Mike Skinner's precursor to Computers and Blues is confrontational, vulnerable, messy, and really kind of fascinating.
One gets the sense that Mike Skinner is bored.
Skinner announced Cyberspace and Reds, a new freely-available mixtape that Skinner released a week or so before his new "proper album" (to, I don't know, make a point?) through a blog post that seems to drift between a legitimate existential crisis and a mischievous sort of self-deprecation. At one point in the blog post, Skinner says that "i feel negative about everything i’m doing at the moment because ive been doing the same thing for as long as i remember." He then goes on to describe his new mixtape as "painfully repetitive", and mentions that "the lyrics will make no sense" as if he is bragging. He closes this blog post by telling us that "im going to watch live and let die so that i don't think about the throbbing sensation engorging my inner soul," which reads so much like the Facebook status of a hormonal 15-year-old that it's impossible to shake the feeling that Skinner is taking the piss.
Of course, then he released Cyberspace and Reds by releasing an iPhone app (called "Mike Scanner") with which a prospective listener is supposed to scan two bar codes: one on the Streets' website, and one off a can of Heinz soup.
Because really, why not?
This weird mix of irreverence and ennui may seem ridiculous, but it fits the mood of the album it announced perfectly. It's confrontational, vulnerable, messy, and really kind of fascinating. Maybe he's just trying to keep himself interested. Maybe he's brought along so many of his friends to add some verses to these songs as a way of looking for what makes them interested. Or maybe, as he says on final track "At the Back of the Line", "This is the very end of me rapping," and he's just putting together a send-off that he can be proud of.
Most of the mix is a combination of grime, breakbeat, and straight-up hip-hop beats, with about half the raps by Skinner himself, and half by his guests -- really, Skinner sounds as though he's the guest on a few of these tracks. "Cross That Line" is mostly Fumin relating an angry breakup over a slowly-developing piano-dominated R&B backing. Skinner shows up for 30 seconds for the sake of making sure he appears on his own track, but his contribution is neither important nor memorable; this is Fumin's track. Even on the aforementioned "At the Back of the Line", he only shows up at the end to announce his exit and offer some advice ("Like Sinatra said to Bennett, just never sing a shitty song") before the track abruptly ends.
Still, most of these sorts of tracks are toward the end of the album, where Skinner seems to be running out of steam after spending ten tracks rhyming over intense beats with quick tempos. Opener "Came in Through the Door" is three minutes of breakbeats and spooky synth sounds, with lyrics relating a vaguely delirious club experience that matches the beat perfectly. Skinner follows that punch of adrenaline with the perfectly conflicted "4 O'Clock", a menacing little thing in which he announces that "At 4 O'clock today I'm gonna punch you in your face," removing the typical spontaneity from the violent act. "Backseat Barz" is filled to bursting with plenty of the "lyrics [that] make no sense" over some hilariously "epic" production work that features lots of strings and "Hoo Ha" chants, though even when the lyrics don't make sense, the imagery is evocative: "like an artist's impression of the guilty verdict I wear the watch of a pilot and fly in the black range rover hanging back 'til it's over in the back watching Boardwalk Empire," all delivered so fluidly as to sound as though it really should make perfect sense.
Interestingly, the mix centers on a track with no instrumentation at all. "Something to Hide" is a vaguely apocalyptic cautionary tale that takes on an interesting question: what if all of our internet histories were made public? More a think piece than a song with a message, it effectively turns WikiLeaks around on the public that demands it. "Everyone's got something to hide," Skinner repeats throughout the track, "If they don't, there's something wrong."
For a noted oversharer like Skinner, words like these can't possibly come easily, and the track lends weight to a mix that has a tendency toward feeling like an odds 'n sods package, albeit a surprisingly strong one.
Whether Cyberspace and Reds and Computers and Blues are the last we hear from Skinner is an open question, regardless of what Skinner himself says; it's entirely possible (and maybe even probable) that he's toying with his audience to keep himself entertained. Regardless of his motivations, this conflicted and mischievous Mike Skinner is vastly more interesting than the overly sincere and philosophical one we heard on Everything is Borrowed. Maybe it's best he goes out on a high note.