f Lady Sovereign wants to be the next Slim Shady, that’s a-okay with me, especially since Papa Mathers apparently doesn’t feel up to it any more. “You lied to me Dad / And now you made Mommy sad / And I bought you this coin, it says '#1 Dad.'” What the fuck is that? This performance is important, and I don’t think he can put his all in. “Where’s my Red Bull and my sandwich? / (I need food!) / I’m gettin’ pissed like pampers throwin’ a tantrum!” Now, that’s more like it! All this inside baseball business about Sov’s legitimacy within the grime scene feels rather beside the point. Kano? Wiley? Please! She’s Feminem!
“9-5,” my pick for the best single of 2005, isn’t included on Vertically Challenged, but there’s still ample evidence that she’s up to the task. “Random,” the EP’s opening track, is already a classic of sorts. Anyone who’s visited an MP3 blog in the past half-year or so should be familiar with it, and yet—like, say, “Galang” or “I Luv U”—it never stops sounding fresh and exciting. The beat’s hot stuff, to be sure, but it’s Sov’s singular charisma that really sells the thing. It’s not that’s she good (though she is, and she knows it) either; it’s that she’s apparently inexhaustible. I can’t think of a more appropriately titled song, ever. One second she’s paraphrasing J-Kwon and Ludacris, the next she’s comparing asses with J. Lo, or dropping a line like “Can’t see straight like I got one eye / Your bottle opener or mine.”
This is stream-of-consciousness on speed. Em had it mastered (“I hang with a bunch of hippies and wacky tobacco planters / Who swallow lit roaches and light up like jack-o-lanterns”) on his first record. Somewhere between “As the World Turns” and “When I’m Gone,” he lost, or consciously abandoned, that preternatural mastery of the out-of-thin-air rhyme. I respect that, at 33, he’s showing discernible signs of something like maturity, but, frankly, I always preferred “The Real Slim Shady” to “Stan” and “Without Me” to “Cleanin’ Out My Closet.” Not only does Lady Sovereign fill this void, she isn’t hateful or mean-spirited about it. Shady 2.0 is the guilt-free version (because, let’s face it, none of us [I hope] were ever as comfortable with the misogyny and gay-bashing as we might have let on in those poker-faced think-pieces).
The second track on Vertically Challenged is “Cha-Ching (Cheque 1,2 Remix),” a highlight of the vital grime comp Run the Road. It was the first Sov song I came across, and it sounds a little like a manifesto: “When I’m on a train in my chase I attempt to write / About my crazy days / Or my lazy ways / Other days I spend with my dames when I’m in a hazy phase.” Chief among Sov’s pet subjects are her diminutive height (5’1), and, more interestingly, a brand of urban boredom that feels specifically, if not exclusively, British. It’s an affliction she shares with fellow Brit, Mike Skinner, and it, thus, seems only appropriate that Sov’s single finest moment to date is a verse, on Run the Road’s “Fit But You Know It” remix, that clocks in at about half a minute.
Which leads me directly to this EP’s sole, significant flaw: The material it omits. What’s here (“Random,” “Cha-Ching,” three other early tracks, and a few remixes) is uniformly terrific, but throw in “9-5,” said Streets remix, and the latest single, “Hoodie,” and you’ve almost got this year’s Piracy Funds Terrorism. Instead, Vertically Challenged plays like a particularly effective teaser, with many of the best bits shrewdly reserved for the main course—namely, Sov’s debut proper, Straight Up Cheeky, due out early next year on Def Jam.
Here’s to waiting.