Review: Lady Sovereign’s “Jigsaw”

Apr 15, 2009 2:52pm

Three years ago, when she was signed to Def Jam, Lady Sovereign was supposed to be the great, modern British hope for hip-hop stardom.  Few British M.C.’s have really crossed over through the years.  Those who have, (namely Slick Rick and Doom) were British-born immigrants who were based in the U.S.  Dizzee Rascal, another current British-based rapper, makes some great records. (Listen to “Sirens” from his last album, “Maths + English” and you’ll be amazed he hasn’t had more success here.)  With Lady Sovereign, it was thought to maybe be different.  She released the very likeable, vibrant, “Vertically Challenged” E.P., as well as her full-length, “Public Warning.”  Even then, it seemed possible, even though her album was pretty well (and rightfully) embraced by critics, that her crossover dreams might not pan out.  Would hardcore hip-hop fans really embrace a diminutive white girl with a thick cockney drawl?  Her goals were true to hip-hop. It was obvious she wasn’t in for a cash-in, because she told stories about what she knew and where she was from.  Mixed in with a few dance songs and a nice helping of oddball sass, she showed herself to be a winner.  She was an interesting character.  She was worth rooting for because she was likable and she was talking about uniquely British places and subjects from a perspective rarely heard by American ears. It didn’t work quite as planned. Sovereign eventually left Def Jam.  So now, her follow-up is released on her own imprint and it’s a sad shadow of its predecessor.  Sovereign is bummed out and it shows.  Through her use of off-kilter dance beats and strange forays into new-wave, she shows that the old, spunky version of herself is now rarely there.  This is a real downer of a record.  She sounds defeated when she should be still frantically swinging.  “Let’s Be Mates” is a misguided, house-fueled number, where Sovereign sings the chorus in a very robotic manner. “I’m weird and you’re weird. / Let’s be mates.”  It’s a little funny.  Is this some sort of pick-up line?  It’s humorous, but not very alluring.   When spitting her verses, she sounds bored and tired.  What happened to the upbeat, scrappy little punk from “Public Warning?” She’s half asleep.  “So Human” turns the classic Cure song, “Close To Me” into recyclable, bubblegum pop.  That’s a hard song to ruin, but somehow, Sovereign does not seem suited for it.  Within her verses, she tries to bring in the original’s magic by singing Robert Smith’s words, but it just makes it into a third-rate cover.  The album’s title-track isn’t really hip-hop at all.  It’s more sadly toned emo-new wave, with its melancholy electric guitars and synths.  It seems like Sovereign must’ve been spending a lot of time listening to the Cure.  She sings!  She’s a little off-key, but that’s OK.  It’s authentic sounding.  It’s much better left alone than if she’d decided to autotune it.  Again, though, she sounds like a mere shell of her old self.  This track sounds more like a Shiny Toy Guns reject. “Bang Bang” keeps the new-wave vibe going with another beat that sounds constructed after listening to the Cure.  Mainly, this sounds like something built off scraps from their “Japanese Whispers” E.P.  She’s rapping and has a little attitude and it sort of works, but the music is too depressing to suit her sudden jolt of enthusiasm.  The synthesizers sound like they are crying while she is saying, “I’ve got that bang bang sound.  So crank it loud.”  It doesn’t completely add up.  Single, “I Got You Dancing” sounds like its aim is to start a forgettable dance craze.  It’s the kind of song you’d expect your eleven-year old cousin to like.  It has very little substance.  The old Sovereign was better than this.  Even worse, she’s wronging the right of two tracks ago, and using a vocoder effect.  It’s all over her voice when she’s singing the hook. (“I’ve got you dancing. Got you doing it. Doing it!”)  This is not where Sovereign should be aiming.  She should be telling stories or at least using cleverer wordplay over beats which don’t sound hijacked from an old video game.  All is not lost, however.  The one true success is the song “Pennies.”  This track, yes, is a little bit of a guilty pleasure, but it’s got true propulsion.  This track has that same “Public Warning” attitude.  Her hook of, “How many pennies have you got for me?” sticks with you.  Granted, once again, the beat is very Cure-like.  (It sounds like a cousin of their song, “A Forest.”)  This is the album’s one true keeper, which holds up listen after listen.  One note, aside: Are pennies really the best denomination for this purpose?  If you are talking about making money, you have to have a whole lot of pennies.  It’s not a very optimistic pick.  She could’ve picked nickels, dimes, quarters or dollars and been better off.  She’s British! Why did she pick an American coin?  It’s hard to tell why she picked pennies, but if justice exists, this track should be this album’s saving grace and earn her tons of them.  Back to the dredge, “Guitar” sounds overly dramatic and downtrodden. Led by a minor key musical progression with a string section over it, it sounds like her answer to “Nobody Knows The Trouble I’ve Seen” as she sings about how she used to have promise and used to be a star, and how sad it is that it didn’t quite work out the way it should have.  You have to feel for her, because she rightly had promise.  She still has promise.  After listening to “Pennies,” I know she still has venom in her.  She took inspiration from this experience. Ultimately, that helps her get through it and that’s pretty healthy, but she has to come back fighting with the same spunk that spawned earlier songs like “Fiddle With The Volume,” “My England” and “Gatheration.”  Here, she sounds too defeated! There should be no pity parties here! “Student Union” almost makes the cut.  It’s about being dragged onto a college campus and feeling out of place. Her observations are key. It has a touch of the old Sovereign wit, but if the track becomes popular, it’ll probably not rise above pleasant novelty due to its slick production.  “Food Play” is a sex romp about incorporating food into the love-making process.  It would be more appealing if the chorus didn’t come from a digitally tweaked, very alien-sounding voice.  Sovereign is almost trying too hard, but in a world where 50 Cent can have a big hit with “Candy Shop” and Lil Wayne can have success with “Lollipop,” she might have a hint of a chance at scoring a cheeky hit.  Plus, the track is not without its moments.  I laughed out loud when she paused while talking about porridge, stopping the beat for a second to softly say to herself, “ooooh, porridge!”  How great is that? The album closes with “I Got The Goods.”  It’s another heavily techno-influenced groove that is somewhat forgettable.  Her producer, Metasyn, does her no favors with some of these clunky beats.  They lend themselves to stiff, tuneless, robotic delivery.  The best moments on “Public Warning” were when she was given enough room to loosen up.  That album’s smooth, “Those Were The Days” comes to mind as a clear example.  “Jigsaw” isn’t a colossal failure. It’s really just a misstep.  My advice would be to listen to “Pennies,” repeatedly and to wait until Lady Sovereign gets back on her feet again.  Surely, this is a passing phase.  Maybe someday soon, she’ll be back to her old self and we can once again, “Make way for the S.O.V.!”

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