Although it's not exactly dripping with pathos, the Streets' "A Grand Don't Come for Free" does something that few American hip-hop discs have done: It makes a rapper's softer side just as interesting as his inner lout.
That rapper, Mike Skinner, almost single-handedly dragged British hip-hop into its adolescence a few years ago with "Original Pirate Material," a disc of playful, home-rolled beats and slangy, teeter-tottering rhymes. It hit U.S. shores in 2002, making a dent on the album charts and infiltrating MTV's late-night playlist. Skinner's core topics were universal: girls, drugs, booze, video games and urban survival. There were regular tangents of political awareness, too -- he was an accidental mouthpiece for all of Britain's bored, go-nowhere kids. On "A Grand Don't Come for Free," though, Skinner pulls the lyrics closer to home, and the result is essentially a song cycle about one lonely guy and his very small circle of friends.
The plot is easy to summarize: The layabout lead character, Mike, misplaces 1,000 pounds in his apartment. He fights with his tolerant girlfriend, Simone, loses money betting on soccer, suffers bad mobile-phone connections, hits on a "fit" girl at a bar and scraps with a TV repairman. Things work out okay, at least monetarily.
Although Mike's lifestyle is meager, Skinner makes the tales far more engrossing than they could've been (assuming his Birmingham accent doesn't sound downright loony to you). Check out this stanza from "Dry Your Eyes," a nearly cheesy breakup song that works because of Skinner's unprocessed verbiage: "She brings her hands up towards where my hand's rested / She wraps her fingers 'round mine with a softness she's blessed with / She peels away my fingers, looks at me and then gestures / By pushing my hand away to my chest, from hers."
There's nice irony in that song and several others -- by playing a vulnerable Everybloke, Skinner (now based in London) delivers more "realness" than most of the MCs who purport to deliver the Streets to U.S. listeners. Not all is bittersweet and sensitive, though. "Blinded by the Lights" is about an uncomfortable pill-popping bender; "Wouldn't Have It Any Other Way" dwells in the repetition of a couch-potato's existence; and "What Is He Thinking?" captures the moment when two friends confront a lie.
Skinner's grooves are a little richer, too, and that leads to the one overall flaw in "A Grand Don't Come for Free." The club-ready rhythms on "Original Pirate Material" made the songs accessible even if the lyrics were impenetrable. But this time around, Skinner goes for drama, using orchestral horn blasts ("It Was Supposed to Be So Easy"), chopped-up electric guitar riffs ("Fit but You Know It") and reconfigured dance hooks ("Blinded by the Lights") to accent the stories.
All of that bedroom-studio inventiveness comes with a price. Almost everything on "A Grand Don't Come for Free" puts art above style, and that approach won't win the Streets many more converts on this side of the Atlantic. Like last year's equally odd-sounding Brit hip-hop breakout Dizzee Rascal, it's likely that Skinner will have to accept cult status as his mark of distinction in the home of hip-hop.
The Streets are/is scheduled to appear July 1 at the 9:30 Club.