I was first introduced to The Streets by a three paragraph article in Blender, a now defunct music magazine that provided much more quality than one would expect from a sister periodical to Maxim. In those few words the article detailed the rise of a young English rapper, noted for his slower than average delivery, minimalistic beats, and his literary connotations brought on by having his lyrics analyzed and deconstructed by literature professors in UK newspapers. The three paragraphs were featured along with a one and a half page spread of Mike Skinner, the main component of the group, standing in front of Pang’s Garden Fish Bar with an umbrella and food in hand. It was a grimy and raw photo, not unlike his music. I was hooked. Within days, I bought both albums he had released. Original Pirate Material, his first, is amazing. It plays on a variety of themes, from the being on some girl’s hook to the legalities between alcohol and pot. When the albums final track “Stay Positive” came to a close, I figured I had listened to the best The Streets had to offer. I was wrong.
A Grand Don’t Come for Free, The Streets second, is a concept album that follows Mike Skinner over an undisclosed period time. The first track, “It Was Supposed to Be So Easy”, lays the ground work for this fictional Mike, the quintessential fuck up. “I had to do a fast hill climb, but a faster decline “. He constantly screws up as he attempts to accomplish menial tasks like returning movie rentals on time, getting money from an ATM and calling his mum. “In just being out of the house I’ve lost out” continually croons Skinner, lamenting the state of affairs that culminate in misplacing his savings. It’s the beginning of a modern tragedy.
Unlike the bulk of rap/hip-hop that tends to revel in overabundance, Grand instead opts to show a more down to earth story; where a grand is equivalent to the millions other rappers talk about. It’s a humbling album that positions the listener in a situation they’ve probably experienced rather that unrealistically dreams about. Despite the albums’ title, only three of the songs deal primarily with the money (“It Was Supposed to Be So Easy”, “Not Addicted”, and “Empty Cans”). The majority of the album centers on his relationship with Simone (portrayed by Simone Buchanan/C-Mone).
Listeners get to experience their first date (“Could Well Be In”), missed encounters at a club(Blinded By the Lights) becoming comfortable with one another as they move in together (“Wouldn’t Have It Any Other Way”), Mike getting kicked out (“Get Out of My House”) and ultimately breaking up (“Dry Your Eyes Mate”). Other than a small holiday after getting kicked out (“Fit But You Know It” and “Such a Twat”), the relationship portion of the album is dealt with surprising sincerity. The first date is about the conversation and the attraction between them rather than the inevitable sex. “Could Well Be In” works as a double entendre, but the gentleness that Skinner uses throughout the song implies less about sex and more about intimacy. “Dry Your Eyes” handles the break up with heartbreaking candor, doing quite the opposite of what the title suggests.
Throughout the album, the beats are laid with surprising intricacy. Skinner’s first album features simple but strong beats that emphasized the lyrics. The minimalistic beats were catchy and never overwhelmed Skinner’s voice. Skinner steps it up with Grand, putting the music on the same level as his words. There is still a bit of that DIY feeling that made The Streets amazing, but the more balanced sound allows for some really fantastic songs. “Fit But You Know It” couldn’t have existed on Original Pirate Material. The riotous track relentlessly bangs through your head. It’s one of the few times were Skinner’s delivery is sped up, creating a guy anthem about trying to pick up a girl who knows she’s good looking and ultimately failing (no shit, she’s taken).
The tracks on A Grand Don’t Come for Free carry more significance when listened to together, but they also have a singular quality about them. Grand is such a complete story that it seems unfair to point out any number of tracks as highlights. That’s not gonna stop me, though. “Blinded by the Lights” may be one of the most accessible songs that Skinner has produced. It’s a perfectly dark representation of club culture. Cramped with people, the club is moving to this slow dank rhythm that propels Skinner in his search for his new girlfriend. Unnamed pills (likely ecstasy) and booze (“brandy or beer”) aid in a paranoia drenched song where a heavenly female voice softly sings “lights are blinding my eyes” all the while “people pushin’ by, and walkin’ off into the night”. You can practically feel the sweat dripping from Mike’s pours as he convinces himself that the girl that looks like Simone in the corner isn’t making out with his friend Dan. Skinner engulfs you with this song, cementing you into the concept album’s reality.
The most important track on the album is without a doubt “Empty Cans”. The final song begins with a loud drum beat and a seedy feeling. The first half is an angry rant against bad friends (“unknown cunts for mates I was given that don’t have my back”), rejecting an olive branch (Scott texted me to say he’d have a look at the TV for me/But I laid it down telling him to fuck right off chap.), and crooked TV repairmen (“can’t quite believe he’s trying to pull this fucking stunt on me”), all of which could be completely due to paranoia. Fighting and despicable behavior are in full force here, leaving no redeeming quality in the first three minutes of this song. Mike, the lovable loser who lost his money, his girl, his best friend, even his TV, is nothing more than a pathetic crybaby. “No-one gives a crap about Mike/That’s why I’m acting nasty/You know what you can do with your life/Introduce it up your jacksie”. That’s the hook during the first part of the song . Looking in on Skinner’s life is no longer fun or interesting. It becomes wretched, but in those final moments of this first section, a tape begins to play backwards.
The song restarts. The same seediness and drums slowly develop with a new uplifting new beat. It’s the same lyrics start up again. He’s still pathetic, nearly falling into the same pratfalls as before. Instead, he opts to take his friend offer and a new ending appears to us; one that does not languish in shit. Things are turning out for the better. His friendships are restored, his money found behind the back panel of his TV (back when TVs were huge). The sad self pitying hook is replaced with an incredibly ambiguous one: “The end of the something I did not want to end/Beginning of hard times to come/But something that was not meant to be is done/And this is the start of what was”. The uplifting piano notes over take the rest of the elements of the beat just as Mike understands the significance of personal responsibility. The final five minutes are a glorious realization for both Mike and the listener, one of personal advancement and coming back to a full circle. “I was gonna be late, so I picked up my pace to run”. “Empty Cans” creates a Möbius strip, taking The Streets’ concept album back to the beginning, and cementing its inventiveness.
Check out The Streets at their website, which is unfortunately closed due to Mike Skinner shelving the project in favor of his new venture The D.O.T. Get yourself a copy of A Grand Don’t Come for Free as soon as possible (it’s fantastic on vinyl) and experience a truly great concept album.