“Let’s Push Things Forward” may or may not have been the Song of 2001, but it was definitely the greatest postmodern experiment of its year, an honest but subversive defense of the kind of music Mike Skinner (a.k.a. the Streets) decided to make one day in the bedroom of his mother’s house. The track is rooted in a distinctly American genre (one that champions the power of the spoken word above everything else), but while Skinner’s music appropriates the rhythm of hip-hop, its social context is vastly different. “Around ‘ere we say birds, not bitches,” he states on “Let’s Push Things Forward,” one of many reminders that his music (a little hip-hop here, a little ska, dub, garage there) comes from the streets of Mike Leigh and not South Central. There’s no mention of “bling” here, merely “insufficient funds.”
A Grand Don’t Come for Free is a Skinner exclusive, and it begins with the comedic tour-de-force “It Was Supposed to Be So Easy,” the story of an average bloke whose failure to return a DVD to the video store signals the beginning of a really bad day. Maybe Matthieu Kassovitz’s La Haine is still sitting in his DVD tray; surely it’s the kind of film a guy like this would enjoy watching while smoking a blunt, but it’s probably something the real Skinner couldn’t be bothered to return. La Haine chronicled roughly 24 hours in the life of a group of punks living in a rundown, multi-culti suburb of Paris plagued by racial conflict, unemployment, and violence. Not unlike the film’s wolves, Skinner’s everyman is angry, but he isn’t a poseur: He’s too smart, too introspective, too self-aware, even too self-deprecating to merely borrow without pushing things forward.
Concept albums aren’t rare, just rarely successfully. Like Damien Rice’s honest and “pretty” O, A Grand Don’t Come for Free allows Skinner to live—and relive—the minutiae of a failed relationship. But this is a less monotonous, more open-minded record; Skinner is every bit as self-involved as Rice, but his ruminations go beyond speaking to broken hearts. Skinner’s mad rhymes are positively, excitingly anthropological; they study and illuminate the culture that surrounds the broken heart. But don’t think that Skinner carries on or bemoans the social underdevelopment of a Blair-forsaken environment. Skinner is the Mike Leigh of music, and he uses words in the same way Leigh uses images: to show how a downtrodden man (think Timothy Spall from All or Nothing) tries to persevere in spite of himself and his environment.
A Grand Don’t Come for Free is sensationally cinematic. Skinner loves watching movies and sitting on the couch in front of the telly (broken at times, like his relationships), and his albums are better because of this existential fixation (the album’s cover suggests a Boulevard of Broken Dreams). A narrative unspools above lurching beats. Behold the orchestral flourish of “It Was Supposed to Be Easy,” which unleashes Skinner onto the world like a Godzilla hell-bent on destruction, only to be frustrated in the end by his own failed potential; much later, the noir-ish “What Is He Thinking?” brings to mind a B movie born from the embers of the Cold War, with Skinner’s character dogged and defeated by his uncompromising paranoia: “I wish I could read what his eyes are saying, staring straight and not blinking, he’s not giving anything away.”
Like Patti Smith, the Who, PJ Harvey, and Aretha Franklin (think “Eleanor Rigby”), Skinner is a delirious storyteller, a master mythmaker even. After forcing himself out of the house and losing 1,000 pounds, his relationship with his girlfriend Simone begins to show signs of wear (on the understandably timid “Could Well Be In”). He takes to the streets (“Blinded By the Lights”), sits complacently on his girlfriend’s couch (“I Wouldn’t Have It Any Other Way”), and a soap opera begins. Skinner’s protagonist suspects an affair, but maybe his own laziness is to blame for the deterioration of his relationship. A fight ensues on the awesome “Get Out of My House”—every combative tirade exchanged between man and woman pitch-perfectly matched by a gyrating, oh-no-you-didn’t beat—before he of the “bare white hot wit” (as he calls himself on “Fit But You Know It”) fights temptation and regret at a local bar.
Skinner is an epileptic, so it’s only natural that his signature genius has become his inventive inflections, halting delivery, and even more hesitant beats. It’s not a shtick really, but a defense mechanism. Pissed, drunk, high, self-deprecating—whatever the mood, Skinner’s protag struggles to accept friends, himself, and the end of a bad relationship. Every beat, every break in songs like “Blinded By the Lights” evokes a certain fear of leaving something familiar behind, which makes the deliberately florid “Dry Your Eyes” such a devastating breakup song. No hesitancy, no bullshit, and after an admission of malleability, a devastating final wail (“Empty Cans”) rewrites its narrative before then doubling back on itself. Skinner must choose between a path not taken or (rewind!) “the start of what was.” Once again, the Streets are keeping it real.