Bono was wrong. The Streets do have a name, and that name is Mike Skinner. The 22-year-old laid-back UK MC became a hipster household name on both sides of the Atlantic after his 2002 debut, Original Pirate Material, blew up like a meth lab, accumulating a mountain-sized pile of raving press clippings in the process. MTV declared Skinner "the hottest British rapper ... ever." The BBC called him "a British Eminem." Even the Express gushed over his "talk-raps," "guilty-pleasure house synths," and "garage beats," declaring, "after five listens, you feel like Mike Skinner is your best mate."
Now it's 2004, and Skinner has pushed things forward once again with an even more laconic album. A Grand Don't Come for Free could do for people who like to sit on the couch, smoke spliffs, drink beer, and watch TV what "Hey Ya" did for people who like to dress up in color-coordinated outfits and imagine they're on The Ed Sullivan Show.
But longshot analogies to Outkast hits are about as close as Skinner comes to most mainstream American rap. For starters, there are no high-speed chases, bloody shootouts, or big-booty anthems here -- although at times, one wishes Skinner would add some fake gangsta pimp posturing just to stir things up a bit. A Grand's semiautobiographical anecdotes make the average Seinfeld episode seem poignant. Here's the skinny: Skinner tries to return a DVD rental late, has a row with his girlfriend, bets on a football match, drinks beer, takes E, drinks more beer, and gets lousy reception on his cellie.
Part of Skinner's appeal surely lies in the fact that his sensibilities are more British than Helen Mirren humming Beatles tunes in the backseat of a Mini Cooper. Which is undeniably part of the reason media flacks from Newcastle to New York have gone gaga over him, the same way they did over the Who, the Cure, Oasis, and Coldplay. The difference, of course, between the Streets phenomenon and previous editions of the British Invasion is that Skinner is a rapper. As such, he has a coolness factor Chris Martin will never have (even after marrying Gwyneth Paltrow).
Of course, Skinner is neither the first British rapper to hit these shores -- his arrival was presaged by the eminently charismatic, woefully underrated Roots Manuva -- nor the last (sell that Dizzee Rascal record back yet?). But he still has the loudest buzz, one that extends all the way into the "rock" community: the same folks who just can't get with Eminem no matter how many Aerosmith covers he attempts. To be fair, Skinner's success probably has less to do with his skin color (he's white) then with the fact that he has a unique style that's also proven highly accessible, thick Cockney slang and all.
But although he has been anointed the greatest thing since the Rubik's Cube by the music-crit mafia, the low-key Skinner doesn't seem too excited about being interviewed. Rappers are notorious for being gregarious, but he's relatively tight-lipped -- though a fairly intelligent bloke, he's apparently one who doesn't dole out nuggets of wisdom without being prodded, although during a recent phone conversation Skinner does reveal, "I like soup."
More fun facts: A day in the life of the Streets is "like it is on the record, really, aside from the fact that I spend most of the day making tunes." His daily routine: "I sit in my room making tunes. Then I might go upstairs to the kitchen and make some food. Or go out and get some food. I do that all day. And then, at the end of the day, I put the telly on and watch the telly, then go to bed."
It's not the most exotic pop star ritual, perhaps, but at least he's attuned to the sensibilities of his core audience, who likely do the same kinds of things, but don't get paid to make records about it and then have rock scribes slobber all over 'em.
Despite this critical outpouring of saliva, Skinner also is a fairly self-deprecating chap who claims he doesn't really have a creative process: "I tend to decide to write a song about something, and then I do it. I don't rely on inspiration to kinda feed me with anything." He's able to make something out of basically nothing (i.e. "It Was Supposed to Be So Easy," which gets more mileage out of a trip to the video store than seemed humanly possible) because of his attention to the minutiae of life, or as he puts it, "just talking about the little things."
Speaking of which, A Grand's "Blinded by the Light" takes listeners through what may be a familiar scenario: sitting at a club and waiting for the, uh, stimulants to take effect. "There's like a lag of half an hour to an hour before the drugs kick in," he casually explains. "If you're impatient, then you end up fucking yourself up." Suffice to say that the song captures this mood perfectly, right down to those guilty-pleasure synths.
Skinner is well aware that his songs don't sound anything like what passes for rap nowadays in America, even if he has some difficulty explaining exactly why that is. "It's just an English style," he offers. "It's hard to say what I twisted. It's just, coming from England, my influences are different." He still checks for stateside rap releases, although he admits, "I don't think it's done anything new lately. I don't think it's relevant in terms of bringing something new. I think it has stagnated a bit."
Not that this creative void is unprecedented in the music industry. As Skinner notes, "Rock has been like that for years, and it's still selling."
The Streets' answer to all this stagnation is to mention his broken TV repeatedly in his lyrics and write a song called "Such a Twat," which isn't an ode to female genitalia, but a ditty about the perils of getting a little too drunk (or, as he calls it, "way mad slack"). Combined with Skinner's lo-fi, high-concept beats -- admittedly influenced by "ragga" beats (what we Yanks call dancehall) -- the results sound quite keen, if bozack-straddling music journos can be believed.
Even though his primary audience in this country isn't necessarily hip-hop heads (instead, it's alt-rock and electronic music fans), Skinner says he still considers his music rap, though "I don't really care where I fit in," he explains. "It's not like a competition, it's not like I'm competing on that front. I'm just telling a story, really."
In other words, he's not attempting to emulate J-Kwon, Lil' Jon, or Jay-Z -- he's just trying to be Mike Skinner. Even if Mike Skinner is a little dull.
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