It’s not that he’s the greatest lyricist of all time, because he’s not. Mike Skinner makes a whole boatload of rookie mistakes on this record: going too fast and trampling all over his own beats, repeating things over and over in that annoying first-gig-at-the-poetry-slam style, and owing too obvious a debt to favorite artists (most notably Wu-Tang in both group and solo configurations). I’ve heard people talk about how “It’s Too Late” makes them cry, but to me it’s a forced mess. It’s calculated to make us feel bad for the narrator when he loses his girlfriend because he was late once too often, but there’s no drama in its ham-handed approach—tipping your hand in the very first line is one of those lessons you learn in high school creative writing class—and it’s hard to feel any sympathy for the dude anyway, because his fatal lateness is caused by spending too much time on his hair and trying to get money to pay his dealers. Ho hum.
And it’s not that these are the freshest beats even of the year, because they aren’t. Two-step is still a new-ish thing over here, but it’s not so new that I’m all blown away by it, and again the shadow of the RZA is all over the fake-orchestra synth swoops and the “ominous” shading on some of the tracks. The music is never boring or anything—in fact, it’s lively as hell—but it’s hardly revolutionary, and I’m not sure where Skinner goes from here when he’s already starting to repeat himself.
So my love for Original Pirate Material must lie in the in-between zone, the Gestalt that arises when you follow your own path and create a persona that no one else has, quite, before. The story of how the album got made shouldn’t be relevant but it is: he was gonna do this as a posse thing, but his mates just somehow didn’t have the kind of dedication and drive and desire that he has, so he just did the damned thing himself in his bedroom. And that’s exactly what you get here: the stuff that’s on the mind of a 22-year-old London “geezer” (yeah, I know he’s Brummie all the way, but he don’t live there now do he?) right here right now. It’s a report from the safe but interesting front lines of British-boy culture, blah blah blah insert sociological bullshit here if you wish. More importantly, it just sounds fresh-faced, fun, fuck-it-let’s-just-do-this.
And if Skinner isn’t an innovator, he is at least one of the most endearing musical personalities to come along in many years: he’s tough but vulnerable, slangy but somehow correct, down with the homeys but strangely removed from it all. He has absorbed all the music that he’s ever come across, which is a good thing: the cod-reggae of “Let’s Push Things Forward,” the cod-JB’s sound of “Who Got the Funk?”, the cod-house of “Weak Become Heroes,” and the cod-Neptunes slam that backs his cod-freestyle on “Sharp Darts” are all filtered through a populist sort of two-step and come out sounding like something we needed.
It’s the same with what he’s actually saying and singing about: no one should go around comparing him with Rakim or Gift of Gab or Nas or anything, but Mike Skinner is important because he communicates what’s in his soul without filtering it at all. “It’s Too Late” is the only track that fails to be immediate, and whether it’s the “hey look at me” vibe of “Has It Come to This?” and “Let’s Push Things Forward,” or the snapshots of his life on “Geezers Need Excitement” and “Weak Become Heroes,” it’s impossible to dislike this kid. He boasts about how great he is, but is willing to admit that he’s afraid of getting beaten up over a “bird”; he wants us to just take his life at face value but he still wants to improve his life, get responsible, and “Stay Positive”; he tries to sound mean on the microphone but he doesn’t disguise his somewhat plum-flavored accent.
And he’s funny. “Don’t Mug Yourself” is my favorite piece on the record, a great two-headed monster in which on the one hand he talks about how this girl is really into him and how she’s going to call him because she likes him and on the other hand his friends tell him to give it up, she don’t like him and she never will. Oh, and she’s got crab and shrimp in her teeth. This last improv, by a Skinner associate, causes the whole crew to crack up, and they just cut the track off—it’s real, it’s brilliant, and it’s truly hilarious when you hear it for the 15th time. And “The Irony of It All” is just as funny, a dialogue between Terry the drunken hooligan and Tim the cooled-out pothead. These characters are so well-defined in the confines of a three-and-a-half-minute stop-start garage-reggae pop song, that you actually feel upset at the end when it appears that Terry is going to beat Tim up for suggesting that it’s “lairy” drunkards like him who are the true menaces in England.
And the slang . . . well, the slang is ace too. If this album doesn’t single-handedly bring back “geezer” and “lairy” as general terms thrown about the place, then I’ll eat me ‘at I will.
So yeah: I like this non-revolutionary non-innovative album because I like what I know about Mike Skinner from listening to his record. Does he have another one like this in him? I worry not: his next disc will probably reek of money and guest appearances and real studio time, and therefore ‘twill suck. But the perfect imperfections of this record just sound real and right to me right now . . . I probably like the mistakes and bad ideas as much if not more than the “great” stuff. Sure, “Weak Become Heroes” is a wonderfully-constructed song about the end of childhood innocence and the end of rave culture and the glory and ephemeral nature of Ecstasy-derived happiness. Me, I prefer how sloppy/cool the chorus of “Don’t Mug Yourself” sounds, and how the verses of “Too Much Brandy” don’t quite come together, and how Skinner just doesn’t give a damn what kind of music he’s making. He just makes it, and that makes this a great record. Screw the future: this is the right now. And it rocks.