A Grand Don't Come for Free
US: 18 May 2004
UK: 10 May 2004
Summary of the work:
Congratulations, Dizzee Rascal. With the follow-up to 2002’s Original Pirate Material, Mike Skinner (aka the Streets) forfeits the race for Best British Rapper by conceding the obvious: he’s got no flow. But the Streets’ peers shouldn’t start celebrating yet.
On his newest release, A Grand Don’t Come for Free, Skinner betters upon his debut, transcending hip-hop conventions to confect a fully realized, genre-bending adventure into the everyday. The emphasis here is on story, not rap. From song to song, Skinner weaves an ingenious narrative with a beginning, middle and end (two ends, in fact). The resulting record blends the wry appreciation for the mundane of Seinfeld, the honest romanticism of Swingers, and the plot twists of Charles Dickens. Sure, some of Skinner’s couplets aren’t as sharp as on Original Pirate Material, but that’s beside the point.
One of the greatest pleasures here is letting the story reveal itself over repeated listens, so I’ll try not to spoil it. Just expect fuller instrumentation, stronger melodies, and a carefully crafted composition that can only be described as literary. Doubters confounded by the Streets’ uninspired inter-album efforts, like the “Don’t Mug Yourself” single or the “All Got Our Runnins” Internet EP, it’s time to return to the fold
Mike: The primary narrator is still a spliff-roaching, brandy-swilling geezer. He’s Mikey and Trent from Swingers in a single cockney accent.
Dan, Scott: Mike’s “mates”
Simone: Mike’s girl (no “birds” on this record, for whatever reason)
Chapter 1: It Was Supposed to Be So Easy
Summary: A sample of Old Hollywood-style brass fanfare announces the maestro’s presence. Mike’s to-do list: “Just take back the DVD / withdraw that extra money / tell Mum I wouldn’t be back for tea / then grab my savings and hurry.” Step by step, he achieves “absolutely naught”, to hilarious effect. Worst of all, his money vanishes from the living room next to the telly, under the not-so-watchful eyes of Scott and Dan.
Commentary: This track introduces us to the album’s quotidian concerns: failing cell phones, uneasy relationships, and of course, a missing 1,000 pounds. The rest of the disc follows that money’s human costs.
Chapter 2: Could Well Be In
Summary: Mike meets Simone for a date. “She didn’t look too bored with what I was saying,” he says. He tells her he wants someone he can get lost chatting with, then realizes they’ve been talking for three hours.
Commentary: Simple piano chords worthy of David Gray’s White Ladder overlay Skinner’s patented garage/house beats, accented by indeterminate, backwards-sounding horns. There’s nothing particularly original about the insecure boy-meets-girl situation (in fact, Mike’s playing with an ash tray recalls John Mayer’s “quick game of chess with the salt and pepper shaker”), but Skinner’s pitch-perfect evocation gives this stock scene new life. Like Jerry Seinfeld or Jane Austen, he understands the non-verbal language of his time and place. In other words, we all know what it means when Simone switches her phone to silent. Significantly, Mike airs his suspicions about Scott and Dan and the matter of 1,000 quid.
Chapter 3: Not Addicted
Summary: Mike’s not an addict, baby, that’s a lie… at least when it comes to gambling on football in this tongue-in-cheek interlude. Music reminiscent of “Too Much Brandy” sees Mike nearly lose what money he still possesses.
Commentary: Fresh with excitement after meeting the girl of his dreams, Mike figures it’s his lucky day. “Not Addicted” is like Wemmick’s wedding to Miss Skiffins in Great Expectations—a somewhat extraneous diversion, but fun nonetheless.
Chapter 4: Blinded by the Light
Summary: This is Mike’s brain on drugs. He waits for his friends and Simone at a club, popping pills in the meantime (ecstasy, perhaps?). “I hate coming to the entrance / just to get bars on my phone,” he laments, in what must be the first song to transcribe a text-message conversation.
Commentary: It’s “Weak Become Heroes” for the post-rave era. Mike’s tripped-out stream-of-consciousness at track’s end glosses over a key plot point, so pay close attention.
