10 April 2009
THEORETICALLY UNPUBLISHABLE PIECE RE: LADY SOVEREIGN, RE: COVERAGE OF HER NEW ADMITTEDLY NOT THAT GREAT BUT STILL ALBUM, RE: BEING MATES, ETC.
LET'S BE MATES
Five years ago, back when Pitchfork.com was a livestock seller and Lemon-Red.org a must-read, I and a few others tried to cover a new music called grime. The genre was a cross of drum&bass sonics and two-step rhythms, with lyrics rapped in a reggae-like patois but with the muscle of American hip-hop. We were late to the game. But I remember thinking it was like nothing and everything I had heard before, which is to say I am loathe to click through emails circa '04, '05, bearing likely the sentiment if not the sentence: How lucky am I? A new planet has just swam into my ken. By some cut of fate, I am about to live through a musical revolution--this my bebop, my punk, my hip-hop. One day, I will wake up with grandchildren on every knee, begging me for stories about the first time I heard Crazy Titch. "It all started," I will say, putting down my snifter, submitting my deep brow to the dream, "With a 64kbps pirate radio rip I downloaded from a man named PenisMcGrundle666, on a Python port of Soulseek..."
Crazy Titch killed a man in 2006, so he's in prison, and I've had my own issues to work through too. Long story short, neither of us have had as much time to dedicate to grime as we had hoped. So who failed whom here? I tried my hardest to keep up, swear to Christgau. Read Chantelle Fiddy, woofed down the Lord tapes and Sama podcasts, the newest of the new I was assured, from the grime groundzero bowels of East London--only to find out I was listening to tracks released years ago. Another problem was, often, I couldn't understand a single word these guys said, so thick was the cockney. The more I knew, the less I knew, that kind of a deal. As a fan this was fine; as the improbably bad-ass internet rock critic I fancied myself, it was infuriating. Grime was on the ground, East London, out of reach. It was fiercely localized, well beyond the internet's grasp, maybe even a little xenophobic or at least it felt that way. I listened to so much of it but, knowing nothing of the culture first-hand, I was a fool trying to make sense of the music, despite being awash--Sisyphus pushing Tantalus up the hill, but I was also Tantalus, drowning in a hydrant shot of low-bitrate cicadas.
Then there's Pitchfork: Grime oddly coincided with a change in the site's attitude towards non-indie rock--if not accelerated it. Current Editor-in-Chief Scott Plagenhoef debuted reviewing grime emcee Dizzee Rascal's first album, Boy In Da Corner--9.4. The idea of this Pitchfork Panopticon developed, all eyes everywhere, so too this responsibility to find you, the reader, the best possible stuff in every possible genre, which over time would become the über-genre known as Pitchfork Music. Cherrypickers but not cherries. We obeyed an aesthetic we couldn't fully comprehend.
So here was grime in East London, and here was Pitchfork, and halfway between the two was a teenager named Louise Amanda Harman. Among much nascent dreck, Lady Sovereign stood out in grime, her persona fully formed. A female court jester of sorts, teenage, fearless of blowback, referential in a hip-hop way, verbally dexterous, intelligible to stateside ears, intimidating like she might just punch you in the nose for no apparent reason, but also kinda cute. More importantly, her output was manageable. At the time, she had two key songs, "Cha-Ching (Cheque 1 2 Remix)" and "Random", with a smattering of diss tracks and some track about hitting someone with a broom--years before Gorilla Zoe thought to do the same. I am under the impression that I have heard everything Lady Sovereign has recorded and disseminated--and this feeling of manageability, the possibility of completism, made me less afraid to cover her. Another way to say all of this, if we're being honest is: Lady Sovereign was the most like American rappers. She called herself Feminem, which is to say she knew this too.
