(Soundbite of song, "Fiddle with the Volume")


And now to hip-hop star Lady Sovereign. That's what a diminutive British rapper named Louise Harman calls herself. Despite the royal name, Lady Sovereign grew up in public housing in London. Her rhymes are anything but highbrow. Her first CD, "Public Warning," has done well in the UK. It's now available on a major label here in the U.S., Def Jam. Music critic Christian Bordal spoke with Lady Sovereign in our studios during a recent Los Angeles tour stop.

CHRISTIAN BORDAL: First impressions of Lady Sovereign. Tiny. About five feet tall. She looks about 12.

(Soundbite of song, "Love Me or Hate Me")

LADY SOVEREIGN (Rapper): (Singing) Yeah. It's officially the biggest midget in the game.

BORDAL: When she walks into the studio she shuffles and bobs like a cross between a 60-year-old man with a bad back and a high schooler in the hood. But when she gets on stage everyone does a double take that's been Lady Sovereign's springboard to a major label. How can all that punk ass, hip-hop attitude, that reggae-ized, working class, expletive-laced voice belong to this little girl?

(Soundbite of song, "Love Me or Hate Me")

LADY SOVEREIGN: (Singing) Make way for the S-O-V. Love me or hate me it's still an obsession. Love me or hate me that is the question. If you love me, then thank you. If you hate me then (beep) you. Love me or hate me... TEXT: BORDAL: In the hip-hop world with nothing but sexualized images of women, Lady Sovereign is keeping it real.

LADY SOVEREIGN: Me, like, I've always been a tomboy. I don't even like to use that term because like, I just am who I am and I just wear what I want to wear. You won't catch me in a skirt. No - I wouldn't wear a dress or anything with flowers on it.

BORDAL: No skirts or dresses.

LADY SOVEREIGN: No pink (unintelligible)

BORDAL: She wears her working class credentials on her musical sleeve. But Lady Sovereign's sudden rise from the London projects and made metamorphosis into a hip-hop name has caused some friction with old friends.

LADY SOVEREIGN: It's these certain people who made me feel like I'm acting better than them when really I'm not. It's just that they ain't doing anything. It's horrible, you know what I mean, because I've come a long way and I just think that would be nice for them people (unintelligible) say well done, give me the pat on the back; instead they want to drink all my money down the drain. Bastards.

(Soundbite of song, "Public Warning")

LADY SOVEREIGN: (Rapping) Oh my gosh my days are getting longer and there's no turning back cuz I'm working from 9 to 5. To keep my contract did I say 9 I meant. I ain't no early bird and I'm lazy, dats all dat I can say. So make sure you heard me.

BORDAL: SOV, as she calls herself for short comes out of the grind scene in the U.K. - a kind of stripped-down dance club hip-hop that's spawned a number of other working class heroes like the Streets and (unintelligible) Rascals. She writes and records most of her songs with partner Gabriel Olegavich, a.k.a. Medasyn.

She says the two of them work everything up from scratch in the studio, she free-styling over whatever Medasyn comes up with for the track.

LADY SOVEREIGN: Just get in the studio and just have a laugh. Do something weird, Meds, and he'll start the whole thing and then I'll also put my input into what I'm thinking. And it just goes back and forth, back and forth until it just, you know, just ends in one big mess, really, and it's great.

(Soundbite of song, "Public Warning")

LADY SOVEREIGN: (Rapping) Remember when Betty bought a bit of butter, Well I'm bringing a bit of better, a bit of gutter, a bit of uh uh, a bit of haha, A bit of every little damn thing. Public warning, who's in town? Public warning, all bow down.

BORDAL: By now, you've no doubt got the message. This is not consciousness raising art with a capital A. This is music about burping and hairy armpits, and kids with hoodies. And though sometimes the character feels a bit over the top, like a bit of a put-on, what works is her often self-deprecating humor and that bouncy dance party lack of inhibition.

In a world of slick, corporate music and sex appeal, it's that raw, unpolished quality in Lady Sovereign that draws people in and that I think lies at the heart of her appeal.

For NPR News, this is Christian Bordal.

(Soundbite of music)

BRAND: Lady Sovereign's CD is called "Public Warning." You can hear full-length cuts from it at our Web site, npr.org. More to come on DAY TO DAY from NPR News.

(Soundbite of song, "Public Warning")

LADY SOVEREIGN: (Singing) I'm that walkin' dictionary I'm that talking thesaurus. I'm that old school, prehistoric (unintelligible). I got a habit of absolutely damaging any track when I attack it...

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