps at a monkey, sneers at a posh lady and gets dumped into a garbage truck. Now this is a vision of flowering womanhood with some punch.
“I can’t dance and I really can’t sing, I can only do one thing and that’s be Lady Sovereign,” the 20-year-old high school dropout born Louise Harmon chants at the end of “Love Me or Hate Me.” Harmon seems to be belittling herself with that assertion. But really, it’s a point of pride. Unlike most women in today’s pop scene, who embellish their musical skills with flashy choreography and an acting gig on the side, Sov takes the route of a hard-core male rapper, demanding that her skills alone determine any judgment.
“Public Warning” is her gob across the barricades, an arrestingly fun piece of aggression. Early adapters will be disappointed that many tracks here are available as singles or on last year’s independent “Vertically Challenged” EP. The best new track is a remix of the single, with Missy Elliott guesting (and proclaiming her own ability to dance and sing). But for the masses who’ve only met Sov as a spokesmodel for Verizon’s Chocolate phone, “Public Warning” introduces a voice meant to shake things up.
Though Sov hates the comparison, “Public Warning” does recall Eminem’s early work. It’s uproariously funny, for one thing, with a cutting anger lurking just behind the jokes. It expresses a working-class sensibility that, to American ears especially, transforms into authenticity. Then there is the matter of being white, rare among rappers but “universal” in a racist world. Whiteness frees up these rappers to emphasize obsessions other than race -- for example, that old rock ‘n’ roll standby, the tension between boys and girls.
Eminem, for all his lyrical grace, is afraid and resentful of women. The hermaphroditically named Lady Sovereign (who announces herself, echoing a common male epithet, as “the S.O.V.!”) seems almost as mad as Em can get as she strains against femininity’s confines. But coming from a woman, such emotion takes on a different meaning.
Song after song on “Public Warning” states Sov’s horror at losing herself to a stereotype: She runs from having her nails done, wearing lipstick or sporting a flowery frock. She sees physical appearance as a matter of pride and liberation. Her anthem “Hoodies” stands up for kids’ right to wear hooded sweatshirts, recently threatened by authorities who’d banned the attire because it blocks the views of the surveillance cameras that are “protecting” public space throughout England. And satires such as “Tango,” an attack on a self-tanning fashionista, puts the lie to the ever more stringent beauty standards breaking young women’s spirits and banks.
Sov’s androgynous sass has roots in both punk and old-school hip-hop. Raised by parents who once sported mohawks, she pays tribute to those roots on “Public Warning” by occasionally breaking into a commanding blare reminiscent of Poly Styrene from X Ray Specs.
For the most part, though, her vocal style and the tracks created by primary producer Medasyn align with the lineage learned listening to inner-city London’s pirate radio -- that particularly British twist on hip-hop that connects its cadences to Jamaican toasting, and border-crossing styles including dub and electro-pop. It’s the sound that Sov’s closest peer, M.I.A., made fierce on her bhangrainflected 2005 classic “Arular,” and that Mike Skinner (a.k.a. the Streets) turns into classic English pop.
Sov’s absurdist take on daily life, despite her use of English slang, hits a chord more universal than M.I.A. or the Streets have yet found. Jay-Z wouldn’t have signed her if he hadn’t heard commercial potential, after all. Her rapping displays a popwise musicality that appeals to young ears -- she’s a little J.J. Fad, a little Beastie Boys -- and her waggishness perfectly complements the playfulness of her producers’ tracks.
A major gap exists right now between the Disney-codified ingenues being sold to the tween set and the cynical sex goddesses charging forth on hip-hop’s misogynist battleground. Where can a girl find a role model who’s real -- who, in fact, isn’t a role model at all, but a quirky, uncalculating, even imperfect artist?
That’s where Sov comes in, showing a debt to such pioneering female rappers as Salt-N-Pepa and Latifah, but also recalling barnstormers she’d likely never cite as influences -- Courtney Love, Bikini Kill’s Kathleen Hannah, L.A.'s own L7. In their day, those ferocious female rockers seemed to inflict permanent damage to female stereotypes, at least within pop. Lady Sovereign presents the latest alternative for those young women who’d rather wear something more comfortable.
Albums are rated on a scale of four stars (excellent), three stars (good), two stars (fair) and one star (poor). The album is already in stores.