Lady Sov: Rap Pixie With Puck

Lady Sovereign's
Lady Sovereign's "Love Me or Hate Me" attitude was on display at the 9:30 club Saturday. (By Rich Lipski -- The Washington Post)
By J. Freedom du Lac
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 30, 2006

This is the next big thing in American popular music? This outrageously peckish 5-foot-1 white-girl rapper with an oft-impenetrable British accent and an apparent tendency to forget her streetwise if silly lyrics -- a problem that the artist, 20-year-old Lady Sovereign, blamed on all the beer she was swilling Saturday night at the 9:30 club?

You betcha.

So, too, does Jay-Z, the iconic rapper and Def Jam Records president, who's banking on Lady Sovereign to become a stateside pop star. Def Jam will release Lady Sov's compelling full-length debut, "Public Warning," tomorrow, and the expectation is that the album will be a hit here.

As interesting as she may be on CD and MP3, Lady Sovereign is even more captivating onstage. That's not necessarily because of her performance skills, which need sharpening (less "blah-blah-blah"-ing through the lyrics, please, and try for better diction, too), but because of her caustic wit and unpredictable persona, which are at extreme odds with her appearance. Petite and ponytailed, Lady Sov looks not unlike a 12-year-old girl.

But Saturday, performing for the first time in the District, she introduced one song ("The Broom") by saying, "It's about some [expletive] I hit over the head because she was being rude," and another ("9 to 5") by noting that she'd written it "a long time ago, but it still makes sense because I'm still a lazy bastard."

The self-described "biggest midget in the game" also spotted a man in a full-body banana suit in the well-below-capacity crowd and ordered him to roll (yes, roll) onto the stage. She drop-kicked the strange fruit, verbally abused him, threw a bottle of water at him, then shoved him off the stage. Acting most unladylike, she also led the crowd in a hideous call-and-response belching exercise, discussed her private parts in moderate detail, and shattered an empty beer bottle against a wall by way of demanding another drink.

No wonder Lady Sov has been dubbed "Feminem" by the pop press. It's a perfect sobriquet, given her verbal dexterity, self-deprecating irreverence, penchant for antagonizing audiences, and undeniable whiteness. (Before performing "Hoodie," a funky slice of social commentary about street fashion, she sneered and said: "I can't dance to my music. It's pathetic, but I'm white.")

Lady Sov's breakthrough U.S. hit, "Love Me or Hate Me," even sounds like something out of Eminem's playbook with its clever, clownish wordplay, singsongy chorus and devil-may-care attitude as she thanks those who love her and more or less extends a middle finger to those who don't.

Of course, she's doing much less bird-flipping these days: The uproarious video for "Love Me or Hate Me" reached No. 1 on MTV's "Total Request Live," an early indicator that Lady Sov (real name: Louise Harman) very well could succeed where her Brit-rap predecessors such as the Streets and Dizzee Rascal have failed -- which is to say, in America. But she might have to do so without getting much love from hard-core Southern hip-hop fans. Performing the song "Random" on Saturday, Lady Sov mocked the dominant American rap idiom and even alluded to the likes of Chingy and J-Kwon.

As it turns out, though, Lady Sov seems to have more in common with Southern rap than she realizes. "Random" was actually the hopped-up highlight of the hour-long show, a club banger with a chant-along refrain that was delivered with the explosive, frenetic energy that's a hallmark of crunk. Then again, crunk doesn't incorporate London street slang a la this "Random" couplet: "J-Lo's got a batty / Well, you can't see mine cuz I wear my trousers baggy." Nor do Lil Jon and his ilk tend to employ the sorts of electro-rock accents favored by Lady Sov and her counterparts from the Brit-rap "grime" scene.

Backed by a three-piece "band" (deejay, drummer, bassist), Lady Sov didn't just stick to straight-ahead rap during the show. She also attempted a somewhat atonal cover of the Sex Pistols' "Pretty Vacant," for which she had to consult a lyric sheet. Her stab at punk ultimately came across as more amusing than menacing, so put away those Bonnie Rotten references for now.

She also took a genre-jumping run during the encore performance of "Public Warning's" title track, a chaotic, thrashy electro-ska sound clash. At the center of the sonic storm was Lady Sov, who opened the song with a breathtaking blast of rapid-fire rapping before slowing down just enough to announce her royal status.

All hail the new queen of pop? Not exactly. "Crown me the pint-size clown of the town," she declared. Consider it done, shorty.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company