Louise Harman is a tease. With all the forthright bluster she displays as MC Lady Sovereign, you'd think coyness would be the least of her qualities. But what else could be behind the titchiness and fustiness of Vertically Challenged (Chocolate Industries), the EP offered as the rising London grime star's first U.S. release?
The throngs that have packed to capacity her handful of U.S. shows would be hard-pressed to find actual signs of wear on the ultravibrant "Random" and "Ch-Ching." But it's these two Internet-inundating tracks that have been responsible for transforming the diminutive 19-year-old dropout and former aspiring footballer, a self-described "white midget," into a verging star. Current fans have heard "Ch-Ching" on the Run the Road compilation. Chances are they've also downloaded a version of "Random" that's missing a few of the layers that weigh down the heavily produced version included on Challenged. You can argue over which is better—the aural chaos and punchy chopped-up bass of the EP version or the hand claps that punctuated the more primitive one's relatively cleaner sound—but its cornucopia of garage forms, big beat rave explosions, and verbal sound effects simply moot any nitpicking.
Bolstering those two semihits are three tracks Sovereign made with her longtime producer, Medasyn, rumored to be a descendent of Sergei Prokofiev. "The Battle" is a rapid-fire sputtering gender war with Ladies Sov and Shystie on one side and Frost P and Zuz Rock on the other, exhilarating exactly because it's almost too fast to follow, and thanks in part to the string section. Like most of Sov's songs, "A Little Bit of Shhh!" balances typical MC braggadocio with goofy self-deprecation—and it balances a teetering piano line above a wobbly slab of bass. If, on "Fiddle With the Volume," Sovereign's lines lack some of the agility and energy that elevate "Ch-Ching" and "Random" above their mundane subject matter, Medasyn's sparse, elegant production makes up for it, turning the boasts of a bad tenant into something like "The Whisper Song" without (at least some of) the sex.
That's 24 minutes of good, if mostly older, Lady Sovereign—hard to complain about, unless you're going to whine that it's only 24 minutes, or that the new stuff isn't there, . . . or about the remixes that make up the rest of the disc. Menta's "Random" remix incorporates a new set of beats that make the song feel at once slower and more insistent, and there are some new rhymes from Sov and guest star Riko. It's also the second song on the EP to urge British MCs not to ape U.S. hip-hop (the first is amid the J.Lo and Nelly references on "Random," a song inspired by J-Kwon's "Tipsy"); England has grown considerably more confident in its collective vocal delivery since the last time it nominated a challenger to rap, back in the trip-hop-era. The "Fiddle With the Volume" remix from Lady Sovereign's tourmate, Chocolate Industries artist Ghislain Poirier, meanwhile, makes you wonder why he thought it might be a good idea to add cartoon military flutes and drums to what was a seductive warning about the perils of renting.
Then there's the "Little Bit of Shhh!" remix by Ad-Rock, complete with Money Mark–era production and a shout-out to himself and another to N.Y.C., apparently a mnemonic device intended to help secure new fans: Do you like accessible hip-hop performed by bratty white people? Try Lady Sovereign, she's the Beastie Boys of grime! Apparently, Mike Skinner (the Streets) and Eminem were busy. Never mind, of course, that Lady Sov has already delivered a big fat "nah" to the "Feminem" question in "Ch-Ching" and elsewhere.
What's most intriguing about Vertically Challenged, though, isn't what it includes but what it leaves off. The recent singles "9 to 5" and the Basement Jaxx–produced "Hoodie" are absent from the disc, and Sovereign's recent meetings with Def Jam have yielded rumors of collaborations with top U.S. hip-hop producers. And despite the title of "The Battle," a major thread in her lyrical repertoire is missing here: the girl fight. On "Tango," she smacks down a woman with a fake tan: "You've been wearing the same jacket since you was in year eight/And it smells like you urinate on it, bitch." "The Broom" goes further: "Stupid little bitch, don't you ever start a riot/If you wanna be starting something, why not start a diet?" Challenged is a teaser, but what it's missing is enough to make you stay tuned for the next round.