After decades of suffering glittery novelties like Icy Blu, Blondie, and, most recently, the puerile Princess Superstar, rap has finally been gifted its first great artisan of the white female voice. And surely it's the voice that makes Lady Sovereign so striking. A rare thing, it occupies a girlish upper register without sacrificing grittiness or gravity. It sometimes swoops up playfully, neighing like Missy Elliott, but is more often monotone and precisely rhythmic. With five songs and three remixes, Vertically Challenged is a bit padded, but it's mostly a joyous little jumble. Musically, it's characteristic of the U.K.'s grime scene from which Sovereign has emerged, which means it's a buzzing, bleeping, and whirring midpoint between electro and digitized dancehall riddim. Sovereign's lyrics, dense with London slang and accented with Kingston patois, are light but likable. It's that voice, though, that enlivens and distinguishes her songs.
This is Lady's Sovereign's first official U.S. release and her last before she enters a perilous creative space: Signed by Jay-Z last April, the MC is set to drop her full-length debut this spring on Island/Def Jam. I take it as a dark omen that when Jay flew her out for her first meeting, Usher and L.A. Reid were also lurking desk-side.