Jocular, poetically aslant and fearless, the English MC who calls himself the Streets (Mike Skinner) — part Birmingham, part London — is essentially a throwback to the UK dancehall beats of the 1980s, filtered through minor-key social sadness and American tough-guy urban throwdowns. Borrowing heavily from his peers is just part and parcel of the larger picture of the Streets’ greatness and limitations. On the debit side, you can hear the house chatterings of Basement Jaxx, the expert DJ-ing of Audio Bullys, the confrontational poses of Dizzee Rascal (Skinner’s only British rival on the indigenous rap scene). His greatness resides in his willingness to flit from musical subject to musical subject, all the while maintaining haunted, shocking vigils over the dying rude boy cocktail world of London, that dirty old town.
On his blindingly good debut, Original Pirate Material, the conversational MC resolves many of the discords of modern life with simple declarations (“Geezers Need Excitement,” “Who Dares Wins,” “Let’s Push Things Forward”), wallowing in cinematic post-midnight self-induced blurriness not that far removed (lyrically) from the middle-class snarling of the Ramones or the TV watching of the Dictators or the boredom of the Pistols: he’s funny, brash and profane. He drinks brandy, worries over PlayStations, plies mashups on his laptop, watches kung fu movies, smokes weed and chases birds. Most of the songs have different textures — a little horn funk, some Horace Andy wackiness, trippy hip-hop modulation. And in another simultaneously liberating and confining strategy, Skinner adopts the “I’m the only rapper in town” ridiculousness of the form’s originators, usually with tongue in cheek. This is certainly not to say that the Streets makes harmonic harmlessness of London’s dangers: his suffering seems real, even if commonplace. But isn’t the worst evil the most banal? Skinner is always human, with humor and brightness as the only ways out.
The web-only mini-album consists of 10 remixes and instrumental versions of cuts from the Streets’ debut as well as the subsequent title number.
The Streets’ sacred night affairs continue on his expert and non-redundant follow-up, A Grand Don’t Come for Free. The music is more varied and merges more strongly with his purposeful lyrical perspective. There are still parallel lives, terrible honesties, whirls of atoms colliding lyrically, but Skinner seems both edgier and more contemplative. Real people are here, still in the shadows maybe, but mum, pals and bartenders are now three-dimensional characters. Suffering exists. But the music soars: it twists through charismatic melodies. These are thoughtful, charming pictures and testimonials to the underground: love comes in spurts, as always, and the observations are diamond tough and penetrating. He constructs his songs with not only doses or realism, but with extensive misjudgments that he rues. There seems an inescapable insight here: a young man taking stock of his life, town and profession — a teller of non-ironical tales. Welcome to London, ladies and gentlemen. Bring flashlights. We’re closed 24 hours a day.