Mike Skinner has never been an optimist.
With Original Pirate Material, the young British rapper/producer known as The Streets introduced himself to the world and built a loyal cult following with his completely unique style. The diverse beats, constructed on his laptop, served as the backdrop for a range of well-observed, heavily-accented, literate slice-of-life raps: Skinner’s rhymes didn’t flow, they staggered, and together with the idiosyncratic banger loops he composed, the album became more than just an album: it was a statement of life, a perfect encapsulation of a distinct generation of youth, slightly confused and cynical but well-meaning. With his personal narratives and completely naked honesty, Mike Skinner was in essence the Harvey Pekar of hip-hop, and his debut’s success raised a nagging question: how would he deal with the issue of sudden notoriety, the change from the everyman lifestyle he had come to represent?
The Streets handily dodged the issue with 2004’s A Grand Don’t Come for Free, on which Skinner created an overarching movie-like plotline, a story told in first-person by a narrator very similar to an Original Pirate Material-era Mike Skinner himself. The device was interesting, carrying over from song to song and linking them together thematically, while the individual tracks still worked on the same level that songs from the first album had. If Original Pirate Material had been a series of photographs, Skinner explained, A Grand Don’t Come for Free was the movie, and while the two were fairly different they retained a similar feel and tone. But with the third album from The Streets, The Hardest Way to Make an Easy Living, Skinner finally confronts the issue of his own success, issuing a series of Original Pirate Material-style vignettes from life as Mike Skinner the successful musician and not Mike Skinner the average young Brit. Where he used to stress out over whether girls liked him and how he could afford to pay the dealer, he now stresses out about finding a place to do lines without being bombarded by the paparazzi. And in many respects, Mike Skinner has not changed: he’s still charismatic, he’s still insecure, and he’s still just as messily pessimistic.
The album opens chaotically with the well-produced, dramatic banger “Prangin Out”, synthesizers and tense punches of piano over vocal samples colliding effectively with Skinner’s account of drug-induced confusion and stress. Title track “The Hardest Way to Make an Easy Living” is another highlight: Skinner’s raps are true to the Streets form, well-narrated and glumly introspective without slipping into unsympathetic whining, and the beat is a beautifully soulful hum with a catchy whistled chorus. First single “When You Wasn’t Famous” brings Skinner detailing the difficulties of trying to date another drug-using celebrity, and the hook is great yet again. However, mixed in between are a number of less-compelling tracks: songs like “War of the Sexes” and “Can’t Con an Honest John” are less-exceptional, impersonal runs of cheap jokes and social commentary (think “Gold Digger”, but not as good) that don’t play to Skinner’s strengths as a storyteller and are often put over the uglier, harsher beats on the disc.
“Never Went to Church” is the real showstopper of the bunch, Skinner returning to his trademark pretty piano loops and personal lyrics as he discusses both his own struggles with religion and the death of his father. It builds emotion without falling into sappy oversentimentality as it so easily could, and it ends up as a gorgeous message to his dad that remembers the reality of life even as it commemorates his memory: “Every time I interrupt someone like you used to / When I do something like you you’ll be on my mind all through / Because I forgot you left me behind to remind me of you,” Skinner raps, blending the beautiful with the bittersweet and finding truth.
All of the musical elements that made the previous albums are here as well, and The Streets seem to be maturing musically: Skinner sings more often here and flows more nimbly but every bit as distinctively, and the production is even getting slightly more complex. What the album lacks, then, is any real emotional punch on the level of Skinner’s previous work. Original Pirate Material abounded with “oh shit I know just what he’s talking about!” moments, fun tracks like “Sharp Darts” and “Don’t Mug Yourself” mixing perfectly with mood pieces like “Has It Come to This?” and “Weak Become Heroes” in a series of snapshots that ended up feeling less like the average song cycle and a whole lot more like life, sloping inevitably downwards to the depressive classic “Stay Positive”. A Grand Don’t Come for Free, on the other hand, built interest as it went on through its story, tracks like “Could Well Be In”, “Wouldn’t Have It Any Other Way”, and “Blinded by the Lights” each embodying well a particular feeling, leading up to the brilliantly-executed, triumphant twist ending of the album closer, “Empty Cans”. With The Hardest Way to Make an Easy Living, however, it’s hard for the listener to emotionally invest. The problem isn’t that Skinner’s too famous now, that the average person can’t relate to his entirely-different lifestyle: tracks like “Prangin Out” and the title track show that, when they’re well-done, Skinner’s slices of life can still be affecting. The problem lies in the fact that too often, on nearly half the tracks here, he falls back on the easy didacticism of generalizing tracks like “War of the Sexes” or “Two Nations”, the success of which hangs entirely on just how entertaining you find Mike Skinner’s witticisms to be. And where each previous Streets album has ended with a genius emotional punch to the gut, be it the numbing shudder of “Stay Positive” or the epilogue to “Empty Cans”, The Hardest Way simply fades out abruptly on the harsh synths of the mediocre “Fake Streets Hats”.
Maybe this is more accurate and true-to-life, maybe Mike Skinner is just facing the paradox of the depressive everyman artist: if he’s too good at what he does, he succeeds and loses his everyman status, taking away the very soul of his artwork. I guess we should be happy for him as a person, then, that there’s no tangibly sad emotional core here: but neither is there really any core at all, and while The Hardest Way is a technically well-constructed and skillfully-crafted album, it ends up conveying a general mood of nagging annoyance instead of anything more transcendent. And the listener is left in an interesting position: do we root for Mike Skinner, and hope that he finds some real happiness in the course his life is taking? Or do we wait for him to slide further down, so there can be another truly compelling Streets album?