director's cut, Observer Music Monthly, December 10th 2006.
by Simon Reynolds
Public Warning is a paradox: a great album, but a botched debut. It’s everything the fan could have hoped for, yet it’s palpably tarnished by its tardiness. This record, you can’t help feeling, really should have come out 18 months ago, when it would have spearheaded the onslaught of grime-goes-pop bids (Kano, Roll Deep, Lethal B) and when Lady Sovereign was surfing a high tide of media buzz. By now “the multitalented munchkin” ought to be a one-woman Spice Girls phenomenon, with Sov World already in production. Arriving in the early months of 2007 Public Warning unavoidably has a last year’s thing--hell, the year before last’s thing--aura. And why the heinous, mystifying decision to release it in the
UK three months
after its American release? Were Sov's minders thinking they should wait
until grime's profile sank to zero and then re-launch her as a US-anointed
star? The press release for Warning trumpets its #48 Billboard Chart entry and 20 thousand first
week sales, but what that really means is that hardcore British fans will have
bought the import or, more likely, downloaded it illegally months before the
record even comes out in Sov’s homeland.
But enough about hype and strategy, what about the would-be pop artifact itself? From production to persona, rhymes to flow, Public Warning is almost flawless. Three years since she first stung ours ears with “Ch Ching,” it’s still pure delight to hear Louise Harman mangle language as she shifts back and forth her two modes of tautly-drawled nasal insolence and slack ‘n’ gravelly ragga menace. So deft is her flair for alliteration she can't help signposting it with an interpolation of “Peter Piper picked a pickled pepper" in one song and “she sells sea-shells by the sea shore” in another. And she subjects vowel sounds to Abu Ghraib-degrees of contortion--just check the stretched “u”'s in the “9 to 5” verse that rhymes “huge”, “rude”, “food”, “Red Bull” and “Channel U”.
So deliriously pleasurable is the sound of Sov that you often glaze out on the sense of her words, which--when they’re not bigging herself up on tunes like “A Little Bit of Shhh” or the Prodigy-goes-2-Tone title track--are as keenly observed as Mike Skinner’s. “Gatheration” sketches an impromptu house party at Sov’s “yard”, while the hilarious “My England” skewers American Anglophile illusions about this country: “we don’t all have bowler hats and hire servants/More like 24 hour surveillance and dogshit on the pavements”, declares Sov, before spurning croquet for Playstation and scones for “someone’s fresh homegrown.” There’s more local colour in the obligatory US hip hop-style reminiscence “Those Were The Days”, Sov recalling youthful larks--“racing down the hill in Safeway trolleys”--on the Chalk Hill estate in North London.
Sov’s signature blend of vivacious and vicious sometimes brings to mind that old Monty Python sketch inspired by the Kray Twins, in which the most fearsome sibling isn’t the brother who wields ultraviolence but the ones who uses sarcasm. She may be tiny and intensely charming, but I wouldn’t want to get on the wrong side of her. “Tango Man” reminds you of teenage girls’ capacity for verbal cruelty, taunting an ex-friend who overdid the fake tan (she gets compares to baked beans in an English breakfast at one point) while the growly thunder of Sov’s vocal on “A Little Bit of Shhh” gives teeth to the aside “don’t joke with us small folk.” The bass-booming “Fiddle With the Volume” is an incitement to ASBO--“abuse your speakers, lose your manners/disturb the neighbours, this one’s a banger”--and makes you briefly envisage this rude girl as an icon for our contemporary culture of incivility and public disorder. But then there’s “Hoodie”--not, as you’d expect from the title, a defiant anthem for UK’s new folk devil, the hood-wearing, mall-stalking chav, but actually a celebration of Sov’s own brand of grrl power, in which the unisex hip hop clothes of trainers and hooded sweatshirt is simply more practical for active pursuits like dancing than the sexed-up club babe look. Riding a lithe beat so swinging and innocently exuberant it’s almost Sixties in feel, the gorgeous chorus “fling on an Adidas hoodie and just boogie-woogie with me” reminds you that young people haven’t really changed. They still want to “get loose,” as Sov sings it, dance their way out of their constrictions.