Charles Bukowski, William S. Burroughs, Irvine Welsh -- these men have much to answer for. Perhaps in their own work, and probably in their own lives, but most certainly in the legacies picked up on by thousands of half-wit fans-cum-artists, people who believed that all it took were the stories, that having the lifestyle meant having the talent. Since it seems that his bedroom-tape raps will permeate British -- if not all Western -- life in a similarly parasitic manner, we'll now most likely have to add to that list the name Mike Skinner.
Skinner, a.k.a. The Streets, writes lyrics the way the worst Mom's-basement junkie poets write verse or prose: taking the non-events of their daily lives and swirling them into bore-by-numbers hiccups and burps. So in a way, it's kind of too bad that with A Grand Don't Come For Free, The Streets' second full-length album, Skinner has created such an unquestionable masterpiece: a concept album as grandiose and artistically poignant as its nearest thematic comparison, Quadrophenia, but without the eye-rollingly bombastic stupidity of the Rock Opera. Now we'll likely have to contend with every stoner with a laptop and a dole check burping out his life's non-story to a jerky hip-hop/acid-house backing track. Warning to potential Streets-walkers: Glasses of beer and a fat woman's ass doth not a Bukowski make.
As opposed to the more readily gangsta-identifiable -- if sonically groundbreaking -- music made by Britain's other current hip-hop genius, Skinner associate Dizzee Rascal, The Streets' music is street-level in a ciggie-burn-in-the-couch, rolling-spliffs-on-the-Playstation kind of way: the modern poor white urban slacker. If Happy Mondays were about, as one writer put it, the joy of being a young unemployed white man with no money but a lump of hash in your jeans, The Streets is about the sadness of being poor yet having some weed and a $800 CP jacket and a cell phone, but no one special to text-message you.
The plotline of A Grand Don't Come For Free is, to say the least, minor. It involves a broken TV, some hot chicks and drugged-up boys, infidelity, and a missing packet containing the titular thousand pounds. But with his signature almost-arrhythmic beats and jerky delivery, Mike Skinner can reverse hip hop's puffed chest and make something beautifully, disarmingly human out of such mundane material -- the aggrandizement of the everyday. Despite -- because of, more likely -- Skinner's stilted flow and lyrical banality, songs like the melancholy "Dry Your Eyes" and "Could Well Be In" become true youth-angst sing-along classics. Imagine someone else who could get this chorus stuck in your head: "I saw this thing on ITV the other week / that if she played with her hair she was probably keen / she's playing with her hair well regularly / so I reckon I could well be in."
Stateside, The Streets is something of an acquired taste -- Skinner's Anglocentric lingua and fierce Brum accent is for the 'philes, not to mention the weird timelessness (radically modern, yet somehow retro-reminiscent) of Streets beats. Plus, A Grand Don't Come For Free is an album first and foremost, regardless of the singles-based sounds it revolves around (hip hop, house, U.K. garage). Though "Fit But You Know It" is bound to be a hit as the first single, out of context these songs make little sense. (Those that get why the hit-less In The Studio is the best album by singles-specialists The Specials will adore A Grand.)
But A Grand Don't Come For Free is something very new -- a concept album for those who hate concept albums, an operatic drama for the reality-TV generation. It's hard to understand, despite its childish simplicity, and hard to turn off, despite its apparent one-shot story. In whatever the hell musical field he's mowing, Mike Skinner hasn't exactly raised the bar; rather, he's moved it 10 feet to the left and cut it in half. As The Streets themselves once said, "cult classic, not bestseller."