“I tried to get involved, you know!” pouts Sov in a cockney accent that would make even Eliza Doolittle furrow her sooty brow. “I wasn’t wanted, but I’ve done it in my own way, like. I started, like, MCing to UK garage, you know. And then UK garage formed into grime, man, and I was still MCing frew all of that, yeah. And, you know, like, I had a bit of a couple tunes out, yeah, but people weren’t spinnin’ it anyway! Like, because no one liked it! So that’s, that’s, you know, I ain’t get rejected, but I was more like the odd one out, jeknowwotImean?”
Two minutes into our brief interview, I think I do. As her comments zip from indolent to indignant to innocent and back again, Harman sounds like a conflicted teen who wants to charm the world one minute and spit on it the next, a conflict that’s united disenfranchised youth across the Pond since the teenage John Lennon was inspired by the barely post-teen Elvis Presley. It’s made explicit in the chorus to Public Warning’s current single, the electro banger “Love Me or Hate Me,” in which Sov chants, “If you love me, then thank you/If you hate me, then fuck you,” hitting the “thank you” in a falsetto curtsy and dropping the “fuck you” in a punky bark.
What’s more, she has the talent to turn that emotional/sonic pitch switch into music. Like so many good rappers (especially her most common comparison, Eminem), she can coin a catch phrase as insistent (or grating) as a playground taunt, like “Just do something random,” the rallying cry on one of several early tracks that appear on both Vertically Challenged and Public Warning. And then, like too few good rappers, she makes her chants sing, with choruses that have real melodies and time-shifting verses that act like counterpoint. On “Love Me or Hate Me” there are the slowed-down lines “I can’t dance and I really can’t sing/Yeah/I can only do one thing/And that’s me Lady Sovereign.”
“When I say I can’t sing, yeah, I could’ve put some feature singer on my songs, yeah, but the way I do it, I just do it ‘sing-jay.’ I’m a sing-jay. I can’t sing; I can’t hit no notes. But that’s what I start with, choruses, you know. Like — jeknowwotI’msayin’? — my tunes ain’t flat. They’re songs.”
If this is what’s attracted everyone from the Streets to Jay-Z, my guess is it also explains her grime banishment, and it could lead to rejection by crunk and bounce fans, all of whom put alienated hardness first. After all, Blender’s Fennessey goes on to dis Public Warning for her decision to appeal to a foreign market and “soften her edges.” “Aw, man! That’s wrong!” snaps Sov. “But if they listen to everything, there’s not much of a change there anyways; it’s just progression.”
Not that this barely-post-teen has the self-knowledge (yet) to parse that progression. No doubt, with cuts like “My England,” Public Warning is designed to appeal to an American audience, but she still can’t explain why American audiences feel more like “my sort of crowd.” Still, this instinctive move feels as right as dropping the faux Jamaican patois on her early tracks. “See that’s older stuff, yeah, I was still — I wouldn’t call it practicing, but you know, affecting like my style. I went through stages. That’s why I’m still going through stages with my music now. I don’t know wot’s gonna happen when, you know, I jump in the studio or whatever; it’s excitin’.”