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Lily Allen Knocks ‘Em Out!

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Watch out, Gwen Stefani and Fergie! You’ve got some fierce competition in the form of a tiny, twenty-one-year-old, trash-talking, British export by the name of Lily Allen.


Allen has been all the rage back in her native UK and featured on music blogs for months now. Her American invasion is imminent. Her debut album, Alright, Still, released in the UK last July, went platinum and came out in the U.S. on January 30th. She made an appearance on Saturday Night Live on February 3rd, and will be hitting the summer music festival circuit, including MTV’s Discover and Download Tour.


Allen, like Stefani, infuses her bubblegum pop with ska and hip-hop sounds. Unlike Stefani however, Allen raps using cheeky, acerbic, and often hysterical lyrics—bringing to mind other young Brit rappers, such as The Streets’ Mike Skinner, Lady Sovereign, and MIA.


Though she poses as a tough, Cockney, street girl, Allen, the daughter of British actor, Keith Allen, had a privileged upbringing, having attended (and been expelled from) a number of posh, private schools. Her tough-girl image is also contradicted by her fashion choices. Allen has a penchant for vintage prom dresses and bouffant hairdos with short fringe, giving her a saccharine facade. You wouldn’t expect a pixie like her to rap, “Oh my gosh you must be joking me/If you think that you’ll be poking me.”


According to an interview Allen did back in November with the music Web site Pitchfork, she initially signed a recording contract with Regal, a division of Polygram, for £25,000. At the time, the label was busy promoting albums by big names like Kylie Minogue, Coldplay and Gorillaz, and wasn’t exactly sure what to do with their new, young artist. They planned to team her up with mainstream producers and writers because they didn’t think her material was “pop” enough. 


In November 2005, two months after Allen signed with Regal, she set up an account on MySpace, following a serendipitous meeting with fellow Brit rapper, Lady Sovereign, who suggested the social-networking site to her. Allen’s colorful page, with lots of pictures and blog posts, rotated the seven or eight demos she’d produced up to that point, on a regular basis. Based on the strength of these demos and word-of-mouth, Allen developed a huge following. At my last look, she had 128,317 friends on her MySpace page!


The British press fell for the outspoken, one-woman marketing powerhouse and wrote about her constantly—the bad stories along with the good. Last year, when NME, an influential English music magazine, asked how she’d celebrate if her first single, “Smile,” went to number one, Allen replied, “gak”—British slang for cocaine. She came under attack for this comment, which she insists was a joke, and was forced to apologize. Later in the year, NME nominated her the third “coolest” person of 2006. Allen then vehemently protested the magazine on her blog, calling it “sexist,” after she and two other female artists (Karen O of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, who was number five on the list, and Beth Ditto of The Gossip, who nabbed the number one spot) were knocked off the magazine’s cover with a picture of the three-man band Muse, who didn’t even make the list! More recently, papers reported on her bull terrier Maggie May being dognapped, and the dog’s subsequent, safe return.


The press also loves Allen for her scathing criticisms and very opinionated views, which the singer is not shy about sharing. She often riffs on fellow musicians. For example, the Australian radio station, KROCK, quotes her as saying, “James Blunt rhymes with his surname,” “The Pussycat Dolls are skinny lapdancers,” and “Pete Doherty needs to be exterminated.” The British Web site Fametastic.com also can’t keep from posting her choice sound bytes, like this one on Victoria Beckham: “She gives a bad image to children. No one should be that skinny. I don’t care how much she says that’s her natural weight, that’s bull. She gets photographed every day and doesn’t eat anything.” And another: “Paris Hilton’s album did really badly over here and I just think it’s so boring and pathetic and it shouldn’t happen…People cheesy enough to buy albums like that should be killed.” The American music press has also joined in; on the blog Stereogum.com, for example, there’re some great Lily quotes on Madonna: “I haven’t got anything against [Madonna] at all, but I don’t think anything she’s done since the early eighties has really been like, ‘wow.’ She might have meant something once but I don’t know many people my age who care.” “…an interviewer asked me who, in my opinion, was the most overrated pop star. And overrated for me is someone who sells a lot of records because of who they are. And I don’t think people buy Madonna’s records because they think they’re really good.”


