Friday, May 09, 2014

The Streets - A Grand Don't Come For Free - 2004

If The Streets had ever made an album as consistently great as their highlights, they probably could've ruled the world. But the problem is that each of the albums that Mike Skinner put out as The Streets was half full of amazing tracks and half full of things that might've been good but get caught on some thing instead.

"A Grand Don't Come For Free" was Skinner's second album as The Streets, following "Original Pirate Material," which had made him something of a star in his native England. The Streets were a sort of slice-of-life urban British rap and skittish electronic hip-hop beats, and they were very much focused on the perspective of an everyday fellow, usually Skinner himself (or some stylized version thereof), which makes it a welcome change from rap focusing on big money, big cars and bigger-than-life egos. Which isn't to say that Skinner doesn't have an ego every now and then. But The Streets were grounded, never forgetting just how close he was to his whole life falling apart, or how close he still could be.

Part of the reason I recommend starting with "A Grand Don't Come For Free" is that even though it has a few uneven tracks, the whole thing is one concept story, a month in the life of Skinner as he's trying to figure out how to get his life in order. From the opening of "It Was Supposed To Be So Easy" (which is probably my least favorite track on the album, but sets the stage of the overarching story) to the closing mini-epic of "Empty Cans," the album charts Skinner's life as he tries to figure out where his one thousand quid disappeared from his flat, blaming his roommates, his girlfriend, himself... He getting frustrated as bills start piling up, as he goes to a club and can't find the people he's supposed to meet up with (hint: she's cheating on him with his friend/roommate), as he and his girlfriend get into a row that might be the end, as he tries to pick up a girl in a bar but decides she's too full of herself to bother, and his fucking television is on the fritz...

There's something unique and fantastic about Skinner's delivery, almost like a white, British suburban version of Busta Rhymes, nimble and intricate. Skinner delights in spinning a yard, letting the story unfold a bit at a time, building and building, layer by layer, which makes for elaborate tales. And Skinner pays attention to the little details, like how cell phones would always cut out back then, or how he had to stand in a specific spot in his kitchen to not lose signal, or the taste of hairspray when he enters a club.

"Blinded By The Lights" was the first song from The Streets that hooked me hard. I've been in a few clubs in my day, and that sense of disorientation and frustration is something most people have felt in a club at some point. You know things are going wrong, and you feel like you should just get out of there, but you told people you'd meet them there, and you're going to stick it out, even if it comes back and bites you in the ass. (Hint: It does.)

But one night isn't the end of the world, and as Skinner's trying to figure out what to do with himself, he's considering pretty girls at a local chip shop, but decides he can't be interested in any girl who's too full of herself, and many, many of them are. The song's called "Fit But You Know It," and it's probably the most playful on the album, cheeky and smug in all the ways of over confident youth.

"A Grand" starts to go downhill right after that, as Skinner gets into a fight with his friends, and it comes out that one of his friends has been sleeping with his girlfriend, and now she's going to go off with him, leaving Skinner heartbroken, desperately pleading, trying to say whatever magic words will keep her around in "Dry Your Eyes," but it's all for naught, as she leaves anyway. And the album feels like it's crumbling into sadness.

"Empty Cans" is the last track, and it starts angry and ends hopeful, and you can hear the background music slowly changing with Skinner's mood, as he starts to get his life back into some semblance of sanity. And all the lessons that have been thrown in his face over the album have started to sink in. And he's not mad anymore, because he realizes he's got to take care of himself first and foremost, and can't depend on other people to be what props him up.

The album paints such an elaborate picture of a guy's life falling into despair and slowly peeling his way out from it, whether he's earned it or not. Maybe that doesn't even matter. Skinner's aware of his own problems, and he knows his self-loathing and confrontational attitude are part of why he gets into these messes. (Also, by the end, he's learned the most important lesson is that he needs to be a bit smarter about the company he keeps.)

The closing words: "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..."You'll find something to like about The Streets. I know I always do...

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