Chapter 5: I Wouldn’t Have It Any Other Way
Summary: Mike admits he prefers his simple life “roaching a spliff, watching the TV” with Simone to hanging out with Scott and Dan. “I don’t want to knock my mates,” he avers. By song’s end, he goes out with them again, but sincerely misses Simone.
Analysis: An optimistic keyboard plays arpeggios worthy of Stevie Wonder, building to a warm chorus of unabashed love. It’s early, but this could be the best—or at least the most realistic—love song of the year. As a bonus, it introduces Mike’s obsession with his broken TV.
Chapter 6: Get Out of My House
Summary: Simone throws Mike out of her house. “I’ll be proper angry if / you’re not back later on your knees,” she fumes. “You don’t care about my broken TV!” he retorts over distorted beats. As the track fades out, we hear only Mike as he fends off her questions. “It’s hard enough to remember my opinions without remembering my reasons for them,” he complains.
Commentary: English teachers call this “rising tension.”
Chapter 7: Fit But You Know It
Summary: Mike needs excitement. When some fake-tanned bird won’t provide him this, he makes a drunken arse of himself. Common sense. Simple common sense.
Commentary: An anonymous guitar sample becomes a bouncy power-chord vamp that wouldn’t seem out of place in the other trendy “garage” music. This track is the single, and with good reason: It’s a catchy, girl-related romp a la “Don’t Mug Yourself”. Mike proceeds to mug himself. “What the fuck do I care / I’ve got a girlfriend, anyway,” he slurs.
Glossary: Rude “Not rude like ‘good’ / but just rude like ‘uncouth’”
Chapter 8: Such a Twat
Summary: In a phone conversation, Mike rails at himself for hitting on that girl while on holiday. The motif of Mike’s cell-phone troubles continues: “I’ve got crap reception in my house / I have to stand in a certain spot in my kitchen or it cuts out,” he observes. “Hello? Fucking phones, man!”
Commentary: Unless my ears deceive me, Mike hasn’t cheated on Simone, merely lusted in his heart. Ever the romantic, he still can’t help but be furious at himself for almost ruining what he hopes is true love.
Chapter 9: What Is He Thinking?
Summary: An insistent beat pushes tensions to the breaking point. Scott has Mike’s pea coat, and Mike can’t fathom why. When Scott explains, Mike’s whole world caves in.
Commentary: This is the climax, kids. Pay special attention to the last verse. Skinner’s mastery continues.
Chapter 10: Dry Your Eyes
Summary: With strummy acoustic guitars, Skinner has crafted a garage ballad, if you can believe it. Lush, wall-of-sound strings empathize with a simple chorus that actually makes the cliché “There’s plenty more fish in the sea” sound meaningful.
Commentary: Chris Martin added guest vocals in an unreleased version, and it’s easy to see why; “Dry Your Eyes” echoes the theme of Coldplay’s “The Scientist” and its “No one ever said it would be so hard” refrain. But Martin’s absence is a boon, as the song will also appeal to people who find Coldplay a tad intellectually bankrupt.
Chapter 11: Empty Cans
Summary: The album’s final track is really two songs in one, separated by the sound of a tape rewinding nearly 3 minutes in. In both songs, a combative snare drum introduces us to Mike’s bitter, drinking-alone side: “Can you rely on anyone in this world? / No, you can’t.” The first ending sees Mike slip into bratty self-absorption, a la Pip toward the end of Great Expectations, while the second involves wistful pianos and a glorious reconciliation. In either case, Mike finally tries to fix the TV. A real Cliffs Notes would give away the ending, New Radicals-style, but I’ll let you listen for yourself.
Commentary: A Grand Don’t Come for Free closes with a message of self-reliance that invokes the Roman imagery of “Turn the Page,” the first song on Original Pirate Material: “I realized that it is true / no one’s really there fighting for you in the last garrison / no one except yourself, that is / no one except you.”
Here’s hoping Skinner recoups his 1,000 quid a 100 times over. A Grand Don’t Come for Free is a masterpiece that makes other albums—the gray multitude of discs that fit neatly into a single genre or slap together a dozen thematically unrelated songs—seem like so many broken TVs.