he Stylus brass, in their infinite wisdom, have decided to bypass all of the various Brit and Anglophile writers on the staff and stunt cast someone who couldn't care less about "grime" or Lady Sovereign or any of that shit to write this review. If that strikes you as a bad call, well, same here. But if you've been excitedly downloading every single Sovereign has trickled out in the past two years, you're not alone. As far as I can tell, the internet's full of you people. So if you don't care for my perspective, there's roughly ten thousand rock critics and mp3 blogs that will cater to your love for Lady Sov, so have at it. The distaste you'll experience reading this can't be any worse than what I went through listening to the album, so let's just call it even.
Although its audience is now a worldwide melting pot, hip-hop is still primarily made by the same demographic that created it: black American males. Over the years, various rappers have diverted from that description in terms of gender, race, or nationality, but rarely all three at once (unless you count Cibo Matto). Some people get excited about this kind of diversity infiltrating hip-hop. I'm not one of them. It's nice that the U.K. have grime, but I'm personally not interested in hearing anyone besides Slick Rick rap with a British accent.
A few years ago, a white American female rapper named Sarai got slapped with the "Feminem" tag, but it didn’t fit: she made the kind of fun (not funny) party rap indistinguishable from most of the hip-hop that comes out of the South, and not really anything like Eminem. Lady Sovereign, on the other hand, inhabits that role almost to the point of deliberately courting it. The video for her first U.S. single, "Love Me or Hate Me," is full of so many sight gags, irreverent impressions of celebrities, and self-deprecating lyrics that if you squint you might think you're watching "My Name Is."
That Lady Sovereign is so willing to play the Slim Shady game—and has already ridden that approach to the top of the TRL countdown—is the reason she might break the cycle of blogger favorites who hold a "popist" appeal in theory, but in practice are merely the rare critical darling that's not a rock band. A year or two ago, there was similar fanfare over the major label debut by another London-based sorta-rapper, M.I.A., with hipster fans all excitedly handicapping her chances of mainstream stardom. Their rationalization, that the success of Missy Elliott somehow proved urban radio's limitless tolerance for feminine weirdness, was bolstered by M.I.A. recording a song with Missy herself. Lady Sovereign's story is almost identical, right down to the Missy collab on a remix of "Love Me Or Hate Me," but with the major label backing that M.I.A. lacked, Sov seems to have a legitimate shot at becoming the rare British crossover star in the U.S.
I hope I'm wrong, though, simply because Public Warning! is such an irritating listen that I don't want to encounter any of its songs on a daily basis. Roughly half of the tracks have already been released as U.K. singles in the past year or two. But like the rest of America, I'm hearing most of them for the first time here, and in a blindfolded taste test I wouldn't be able to tell the proven fan favorites from the new stuff. It's a relentless parade of botched jokes, awkward choruses, and shiny, peppy synth-pop beats that don't particularly evoke hip-hop or grime. Of course, I wouldn't even be bothered to say how this stuff rates as hip-hop if every piece of press about her didn't hammer away at the fact that she was signed to Def Jam by Jay-Z as an indicator of her credibility as an MC (never mind that most of the rappers Jay has signed lately have been garbage). At least Rick Ross sucks in a familiar way; Lady Sovereign simulates the altogether new and horrible experience of hearing Eliza Doolittle rap.
If I'm really honest about it, Public Warning! has a lot in common with one of my favorite recent albums, Cuban rapper Pitbull's El Mariel. Both artists have manic personas and rubbery, heavily accented voices that they let bounce around over hyper beats derived from dance music (in his case Miami bass) as much as traditional hip-hop, and aren't afraid to crack a few corny jokes. And with that realization, I must admit that it comes down to a matter of taste. I love Pitbull's Spanglish crunk, but Lady Sovereign's cockney pop grime is nearly unlistenable. I can understand her more often than I expected. I just don't care what she's saying.
Reviewed by: Al Shipley
Reviewed on: 2006-11-07