On his 2002 debut, Original Pirate Material, British
DJ/rapper Mike Skinner (a.k.a. The Streets) relied on a dark,
brooding sound to paint a picture of the bleak urban wasteland he
called home. It exuded the cocky cockney’s cheeky,
in-your-face attitude. It was also the first hip-hop release from
Britain to capture the attention of Stateside listeners.
While Skinner’s confidence, along with his superb
production skills and quirky rap style, instantly endeared the MC
to many fans, his bravura seemed like a limitation, making the
Streets’ debut sound flat at times.
Skinner corrects the problem in a grand fashion on The
Streets’ sprawling follow-up, A Grand Don’t Come for
Free. The album encompasses a wider variety of sounds and
emotions and showcases a gentler, quietly confident Skinner.
Serene tracks such as the boy-meets-girl tale “Could Well
Be In,” the mellow love song “Wouldn’t Have It
Any Other Way” and the break-up ballad “Dry Your
Eyes,” Skinner’s best song to date, are the
album’s high points.
“Dry Your Eyes” in particular shows Skinner’s
soft, sweet side with simple, beautiful production including
strings and acoustic guitar as well as soft-hearted, unassuming
lyrics such as “I can’t imagine my life without you and
me / There’s things I can’t imagine doing, things I
can’t imagine seeing / It weren’t supposed to be easy,
surely / Please, please, I’m begging, please.”
In terms of production, even A Grand’s more raucous
tracks show a more mature Skinner. “Fit But You Know
It” takes rap-rock to a n unexplored level, combining a
jagged garage rock guitar riff and pounding one-two drumming with
humorous lyrics chronicling Mike’s evening on the prowl at a
nightclub. “I’m not trying to pull you,” he
sings. “Even though I would like to / I think you are really
fit / You’re fit, but don’t you really know
As with Original Pirate Material, Skinner’s rapping
on A Grand can be off-putting for unsuspecting listeners,
especially American audiences. His thick accent and quirky rhymes
make for a distinctive style that often sounds more like spoken
word than traditional rapping. But once patient listeners have
cleared the hurdle of simply getting used to Skinner’s style,
they will be treated to one of the year’s best records.