The Streets’ explosive debut album Original Pirate Material was one of the finest releases of 2002, establishing one Mike Skinner as one of the best young talents Britain had to offer. “I produce this using only my bare wit/ Gimme a jungle a garage beat and admit defeat,” he brashly declared, and did he ever deliver on his promise, fusing hip-hop, UK garage, and dub in his home studio, while writing some of the cleverest lyrics we had heard in years. With standout songs like “Turn the Page”, “Let’s Push Things Forward”, and “Weak Become Heroes”, you had the feeling the sky was the limit with this guy. A year later, though, after several underwhelming EPs, the inevitable question that lingered was, is this guy just another flash in the pan?
You might as well just hand the title of The Best Hip-Hop Artist in the UK to Dizzee Rascal, because Mike Skinner has now taken The Streets into completely different territory, one that defies categorization. The new album, A Grand Don’t Come For Free, while still possessing strong hip hop and garage influences, simplifies things, yet keeps pushing forward. Gone are the hard-hitting, braggadocio-laden filler tracks like “Sharp Darts” and “Who Got the Funk?”, as Skinner stays away from Dizzee’s mean streets and focuses on the more comfortably bland suburbs, bringing in more traditional rock and pop styles. There’s no filler here; each song is carefully constructed, each one memorable in its own way. The music is much more consistent from track to track, as the focus is less on the beats themselves, and more on the melodies. With this record, Skinner is now in a class all his own; nobody else is making music like this.
That slight change in musical direction, interesting as it is, pales in comparison to Skinner’s development as a lyricist, and it’s his clever observations of everyday life and his relaxed, colloquial wordplay that makes this album an undeniable triumph. On Original Pirate Material, Skinner showed hints of becoming a foremost voice of middle class Britain, much like Pulp’s Jarvis Cocker and the great filmmaker Mike Leigh, and on A Grand Don’t Come For Free, he proves to be every bit their equal. Not so much a rapper as a spoken word artist, Skinner’s laid back, conversational vocal style makes his music immediately charming, as he tells tale after tale like a guy spinning yarns across a pub table, and you can’t help but hang on every word.
A very daring idea in popular music today, the new CD is a concept album, as Skinner delivers a surprisingly well-rounded story about falling in love, falling out of love, and everything in between. It doesn’t sound like much, and on paper, it’s certainly not the most original plot, but the brilliant way Skinner takes ordinary, everyday scenarios, be it returning a DVD, trouble with cell phone reception, or the expression in his girl’s eyes, and treats them like the most crucial, important instances in his protagonist’s life at that very moment, is what makes this so special. Transcendence in a mundane setting, some might say, and this album achieves just that.
A characteristic of every good concept album, each track on A Grand Don’t Come For Free is excellent when listened to on its own. With a repeated sample of a bombastic brass fanfare, the wryly comedic “It Was Supposed to Be So Easy” has Skinner’s world falling apart all around him, as every errand he tries to do, be it returning a movie to a video store, going to the bank machine, or phoning his mother, is beset with obstacle after obstacle, as he concludes in a “whaddya gonna do?” tone of voice, “Today I have achieved absolutely nowt/ In just being out of the house I’ve lost out.” “Such a Twat” chronicles a phone conversation between Mike and his friend, as a simple synth line underscores his annoyance with his phone’s reception, which climaxes when Skinner interrupts the song midway through with an expression of such frustration, the sheer familiarity of the problem can’t help but elicit a laugh. The cautionary gambling tale “Not Addicted” possesses the hardest beats on the album, while the catchy “Get Out of My House” features garage artist C-Mone, who offers a female perspective on a boy-girl fight.
The fabulously jaunty first single “Fit But You Know It” completely smacks of Blur’s “Parklife”, with its propulsive 2/4 beat and snappy electric guitar lick, not to mention its wealth of very hilarious lines (“‘Scuse me girl, I know it’s a bit embarrassing, but I’ve just noticed some tan lines on your shirt”). Meanwhile, the hypnotic “Blinded By the Lights” bears a close similarity to “Weak Become Heroes”, but instead of reminiscing, Skinner is in the present tense. Over a minimal trance sample and a repeated vocal sample during the choruses, Skinner describes his anxiety about not finding his friends at a club, and the mind-bending after-effects of taking too many pills while waiting.
It’s the album’s love songs, though, that will raise the most eyebrows, as Skinner doesn’t hold back one bit, falling head over heels in love, and suffering badly when it all goes bad. “Could Well Be In” is the most sweetly optimistic moment on the album; a simple three chord piano phrase carries the song, as Skinner is absolutely charming, musing about the girl he’s talking to: “I saw this thing on ITV the other week/ Said that if she played with her hair she’s probably keen/ She’s playing with her hair well regularly/ So I reckon I could well be in.” “Wouldn’t Have it Any Other Way” has more of an R&B feel in its gentle beats and slick keyboard chords, the song depicting the simple pleasure of sitting at home with someone you’re crazy about, just talking, watching TV, or in Skinner’s case, “roaching spliffs.” If that weren’t enough, there’s “Dry Your Eyes”, the album’s boldest track. It’s simple, and it’s shamelessly maudlin, as Skinner sings such goofy lines as “There’s plenty more fish in the sea,” over a syrupy strings and acoustic guitar arrangement, but when you hear it immediately after the devastating plot developments in “What is He Thinking?”, Skinner’s desperation hits you hard, and its impact will stay with you every time you hear the song. It may sound corny, but you do feel his pain; sometimes, in instances of raw emotion, all that you need is simplicity, and Skinner’s attention to simple detail is heartwrenching: “Her eyes glaze over like she’s looking straight through me/ And her eyes must have closed for what seems an eternity/ When they open up she’s looking down at her feet.”
Of course, half the fun is hearing the album’s story develop the first time you hear it, and by the time you get through the intensity of “What is He Thinking?” and the sadness of “Dry Your Eyes”, the denouement in the closing track “Empty Cans” will have you smiling. The song has Skinner’s best production, with a fantastic, pulse-pounding beat and a string accompaniment, as the eight minute track veers from a menacing first half to an uplifting conclusion, the mood shifting with only the subtlest of changes in the arrangement. “It was the end of something I did not want to end/ The beginning of hard times to come,” says Skinner in the song, “but something that was not meant to be is done/ And this is the start of what was.”
As you’re left with the final mental image of Skinner leaving his flat in the cool morning sun, having returned to his normal humdrum life (“My jeans felt a bit too tight/ Must have washed them too high”), walking off in the distance, you’re hit by just how powerful his little story actually turned out to be. Like Leigh’s film High Hopes, like Pulp’s Different Class, A Grand Don’t Come For Free is a superb, perceptive portrait of everyday British life, completely devoid of any pretentiousness, and musically, though his beats are toned down, it cements Skinner’s status as a true original in UK music. As some guy named Bob once said, “It’s life, and life only.” Hey, when it’s depicted as beautifully and as passionately as it is here, we’ll take it.