Whether American audiences think Alright, Still is “really good” is still to be determined. Thanks to lots of blog-love, Allen has amassed a large Internet following (she immediately sold out her first U.S. show at NYC’s Hiro Ballroom back in October 2006), but will her music break the American Top Forty? Hopefully, it will. The disk, produced in New York by Mark Ronson, is damn catchy, with her lite-style rapping, her girlish voice, and all the ska, hip-hop, and calypso influences. The album definitely has the potential to get your head bopping, and has songs that can stick in your mind for hours. But it’s not just the infectious melodies that are worth noting. Allen’s lyrics, though at times juvenile and irreverent, can also be frank, honest, cutting, and funny—oftentimes attacking ex-lovers and bitchy girls. 


On her lead single, “Smile,” about a cheating ex-boyfriend, Allen sings, “When you first left me I was wanting more/But you were f—-ing that girl next door, what ya do that for?”  She then adds a bit of schadenfreude in the chorus with, “At first when I see you cry/Yeah it makes me smile, yeah it make me smile/At worst I feel bad for a while/But then I just smile, I go ahead and smile.” What scorned woman hasn’t felt that way about an ex?


“Knock ‘Em Out” is a hysterical, frenetic rap about the anxiety women endure while trying to avoid undesirable, “last call” hook-ups and the desperate lines they make up. “You’re just doing your own thing/And someone comes out the blue/They’re like, ‘alright.’/He’s saying, ‘Yeah can I take your digits?’/And you’re like, ‘No, not in a million years. You’re nasty. Please leave me alone.’” Excuses a girl might like to use if she had the nerve, are comically thrown into the mix: “No, you can’t have my number/Because I’ve lost my phone,” “Oh yeah, actually, yeah, I’m pregnant/Having a baby in like six months, so yeah, yeah…” “I’ve got to go cos my house is on fire,” “I’ve got herpes.”


On a perfect, summer-day soundtrack, “LDN” (the text message shortcut for “London”), Allen bicycles around the city because “the filth took away my license,” but “it doesn’t get me down… cause the sights that I’m seeing are priceless.” The sights include a pimp and his crack whore and a teen mugging an old lady. “When you look with your eyes/Everything seems nice/But if you look twice/You can see it’s all lies.” Despite the seedy undercurrents, Allen stays positive, because “Sun is in the sky, oh why, oh why/Would I wanna be anywhere else?”


On “Not Big” (yes, she does mean in that way) Allen confronts a bad boyfriend and threatens him with, “Yeah, you really must think you’re great/Let’s see how you feel in a couple of weeks/When I work my way through your mates.” She further berates him by reminding him, “Yeah let’s rewind, let’s turn back time to when you couldn’t get it up/You know what?/It should have ended there/That’s when I should have shown you the door/If that weren’t enough to deal with/You became premature.”


“Friday Night” describes a typical evening out in a club filled with obnoxious, boozy crowds and attention-craving, feisty ladies. An encounter with a competitive, belligerent female partier elicits the response: “Looked me up and down/I don’t make a sound/There’s a lesson that I want you to learn/If you’re gonna play with fire then you’re gonna get burned.” Allen’s not one to take snubs lightly, “Don’t try and test me cos you’ll get a reaction/Another drink and I’m ready for action.”


“Shame for You” is slightly reminiscent of Fiona Apple, with its thudding piano and Allen’s talk-singing jabs at another cheating lover. “Littlest Things” is a ballad about a love lost that Allen sincerely mourns as she recalls the good times, “And I remember when you started calling me your missus/All the play fighting, all the flirtatious disses,” along with “drinking tea in bed,” watching DVDs and going shopping together. Allen sadly laments, “Dreams, dreams/Of when we had just started things/Dreams of you and me/It seems, it seems/That I can’t shake those memories/I wonder if you have the same dreams too.” On the album closer, “Alfie,” Allen offers advice nursery-rhyme style to her slacker, stoner, little brother.


Listeners will either love or hate Lily Allen. Men may not like her brash rants against their kin, while young girls will probably love her grrrl power and cute style. While Allen undoubtedly has sass and spunk, will it be enough to make her a star in the States?


Photo: Chris Floyd

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