I go through a lot of music for this project, so I don't always get the chance to do a lot of close listening throughout the week. I put on my featured artist whenever I have free time - in the car, while cooking dinner, while grading papers. Cramming in music whenever you have the time is not necessarily the best way to listen, and so I find myself predisposed to like stuff that can double as background music.
This created a bit of a problem when listening to the Streets this week. Their first album, Original Pirate Material, functions both as catchy music and as a lyrical adventure through the dregs of down-and-out London. Listening to every word added to my enjoyment of the album, but even if I couldn't devote my full attention I could still appreciate the Cockney accent played over grandiose hip-hop beats, or the catchy, delightfully out-of-tune hooks that began every chorus. It was music that was just as good as background noise for a party as it was for close listening, and I appreciated that.
So I was originally disappointed when I put on A Grand Don't Come For Free, and the hooks that had blown me away the first time were largely gone. Skinner had already been on the peripheral edge of hip-hop on his first album, but now he had moved into some sort of semi-rhythmic spoken word storytelling. A Grand Don't Come For Free weaves a day-in-the-life narrative of a down-on-his-luck bloke who loses a thousand pounds on the same day his television breaks.
It's interesting if you listen to it like you would a book on tape - there's a lot of fun little details, neat turns of phrase, and even an ending with a postmodern twist. But it's not something you can listen to lightly - even returning to the album and knowing the story, I found if I wasn't devoting my full attention to the story Skinner was weaving, I lost interest. The hooks and beats had fallen away to support pure storytelling.
This is not a bad thing, and Skinner's effort on A Grand Don't Come For Free is certainly original. Some tracks could only work with this combination of story and music - "Blinded by the Lights" is a song about the narrator wandering through a nightclub looking for his friends, and the music emulates the confusion of navigating a bar full of loud noises and bright lights. But, honestly, A Grand Don't Come For Free didn't do a whole lot for me this week, and I realize it's most because I don't have the spare time to sit down in my armchair and devote my full mental faculties to figuring out all the details of this story. I like the idea of a modern hip-hop bard crafting stories about the deadbeats of society; in practice, though, it was a bit too much for me to handle.
ARTIST OF THE WEEK: The Streets
WHAT I KNEW BEFORE: I had never heard anything the Streets had done before this week. All I knew is what my friend had told me - it was a white British hiphop act.
MY LISTENING: I listened to Original Pirate Material (2002) every day this week. I also listened to A Grand Don't Come For Free (2004) three times, and The Hardest Way To Make An Easy Living (2006) and Everything is Borrowed (2008) one time each.
WHAT I LIKED: For the record, nothing I heard this week topped the first track that I put on - "Turn the Page," the first song on Original Pirate Material. Over a sweeping string arrangement, Skinner comes in rapping about how he's descended from the Romans, and then goes on to mix ancient Roman gladiatorial imagery with the modern London hip-hop scene. The song is immensely catchy, almost stirring, with some clever wordplay (he uses an internal rhyme that throws together "stage tricks" to "Jimi Hendrix" like it's nothing). The comparison to ancient warriors and the modern slackers that Skinner raps about is an amusing juxtaposition, as he does manage to bring quite a bit of gravitas to these present-day subjects. After hearing this, I was really excited for this week, but nothing ever really topped the first time this song came on.
Still, there's a lot to like on Original Pirate Material, a fun album that somehow seems timeless even though most of the fun comes from its firm sense of time and place. Skinner laces together powerful beats with some of the best rap hooks I've heard in a while, which makes every song memorable. The drums in the mere ninety seconds of "Sharp Darts" where in my head all week. "Don't Mug Yourself" presents two the Streets' best skills - the use of small, relatable details (a hungover breakfast at a restaurant) and the slightly out-of-tune chorus (in which two friends try and convince the narrator not to call back a girl immediately). And "The Irony of It All" demonstrates how the Streets can use voice and beats to sketch a character - the track sets up a debate between a violent liquor drinker and a peaceful pot-smoking hippie.
Original Pirate Material is the best Streets album by far, but there's still plenty to sink your teeth into on A Grand Don't Come For Free - here, Skinner ramps up the small relatable anecdotes at the expense of his beats. But memorable tracks include "Such a Twat" (a rap where the narrator's cell phone keeps going out of service) and "Empty Cans," which presents two possible endings to the album's story, each with its own fitting beat and narrative voice. And I like "It Was Supposed To Be So Easy" just because I like my hip hop to come with a healthy dose of brass. And who doesn't like a good rap song about DVD rental fines?
WHAT I DIDN'T LIKE: As I went through above, the best parts of A Grand Don't Come For Free are weighed down by the emphasis on story over music. The self-conscious narrator on "Could Well Be In" makes for a compelling little tale, but the music doesn't go anywhere. And the story gets so complex in "What Is He Thinking?" as to render the music irrelevant.
But the latter two Streets albums I listened to largely abandon the storytelling Streets entirely, and this is a shame. On The Hardest Way To Make An Easy Living Skinner complains a lot about being a star. The album has some catchy enough tracks, but also a lot of annoying lyrics (he spends all of "Two Nations" complaining about American slang, for example). The Streets largely avoided hip-hop's common trap of solipsism on the first two albums through stories that were easily relatable, but after 2004, Skinner lost this ability.
Everything Is Borrowed is a little more chill, which is a nice change of pace, but here (lyrically, at least) Skinner loses me completely. He had convinced me on the first two albums that he was portraying pseudo-intellectual London stoners with his tongue in his cheek, but on this album he reveals himself to embrace the pretensions he formerly satirized. "For billions of years, since the outset of time / Every single one of your ancestors survived...What are the chances of that like?" Skinner raps on "On the Edge of a Cliff," which is not the most ridiculous drunken philosophy I've ever heard, but it comes pretty close.
FURTHER EXPLORATION WOULD ENTAIL: To complete the terms of their record contract, the Streets just came out with Computers and Blues (2011), their self-proclaimed final album. Maybe I'll listen to it for completion's sake, but things haven't been the same since A Grand Doesn't Come For Free. Hell, they haven't been the same since "Turn the Page." Speaking of which...
BEST SONG YOU'VE HEARD: "Turn the Page"
This song rocks.
BEST SONG YOU HAVEN'T HEARD: "Blinded By the Lights"
A good example of how the Streets can make a song about a mundane concept that nonetheless will have you going, "I know exactly how that feels!"
NEXT WEEK'S ARTIST: Indigo Girls