It was perhaps inevitable that such a landmark record would come from music that is naturally unassuming. The best musicians and filmmakers know that great things come from life's daily routines, and that the insignificance of each moment can be made beautiful when shown in the appropriate light. Mike Skinner is the Streets, and his first record, 2002's Original Pirate Material, was a white Brit's UK garage statement passed off as hip-hop in the United States. Not everyone wants to hear a stay-at-home producer speak rap in a fake cockney accent over his stark urban beats, but even people who had trouble with his delivery realized there was something exciting about Original Pirate Material; if it wasn't the sound everyone was waiting for, it at least signaled the approach of something new.[more:]
Enter that something new. A Grand Don't Come For Free has more hip-hop than its older brother, but it still doesn't sound like anything else out there. Skinner has taken all the messy focus of his debut and put it to good use, without losing any authenticity. There was always something cinematic in Skinner's work; now he moves into narrative territory with success rarely seen from the rock opera. Telling one complete story over eleven songs, the record gives you a unique feeling with each track.
"Could Well Be In" is the perfect first-date song, with its resonating piano chords and Skinner noticing that his new date's "hair looks much better than the other day." "Blinded by the Lights" finds him in a club rolling too hard and searching for his girlfriend. The pulsing beat fades in and out and we are there with him, "pushing by, then walking off into the night."
If you've ever stayed in with your girlfriend instead of going to a party with your friends, the R&B jam "I Wouldn't Have It Any Other Way" is going to tell you how you felt. "Fit But You Know It" is the album's first single, and its bouncing guitar stabs will draw inevitable comparisons to Parklife, which is a compliment whether Skinner refuses to acknowledge it or not. He then breaks up with his imaginary girlfriend, and "Dry Your Eyes" is revealed to the world. This is the 400-pound gorilla, the song that once again proves British pop music is better than American pop. The song was originally supposed to feature Chris Martin, but it doesn't even miss him. This should be playing in pre-teen girls' rooms and on Friends episodes. In a perfect world, this is the biggest single since "Hey Ya" and the break-up song of the summer.
Skinner uses his talents as much as his publicity to construct the persona of the average guy; even his nom de plume is indicative of his desire to stay regular. The record plays along those lines, telling the story of a guy who loses a thousand dollars, finds love and learns about the give and take of life. But A Grand Don't Come For Free's complete success in demonstrating the basic elements of such a life elevates its stature from the routine to the sublime.
In all of his modest intentions, Skinner has inadvertently created an album that ranks with the best British pop of the new century, and certainly the best British hip-hop. The music isn't as revolutionary as Dizzee Rascal's Boy in Da Corner, but that album gave off the feeling of being exactly what it was: a singles compilation. The cohesiveness of A Grand Don't Come For Free demands that it is regarded as a whole. Perhaps a few choruses are repeated too many times, and perhaps Skinner's lyrics won't reveal much more on further listening. But right now, from where I'm sitting, A Grand Don't Come For Free is the album of the year.
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