Mike Skinner scans as a hip-hop artist for the American press because he talks rather than sings, but the Streets’s genre-defying music has little precedent, a detailed patchwork of emphatic storytelling and bleepy-symphonic production that suggests garage meets Super Nintendo. But the Mike Skinner who’s trying to keep it real on The Hardest Way to Make an Easy Living—all slapdash beats and self-absorbed rhymes—isn’t the same lazy-bastard poet his fans are familiar with. The cover of his first album, Original Pirate Material, evoked a tenement complex straight out of a Mike Leigh film, brimming with life, wit, and pride. The second, from his great concept album A Grand Don’t Come For Free, conjured a dingy boulevard of broken dreams, rich in heartbreak. Now Skinner is thinking more cynically, evoking the pimp-my-ride ethos of bad American hip-hop and delivering an album about the horrors of celebrity. Poor geezer.
The best way to alienate a fanbase is to trounce your common ground, and The Hardest Way to Make an Easy Living is nothing if not off-putting. Skinner used to be funny and his fascination with ordinary life was benevolent, but now he’s become jaded—victim to fame-induced acrimony. The propulsive “Hotel Expressionism” brings to mind a rock ‘n’ roll-scored slide-show presentation about the thrashing of hotel rooms, a ritual of shame that Russell Crowe can probably relate to. But the song is the least of the album’s problems.
Elsewhere, “Hotel Expressionism” lacks the resonance of “Geezers Need Excitement,” laying on the snark thick but at least attemping humor. “Pranging Out” is more suspect, a shrill whine about drugs. The song is cleverly structured but stone-cold and difficult to listen to. Skinner’s coke mirror has two faces: It reflects not only his own crisis but how it relates to his fanbase, and the “I see through you” of the song’s chorus evokes nagging conscience-grinding. Hype has gotten the better of Skinner and he’s feeling guilty about it.
So, the album’s ideas inspire respect but Skinner’s disaffected attitude doesn’t. It’s difficult to imagine shellacked woe-is-me anthems like Madonna’s “Drowned World” and “Human Nature” and Michael Jackson’s “Scream” attempting the nuance of “Pranging Out,” but Madge’s gauzy, faux self-exposure is almost preferable to the whistling drone of the titular song, which may get you humming but still feels incredibly bored with itself.
Speaking of Madonna, “Never Went to Church” is Skinner’s “Oh Father”: an ode-to-daddy as spiritual confession. Nestled as it is between the album’s finest track (“When You Wasn’t Famous,” which could be an Original Pirate Material outtake) and “Hotel Expressionism,” the song’s honesty becomes questionable. Its earnestness might feel more heartfelt if Skinner’s delivery were less guarded, at least comparable in feeling to the track’s churchiness. I’ve heard Skinner reminiscence about one of his “birds” with more conviction than this.
“Two Nations” feels right at home with the album’s collection of record-industry gripes and celebrity blues even if it’s a little older than most of the other tracks here: The song was produced for the Biggie Smalls duets album but P. Diddy nixed it, perhaps insulted by Skinner’s gross sarcasm and fuck-you to American hip-hop. “Memento Mori” could have been a contender, titled as it is after one of the literati press’s favorite It expressions, but Skinner doesn’t deconstruct the term’s usage, only its pronunciation (the long e sound that caps mori becomes a long i, facilitating a rhyme with “we all die”) This type of subversion isn’t deep, but the production is at least evocative: Referencing as it does a term signifying the memory of death and human error, the song is reminiscent of the most defeating, annoying stages of a video game. And “Can’t Con an Honest Jon” is itself a con, a rabidly unpleasant tapestry of chomping bleeps scarcely validated by Skinner’s “loony bin” reference.
Skinner’s uncomfortable response to fame is genuinely human, but the artistic expression of his crisis is a drag. He used to sing about a familiar discontent. Now he describes a less identifiable panic, which would be fine if the music itself were more personable. Individual songs flow but the album as a whole doesn’t gel, like a series of psychotic episodes—some manic (the fine “The War of the Sexes”), some depressive (“All Goes Out the Window”). This is ironic given that Skinner’s rhythms and beats are more aligned and syncopated than ever, which should invite the comparisons to Eminem that were scarcely merited before. Skinner goes with the flow but the flow isn’t pretty, and though dissonance is his strong suit, the conflict in these songs isn’t so much located within them as it is in the space that separates them. The Hardest Way to Make an Easy Living is the equivalent of being caught in level 1-2 of Super Mario Bros. with the secret pipe warp section always out of reach.
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