Before we start talking about Lily Allen, let us just point out that we are not, in fact, a year behind the curve on this one. Yes, the music on the brash Brit's MySpace page launched her into Internet stardom at the end of 2005, which was followed by her first U.K. single in April 2006 and then genuine stardom. We are aware that her debut album, released across the pond last July, went platinum and the inevitable Lily Allen backlash has already since come and gone . Her album has been available Stateside for months via (illegal) free downloads and (legal) pricey imports. So it almost comes as a surprise that "Alright, Still" will finally be officially released in the U.S. on Jan. 30. We’ve already had it on repeat for months. Maybe for the American release EMI Music should have retitled it "Still Alright."
Because, let’s face it, that's what it is: even after the buzz and backlash, the 21-year-old's sing-songy ska-pop hip-hop confection is as fresh and beguiling as it was the first time we heard it online—when she only had a fraction of her 98,000 MySpace friends. It's by no means a perfect record, but the only reason we can imagine that it wasn't on every American critic's "Best Of" list for 2006 is that they didn't want to look silly for forgetting it this December. Allen is a bona fide star in England—the tabloids were all over the story when her dog Maggie May was stolen and held for ransom last month. But it remains to be seen if she can carry all that momentum here more than half a year—a lifetime online—after her album first appeared. Everyone who knows about Allen is likely to have her album already.
Still, the fact that this new release is anything but new is sort of fitting: the North London native and her music are both full of contradictions—she has carefully cultivated a street-tough image, but her upbringing was comfortably middle class. She has a taste for retro evening gowns and bouffant hairdos, seemingly at odds with her lyrical sneering and tuff grrrl posturing (which is in turn at odds with her sunny, danceable bouncy beats). In her first single, a limited-edition 7-inch vinyl pressing of “LDN,” she plays with this very theme. Kicking off with a hip-shaking calypso riff, Allen half-raps about riding her bicycle through the streets of London (the text message abbreviation for which is LDN) where “everything seems as it should/ But I wonder what goes on behind doors.” Surprise, surprise, all is not as carefree as the beat might suggest: “A fella looking dapper” turns out to be a pimp; a kid who offers to help an old lady across the street ends up mugging her. “When you look with your eyes/ Everything seems nice/ But if you look twice/ You can see it’s all lies,” she sings. It’s a trite sentiment—one much better mined recently by fellow Londoner Lady Sovereign —but there’s no real arguing with it once the song’s hook digs right into you.
Which keeps happening with these tunes. The first official single from the album was “Smile,” a song that, like much of the album, is a sugar-puff pastry with an acid filling. The beat is reggae this time. After bouncing back from her boyfriend’s infidelity, the innocent-sounding Allen takes surprisingly savage delight in watching him come crawling back. “At first, when I see you cry/ yeah, it makes me smile.” Similarly, the criminally catchy “Not Big” is a devastating take-down of another roaming lover at the end of an affair (we’ll let you deduce from the title where her beau’s chief flaws lay), complete with a revenge fantasy involving working “my way through your mates.” These two songs are the perfect antidotes to the treacly “Littlest Things,” in which she channels the breathy young Jane Birkin to reminisce over minor details of a relationship that has just ended.
“Not Big” and “Smile” also succeed where other songs come off as tedious posturing. The sludgy jazzy funk of “Shame for You” is undone by lines like “Oh my gosh you must be joking me if you think that you’ll be poking me.” (If sultry femme-fatale-jazz-meets-Motown is your bag, hold onto your wallet until March for the release of the more grown-up Amy Winehouse’s “Back to Black.”) “Friday Night” is an unconvincing portrayal of late-night drinking that culminates in a near brawl. Allen can do catty well, but she’s no attack dog—listening to her threaten “one more drink and I’ll be ready for action” makes us want to buy that next round for her.
Much better is “Alfie,” an infectious plea to get her younger brother to stop smoking so much pot and get a life. “Surely there’s some walls out there that you can go and spray,” she entices (there is another layer of irony here in that Allen herself used to deal Ecstasy). Also amusing is “Nan, You’re a Window Shopper,” a scathing parody of 50 Cent’s “Window Shopper”—only instead of dissing the likes of Ja Rule and Nas, Allen lyrically destroys her own grandmother. “Knock ‘Em Dead,” though, is the best song on the album. Professor Longhair’s “Big Chief” piano roll is laid over a massive beat as Allen liltingly raps about dealing with unwanted advances from the opposite sex. Among the excuses she offers up: she’s pregnant, she’s about to get married, she’s lost her cell phone and has no number to give, her house is on fire, she has herpes ... “no, syphilis!” The song is light, fun and witty—a perfect companion to “Fit But You Know It” by The Streets—and actually succeeds where “Friday Night” fails. You’re totally into her but terrified to stand her a pint.