I don't mean to drag you through the whys and hows here, but what I want to set up, hint at, get across, if anything, is the extent and nature of the disappointment I felt when Lady Sovereign stopped being, in my mind, Lady Sovereign. Readers of the Guardian will remember my outrageously incomprehensible slams on Sov's "Hoodie" and "9-5", which helped launch a fake trend called Bloglish. Being kind, you might say I was lost for words. But what it comes down to is, Sov stopped making grime and started making "grime-influenced" pop songs. Her flow slowed to the pace of playground rhymes, her words lost specificity. It felt like pandering, if not outright puppetry. Not the best time for me and Jay-Z, who had signed Sov to Def Jam, who I worried would stuff her into some one of the few pre-existing American hip-hop character types available to women. She was working with Dr. Luke, what can you say. This wasn't betrayal--and Public Warning was hardly bad hip-pop--but you might liken this to the beginnings of a falling out: Either she wasn't the person I thought she was, or she was growing into something that was, for lack of better, un-Pitchforklike. Like a one-night stand, the site's mutually beneficial relationship with Lady Sovereign came to its end.
So maybe this was all part of the plan--and maybe I was the mark she married to get her green card. Maybe grime was mere catalyst, brought her to where she wanted to be now, four years later, on Jigsaw, her second album, distributed by EMI.
Were I to review this album, I would have an obligation to you, the Lady Sovereign googler, to assess not my own disappointment, but this here new album, on its own terms, what it is and not what I want it to be. If to no one else, I have an obligation to Lady Sovereign herself, who chides in "Pennies", "How many pennies have you got from me?" A gentle reminder that, between the reviews and track reviews and live reviews and features I've written about her, the answer is probably several, so, theoretically, here you go:
This is a pop album, first of all. Much more than Public Warning. For most tracks, Sov doesn't rap so much as talk in a drowsy, slack-jawed sing-song, in a way that might recall a listless M.I.A. if we're being generous, an actual Amanda Blank if we're being honest. Like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, get it, each tracks works in a different genre--electro to pop-rock to autotune r&b to a polished version of grime--though without the Def Jam coffers, the production budget has been crunched, or at least sounds so. "Let's Be Mates" isn't so terrible of an electro number, with a jumpy synthesizer rhythm, stuffed horn sounds, a rotund four-four kick. But even still, it sounds like a rough draft of a Basement Jaxx track, right before they throw in the sink and blender. It sounds plastic, but not decidedly cheap a la Crystal Castles. "So Human," the track after that, is based on an 'interpolation' of The Cure's "Close To Me," which is a kind way, usually, of saying we couldn't afford the audio rights. Listening to Public Warning again now, I am stunned at the difference in quality of the very sounds themselves. "Jigsaw", which is Sov's Kelly Clarkson pop-rock go-for-it, has these string parts, sometimes swooping in chorus, other times plucked on the beat, that bear extreme likeness to certain test drives I've done on Microsoft Songsmith--same thing with the guitar sounds on "Bang Bang," and the liberal vocal effects on "I Got You Dancing." It's just a bummer because, actually, I don't mind the instrumentals in the abstract.
What keeps me from ending it there though, like seemingly everybody else who went anywhere near this album, is that Sov might be right when she says this album is a "massive leap forward for mankind." For a major label distribution, this album has some brave lyrics. "I'm weird, you're weird, let's be mates," the first line of _Jigsaw_'s first song, means only one thing. "Dirty kisses, dirty dishes, in my sink I'll be your missus"--same story. Kate Perry said she kissed a girl and look at the outrage. The number of grown-ass rappers confused by the idea of other rappers wearing jeans that fit them properly... Hip-hop is still homophobic in a bad way; at least the military has 'don't ask don't tell'. But outside of outright lampooning those fears ad absurdum, or becoming something of a modern-day Amazonian, you don't see much in the way of love or heartbreak--it's all lust, carnage. "My heart is like a jigsaw puzzle/ pick it up and fix it for me," Sov sings. I cringe at every single word in that sentence, including "Sov sings", and yet I find it difficult to slag, considering. Excited it's happening though? Maybe this paragraph is some kind of indie rock affirmative action at work, not unlike the dance done for charity albums, but hey, if you have a better idea, write me a letter.
That said, I have no plans to listen to this album again. Not For Me isn't just the nice way of putting it--the same reason why I'd feel icky reviewing Miley Cyrus or whoever is the new Nickelback these days, wound up because they're not what I want them to be. Makes me think, or at least leave room for some subconscious possibility, that Lady Sovereign never really wanted to be grime in the first place--sacked it up though, kept up because she had to.