"Look, I love America."
WALK TALL: There was seven months of creative stasis following her post-debut meltdown, and then, "Eventually, I had to push myself and be like, 'C'mon Sov, you can't sit on your ass any longer, cheer the fuck up!' "
Louise Amanda Harman a/k/a Lady Sovereign, pint-sized UK rap pugilist who comes to the Paradise on Sunday, is explaining to me the distinction between UK grime and American hip-hop when her train of thought reveals that she doesn't really fit into either. "In a sense, it's almost more organic here. People aren't born with, like, fucking gold chains around their necks." If that sounds as if she were about to launch into an over-serious sweeping generalization, the next sentence's nod to Little Britain's Vicky Pollard brings it all down to earth. "I mean, yeah, but no, but you know, here it's just whatever goes. I dunno, I'm a scatterbrain about music."
And there we have Lady Sov's appeal in a nutshell: she's a serious rapper who refuses to take the game seriously. Not that her backstory doesn't have the requisite cred. Born and raised in North London's notoriously rough Chalkhill Estates, Louise rose above the crushing drudgery of her surroundings (as she would later rap, "London ain't all crumpets and trumpets/It's one big slum pit") with the assistance of her imagination and her mom's Salt-N-Pepa records.
"I had a friend who was having trouble with her boyfriend, and she dragged me to his house. And I'm just sitting there while they were sorting their thing out. And at his place I saw this ring, a sovereign ring. And you know, I'd never been able to afford jewelry, so this ring was just saying, 'Take me!' So I stole it. Flat out. I put it on my finger and boom: that was the day I crowned myself Lady Sovereign!"
Of course, at the same time she was declaring her monarchy, she was also spitting lyrics, winning battles, and making a name for herself in the grime scene. "When I was 15 or 16, everything just kind of happened, it was a real whirlwind. But I never really thought about things too much then, because I was just in my own world, making my music. I was 18 when I got signed to Island/Universal, and even then I felt like I'd already done so much."
Grime, like many genres that sprang up after 1990, is a bizarre mash-up of influences where none of the principal figures ever cops to adhering to the genre's conventions. Mixing straight hip-hop, a battle-rhyme ethos, and a typically UK cultural mish-mash, grime is seen as a forever-underground phenomenon — which explains why its central figures (Sov, Dizzee Rascal, Lethal Bizzle) found their grime cred questioned once they made it to the majors. In Lady Sovereign's case, however, it's clear she could have cared less: while UK vinyl crate diggers were debating her place in the lexicon, she was in America being touted as Jay-Z's protégée.