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Sticks and Stones: strong debut from The X Factor's Cher Lloyd

The promising debut album by Cher Lloyd, The X Factor maverick who the TV-watching public loved to hate, showcases her talent for seizing other artists' gritty songs and making them her own.

Now in its eighth year, the UK version of The X Factor is a colossus of British light entertainment. Yet, for all its brash glitz and showcase of youth, it is a remarkably conservative institution, rarely deviating from a tried-and-trusted formula that's almost entirely reliant on sob stories and social outcasts. For all this, it's immensely watchable as a spectacle, but it's also a missed opportunity, a pantomime whose loudness is merely a disguise for its docility.

In this context, Cher Lloyd's entrance 15 months ago provided something of a shock to the system. Her audition, of Keri Hilson's unofficial bootleg version of rapper Soulja Boy's Turn My Swag On, was a flash of lightning in an otherwise dark sky. For Lloyd's part, using a song predicated on needing no one's approval to introduce herself to a show based on winning public favour was an act of immense chutzpah that immediately put her at odds with what TheX Factor represented.

Lloyd's audition struck its target. Midway through the YouTube clip of her auditions, which has been watched close to 20 million times, there is a cutaway to Simon Cowell: on his face is the quizzical expression of someone with no working knowledge of street rap, in his eyes are the pound signs of a man who knows he can make cash from what he sees.

No wonder he does. Turn My Swag On does not demand technical skill to pull off, but the nebulous concept of "swagger" - or, in Cowell's parlance, the "X factor".

As the series progressed, Lloyd found herself buffeted between the inherently confrontational modes of her favoured performance style and the tyranny of likeability that demands that X Factor contestants prostrate themselves before a British audience that is generally hostile to any overt displays of confidence and determined to cut any potential tall poppies down to size.

Crucially, Cowell had the foresight to realise that popularity among X Factor voters and popularity among the record-buying public are very different things, and the size and devotion of Lloyd's fan base outside of the show was never in doubt. A darker side to the hostility began to emerge, too: epithets such as "chav" and "pikey" could be seen bandied around with increasing frequency to describe the multi-tattooed, working-class teenage girl of Romany heritage. In later interviews, Lloyd would speak about her love of grime for its outsider appeal - she describes it as "fightback music" - and the way in which the online abuse she received mirrored the bullying she suffered as a schoolgirl.

For all the tension and tightrope-walking, Lloyd's X Factor run was not without its moments: a sweet version of BoB's Nothin' On You that she refused to gender-flip; the karate-chop yell of "Quiet!" that closed her final song, Missy Elliott's Get Ur Freak On; an uncomfortably intense rendition of Shakespear's Sister's Stay that left her looking shattered. Most illustrative of her ambition was her performance of Blackstreet's No Diggity in the third week, when her confidence was at its highest: in under three minutes, Lloyd took on the backing vocals, the lead vocals and the Queen Pen rap - and threw in a Tears For Fears chorus to boot. It should have been far too much for her; it wasn't. And it's this spirit that she has managed to carry over to her debut album proper, Sticks & Stones.

It's a project about that even her most ardent fans could have felt trepidation about. How could Simon Cowell's Syco label, with no experience in the urban world whatsoever, possibly preserve her hip-hop rawness? Could the dread hand of will.i.am, with whom she duetted on The X Factor, be stayed? Lloyd may have said after the show that she would have rather performed Lil' Wayne and Nicki Minaj songs every week, but the chances of her being allowed to come up with an A Milli or Roman's Revenge of her own were always less than zero. Lead single Swagger Jagger did little to assuage these fears: widely derided, it wasn't quite the monstrosity it was made out to be - but the chorus interpolation of Oh My Darling, Clementine was unforgivably gimmicky, and Lloyd's rapped verses too underwritten to compensate.

Happily, Swagger Jagger is a red herring. Sticks & Stones is an album of contradictions: a slickly produced grab-bag of every pop trend floating around, but also a rough-and-tumble record full of genuinely singular idiosyncrasies; an album whose dominant aesthetic is sugary-sweet bubblegum, aimed squarely at the teen and tween market, but punctuated with flashes of real aggression; packed with ideas that should never have worked - but that Lloyd somehow pulls off. Playa Boi, for instance, wholly jacks the chorus of Neneh Cherry's Buffalo Stance - a classic that should never be tinkered with, one assumes. What sticks, though, is the sheer creativity and verve of Lloyd's raps - she mimics a car revving up and advises an inadequate suitor to "call Pharrell, cuz you keep on fronting" - and the graffiti-like cheerful disrespect with which she alters Cherry's lyrics to sing about gangstas and brands instead. It's also a reminder of what Lloyd demonstrated on The X Factor: she has a gift for seizing the songs of others and making them hers.

At root, Lloyd's talent lies in the sheer amount of character she packs into her songs. There are a few decidedly dubious moments on Sticks & Stones: an inexplicable Mr Bean reference, for instance, and the ham-fisted boast that "I'm the kind of girl to put dub on the track", as though that wasn't every second girl in the pop charts this year. Lloyd, however, simply rides roughshod over the ropiness and drags you with her. Her manic changes of pace and voice when she raps betray her indebtedness to Nicki Minaj, while in her more insouciant mode she's reminiscent of a less affected Lily Allen. And yet, at no point could Lloyd be mistaken for anyone other than herself. In this regard, despite the widespread lazy comparisons, she is the polar opposite of Cheryl Cole, her X Factor mentor, who possesses all the ability to convey emotion of a plank of wood, could dull even the finest of songs. By contrast, Lloyd's voice bursts with both energy and the kind of hunger normally associated with emergent street rappers. Indeed, at her behest, three underground grime MCs - Mic Righteous, Dot Rotten and Ghetts - feature on the toughest cut here, Dub On The Track: despite the title, it's impressive, a tightly coiled knot of imperious, grinding pop-dubstep. Elsewhere, she punctuates Want U Back with angry wordless sounds reminiscent of another grime MC, the human beatbox Flirta D. When she's aggressive, she continues to expose highly relevant faultlines in society - not just regarding class ("I'm not the Queen, but I'm a be a princess on it," she spits) but also age. In a year characterised by global protest against leadership, a lyric like "We're gonna be the generation that makes everything explode" cannot help but take on extra resonance.

Better than that is Superhero, a song about extracting herself from a staid relationship in which Lloyd darts hither and thither along an irresistible melody and into a playfully jabbing rap, as nimble as a cartoon character and propelled by an immense joie de vivre. Beautiful People, meanwhile, takes the equivalent spot in the album's sequencing that Stay did in her X Factor run - and, like that very song it's an extraordinarily effective and disarming ballad.

Perhaps the most exciting thing about Sticks & Stones is what it promises for the future. It is the sound not of a victim of the Cowell juggernaut, broken by the X Factor experience, but of a confident, unmistakable and hugely topical artist who has stamped her authority all over the debut album that she had to make. Call it swag, call it "the x factor": Lloyd has just turned hers up even more.

 

Alex Macpherson is a regular contributor to The Review.

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