Earlier this year, Lady Sovereign found herself on the threshold of extensive stateside notoriety. Her Def Jam signing gave her the opportunity to coast atop tossed-off Timbaland beats and pander to the Courvoisier-and-rims crowd. With Jay-Z’s glowing endorsement, the subsequent wave of hype would all but guarantee commercial success. Instead of taking the easy way out, however, she delivered a record as diverse and idiosyncratic as it is convincingly brash.
In many ways, Public Warning is a breath of fresh air. The subject matter manages to stay consistently unique and engaging throughout. The numerous pop culture references will not age well, but their British slant does provide an added dimension. It’s somewhat enthralling for the average Yank (yes, I speak on behalf of all Americans) to hear a biting insult likening a female of dubious hair color to the Vicar of Dibley and have absolutely no idea who or what is being alluded to. On ‘My England,’ Sov dispels stereotypes about her homeland and commands, “Do the Tony Blair, throw your hands in the air now everywhere.” Whenever the songs do cover familiar ground (laziness, partying, people who talk too much), her unique approach and ability to stay on topic generally make them work.
She’s got a certain luxury, being English and crossing over to the US market, because she can get away with quite a lot lyrically. Liberal use of the term “boogie woogie” is hardly commonplace in the conventional rap vernacular. Also, self-deprecating attitudes are anathema to most emcees, but Lady Sovereign shows signs of humility in between vaguely sarcastic boasts about being “the biggest midget in the game.” This makes her considerably more likable, and it’s easier to forgive her shrill voice, as well as the occasional head-scratcher. (“Had a hamster, it died because I ignored thee” and “polka dots, no uh oh, flowery frocks, no uh oh” come to mind.) While on the topic of shaky lyrics, there are a few lines in “Blah Blah” that attempt to refute† comparisons to Eminem. She would be more justified in this if not for the second verse of “9 to 5,” which was clearly taken right out of the post-Marshall Mathers playbook.
Sov and her collaborators keep it to a brisk 12 tracks (the ‘Love Me Or Hate Me’ remix with Missy Elliott doesn’t really count, because it’s lame), which shows exceptional restraint when most contemporary hip-hop artists will go out of their way to approach the 80-minute mark. Furthermore, if there was a Grammy awarded for ‘Fewest Skits, Interludes, and Intros on a Hip-Hop Album’ (and there really should be), Lady Sovereign would be tough to beat, with a formidable total of zero. The live instrumentation (or MIDI tracks approximating live instrumentation) is also notable, especially on the title track, complete with a slew of dizzying changes, a half-time breakdown, and even a retro-sounding guitar pop interlude. Conversely, ‘Those Were The Days’ uses a short, original guitar performance as if it were a sample, looping it deftly over the whole track. Her primary collaborators, Medasyn and Dr. Luke, did a tremendous job to craft a distinctive and cohesive album based around old-school drum sounds and huge techno basslines. The production really only suffers when the garish distorted guitars enter the fray.
The most notable misstep here is the aforementioned inclusion of the ‘Love Me Or Hate Me’ remix featuring Missy Elliott. The two have no chemistry whatsoever, and ‘Fiddle With The Volume’ would have worked quite well as a closer. I would wag my finger at Def Jam for compromising the album’s integrity in the interest of moving units, but it doesn’t even make sense from a business perspective. Honestly, who buys a record just because it has an obligatory guest appearance tacked on the end? This was just a poor decision all around.
Although Lady Sov hasn’t hit her stride as an emcee quite yet, Public Warning is a remarkably strong debut album. It does well to introduce her style to a more widespread audience, setting a clever, innovative tone for the rest of her career. If she can move past the image-establishing stage gracefully, she might outlast the hype.
– William Cremim†