In the music world, playing the dozens trading hard-hitting but
wickedly funny insults with your opponent may be a tradition most
often associated with hip-hop, which, of course, adapted it from the
blues. But for my money, the current heavyweight champion is a
petite 21-year-old Englishwoman who's taking the European pop scene
by storm, and who's gearing up to invade America.
"I never wanted it to end up this way / You've only got
yourself to blame," Lily Allen sings in the ridiculously catchy
chorus of "Not Big," from her debut album "Alright, Still." Then she
really brings the hammer down. "I'm gonna tell them that you're
rubbish in bed now / And that you're small in the game." (Ouch!)
Or how about this rejoinder to an unwelcome advance at the pub in
"Knock 'Em Out"? "Can't knock 'em out, can't walk away / Try
desperately to think of the politest way to say, / 'Just get out my
face, just leave me alone / And no you can't have my number / Why?
Because I've lost my phone.'" (Oomph!)
Then there are these lines from "Friday Night," which hardly
sound like idle boasting, given Allen's track record."There's a
lesson that I want you to learn / If you're gonna play with fire
then you're gonna get burned / Don't try and test me 'cause you'll
get a reaction / Another drink and I'm ready for action."
"Yeah, you'd be right there," Allen says when I note that she
doesn't seem to take much crap from the boys. But what I want to
know is: Does she really have the perfect putdown in the moment, or
are the harshest barbs in her lyrics great lines that she thought of
a few hours after encountering the cad in question? The singer and
"No I'm definitely like that in real life: I can't really help
the way that I am! Most of the album is autobiographical, but some
of it is the fantasy side of it. I'm definitely that angry with
people when they break up with me, but I probably wouldn't tell them
that they had a small penis ... although you never know!"
The daughter of British comedian and ladies' man Keith Allen,
Lily spent her early years bouncing between parents and moving all
over England: She attended 13 different schools between the ages of
five and 15. Music was the one constant in her life.
"I was singing since I was 11 years old, and I sang a lot of
classical music, opera and stuff like that. I knew a lot of hip-hop
songs when I was about 13 or 14, and that really helped me out with
my songwriting, because I write lyrics in the studio like a rapper
would, in the sense that the rhythm and flow of the words is
inspired by the music, and then I get in front of the microphone and
improvise the melodies."
Though there may be a hip-hop sensibility in her lyrics, Allen's
music owes more to the lounge/exotica revival of a few years back,
decorated by producer Mark Ronson (known for his work with Chicago
rapper Rhymefest) with jaunty, '60s jet set horns and rhythms, as
well as hints of the singer's favorite ska and New Wave bands.
(Topping the list: the Specials, Rip Rig and Panic, Blondie and
Issued in the U.K. last June and not slated for a formal U.S.
release until January, "Alright, Still" was a hit long before the
first CD left the pressing plant, thanks to wildly enthusiastic word
of mouth generated by Allen's MySpace site and widespread
downloading of her music on the Web. Once the British disc did come
out, the single "Smile" shot to No. 1.
"The Web is amazing," Allen says. "But more than it being amazing
for the artists, it's amazing for the fans, and I think that's the
most important thing. People say that it's the new way to launch
yourself musically, but I don't really think it's about that. I
think what is great about things like MySpace is not that you'll
gain a career out of it, but the fact that there are kids that are
able to get out there and find music that they actually want to
listen to rather than what is pushed by television and radio, which
are incredibly corrupt anyway. There's hardly any real music
anymore; it's all bulls----."
Clearly, Allen's attitudes about the music industry are as
irreverent and independent as her views about relationships. The
sense of freewheeling enthusiasm that permeates "Alright, Still" is
a big part of what makes it one of the best releases of 2006. But in
her typical fashion, its creator isn't worrying much about her
"I don't want to do this forever," Allen says. "I never want that
mentality that a lot of musicians have: 'I'm going to be making
albums when I'm 65!' Why? They get bored of it by then, and they're
not going to be writing as good songs as they were 20 years ago.
It's not what I want: I want to get married, have children and live
in the countryside. I don't really want to have a pop career when
I'm doing that."
Yet while Allen may have more conventional dreams for the future,
one thing's probably for sure: It's all going to be on her