"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.
"Yeah, the whole Jay-Z thing — obviously the label used it as a point to spruce things up. I mean, it's not like Jay-Z saw me on the street and discovered me and made me into a superstar! I was doing my thing already, I had my music out there, I had a name or whatever. D'you know what I mean? I met Jay-Z a few times, and he's a nice guy and all, but that whole 'prodigy' thing was kind of blown up, and I'm sure he'd agree."
The result of her big-shot hobnobbing was 2006's Public Warning (Def Jam), a record that netted accolades for Sov (among them a week at the top slot on MTV's Total Request Live) but ultimately resulted in a public meltdown when exhaustion, nerves, and depression caught up with her in a twisted knot of cancelled shows and failed expectations that led to her being dropped from Def Jam.
"I had about six or seven months off before I even thought about doing music again. I'd go into the studio every now and then and try things out and just be like, 'Ahh, fuck this, I'm too stressed out!' But 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!' "
As it turns out, "cheer the fuck up" is exactly what she did to her music, as well. In the lag between Public Warning and her new long-player, Jigsaw (released on her own Midget Records, a label she started in partnership with UK behemoth EMI), she found a way to turn the unfocused tantrums of an early hit like "Love Me or Hate Me" into a sort of free-for-all party vibe on the new "Let's Be Mates" and "I Got You Dancing." Along the way, she also discovered her singing voice, occasionally holstering her trademark machine-gun flow to reveal a more playful and emotional S-O-V on jiggling and sunny bouncers like the Cure-sampling "So Human" and the Miami-bassy "Bang Bang."