The Streets- A Grand Don’t Come For Free (Vice/ Atlantic)
review by Joe del Tufo

Track Listing

1. It Was Supposed To Be So Easy
2. Could Well Be In
3. Not Addicted
4. Blinded By The Light
5. I Wouldn't Have It Any Other Way
6. Get Out Of My House
7. Fit But You Know It
8. Such A Twat
9. What Is He Thinking
10. Dry Your Eyes
11. Empty Cans

Let’s just say I don’t generally have an open mind when it comes to the idea of white guys rapping.  Mike Patton I can handle, not much else, especially that wanker in 311.  So when The Streets debut Original Pirate Material came along in 2002, hearing Mike Skinner’s cockney-inflected rhymes first caused me a long pause.  Repeated listens made it clear that the music had no plans to leave my head, and I was just going to have to get over it and accept the fact that I actually dug this stuff. Skinner painted an often humorous, often biting portrait of gritty lower-middle-class British reality, and framed it in a way it safe to bet has never been done before. He took hip-hop and stripped it to the bone, added casio riffs, infectious beats, a little ska here and reggae there, and ended up with something undeniable.  Plus it was pretty funny shit.  But in the end, many of the tracks (catchy as they might be) on Pirate Material had very similar hooks, and 9 of the 14 tracks were about geezers, which has nothing to do with senior citizens if you’re not up on your Brit slang.  It was a relatively narrow playing field, and I had significant doubts that Skinner would be able to follow up with anything relevant.

Flash forward two years (and one mildly interesting web-only e.p.) later.  My first experience with the new material is the very catchy and poignant Fit But You Know It, whose video I caught on a Cornerstone compilation.  Again very catchy and humorous, but not exactly a huge step forward from what he was doing on Pirate.  OK, so we’re gonna get a little more of the same, that was cool with me for another album- the first one made our top 10 of 2002, so why not?

The first complete listen to A Grand Don’t Come For Free came as a surprise.  It was a concept album, about some guy (Skinner, presumably), having a shitty day.  One that, on one level or another, I think we can all relate.  As the disc opens with It Was Supposed To Be So Easy, Skinner sets the spare concept- “It was supposed to be so easy- Just take back the DVD, withdraw that extra money- Tell mum I wouldn't be back for tea, then grab my savings and hurry.”  And from there on nothing goes right.  He races to the video store only to find the DVD is still back home in his player.  Along the way we meet the girlfriend, hang out at the pub, break up with the girlfriend, smoke some weed and take some pills, gamble on football (soccer) and have a full-on catfight with the TV repair guy.  It’s the Odyssey meets the Office.

Skinner’s genius is in the details.  Line after line of little real world snapshots like “I hate coming to the entrance, just to get bars on my phone” from Blinded By The Light and “I saw this thing on ITV the other week-  Said, that if she played with her hair, she's probably keen- She's playin with her hair, well regularly- So I reckon I could well be in” from Could Well Be In. By the time you finally make sense from the lunatic machinations swirling in the guy’s head, you realize that, again, he has created something entirely original and unforgettable.  And for once, a concept album with an actual concept. Even though it is grounded in pop culture and immediate slang, one gets the feeling that this one won’t wear over time, and at worst will someday be a marvelous audial Polaroid of what it’s like to be young, British, and trying to get by in 2004.

Great guest vocals by C-mone on “Get Out Of My House” are another highlight.  With C-mone, Skinner has found a female voice every bit as biting as his own, and their verbal duel on this track is smoking.  Mike’s line “Look, come on, calm down, it wasn't all totally like that” is probably universal to all relationships, but he captures the essence of it in both words and delivery, and paints a hyper-reality that is almost more visual that audial.  You see this album as much as you hear it.

All of those raves notwithstanding, A Grand Don’t Come For Free will be a difficult sell in the American market. The heavy British slang takes some deconstructing, and the story’s the thing on this one.  Yeah, the beats are there and they’re every bit as tight as on the first one, and a good bit more diverse, but it you can’t understand what he’s rapping about it’s going to be hard to fully appreciate.  And this will be their loss, cause the Streets have delivered a sophomore effort that is every bit as impressive as their wildly innovative debut, with a story to boot.  And it’s one that will only sweeten with age…

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