Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Less bounce to the ounce

Lady Sovereign
Score: 5

Once a gum-smacking, smack-talking Super Ball, rap's "biggest midget in the game" has taken a few licks since her full-length debut three years ago. Or so Jigsaw would lead us to believe. The slower material, the lean toward pop, the scattered ideas --- it's safe to say Lady Sovereign is suffering from a classic case of second album-itis. Possible causes: introspection, relationship drama and jadedness with fame.

Let's lay it right out at the start: Her heart is the titular jigsaw puzzle. "Pick it up and fix it for me," she implores less than 10 minutes into the album. In a similar vein, the glum hook of "Guitar" is Lady Sov as Eeyore, trudging through a day of interviews, photos, promotions. The nicely arranged strings carry a dignified air, as if emblematic of the dutiful, success-minded musician --- perhaps a violinist in a big-city orchestra --- someone whose work ethic Lady Sovereign might envy as she wrestles with motivation. She confesses, "I feel a little tired, I feel like cryin' / I feel like lyin', I feel like not tryin' to do / what I'm supposed to do today."

"Student Union," supported by crisp synths, describes her experience at a college bash her friend took her to. As a high school dropout, she finds it hard to relate, and the "fuddy-duddying" drives her batty. The quasi-drunken sing-along here surely comes from the same rum bottle as Todd Rundgren's "Bang on the Drum All Day," a song which, unfortunately, is about as much fun as being clonked in the noggin with a coconut.

"So Human," by contrast, is a playful experiment, with Lady Sovereign recasting The Cure's "Close to Me" as a tour diary. The brisk pace implies a whirlwind itinerary; her fleet-footed raps imply she's keeping up. Still, dissatisfaction seeps in: "Anyway things change always / like the hotel hallways / I'll be gone again in four days." There's a hint of Auto-Tune on the chorus, a warning sign. Sure enough, it returns, bigger and badder, spritzing its goo all over "I Got You Dancing ...," signaling that the pandemic continues unabated in hip-hop.

But other vocal effects are at work, too, and they serve the curious function of erasing her thick cockney accent. Her voice is pulled deep into male range in "Pennies," with its chopped-and-screwed feel; "Food Play" makes her sound alien. Her helium squeaks follow a Barry White-esque rumble from a guest named Joey Benjamin. "Food Play," about incorporating grub into foreplay (and possibly beyond), isn't a chocolate-and-strawberries R&B seduction. It's more like a disturbing dream. "Check out my diet tips," she says, "you don't need to eat that burger, so let's just rub it 'round your lips."

There are moments where her arch side shines through, as on "Pennies" when she reminds all the "futhamuckas" out there what her name is, and then turns her name into a weather report ("it's Sover-raining"). But the way she wielded her power with glee three years ago --- the way she snapped, "love me or hate me, it's still an obsession / love me or hate me, that is the question" --- that's absent.

"I Got the Goods!!" wraps up Jigsaw, popping in almost as an afterthought, as if she's reminding us that, yes, she can bring it. If she feels like it.

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