The Streets' last album, Original Pirate Material
, was released just two years ago to widespread critical acclaim, but a lot has happened since then. In '02, The Streets (known to the taxman as Mike Skinner) were feted as the new face of British hip-hop, but last year's release from fellow Briton Dizzee Rascal
makes Skinner old news, and raises the bar substantially for every other emerging British hip-hop act. Thus, rather than merely being critiqued for how well it builds on Original Pirate Material
, A Grand Don't Come For Free
is in the unenviable position of responding to Boy In Da Corner
In one respect, Skinner seems to realize this, and has thrown in some obvious nods to Dizzee. Tracks like "Not Addicted", for example, have beats that could have come straight off of 2003's Mercury Prize winner, and are a lot harder than anything on The Streets' debut. "What Is He Thinking?" is likely a direct response to "Sittin' Here", Boy In Da Corner's opener; Skinner intones, "I wish I could read what his eyes are saying / Staring straight and not blinking".
Whether such nods are offered seriously is another matter, and given the half-joking tone that permeates the rest of A Grand Don't Come For Free, a mix of straight response and mockery seems most plausible. After all, the album's title comes from a line in "It Was Supposed To Be So Easy", wherein the song's protagonist wonders (in a very slow, stoned manner) how he could possibly have lost a thousand dollars. "Fit But You Know It" takes a similar tack, starting off with the line, "See, I reckon you're about an 8 or a 9 / Maybe even 9 and a half in four beers' time", then building to a chorus of "I think you are really fit / You're fit but my gosh don't you know it."
It's lines like these that highlight the key difference between The Streets and Dizzee Rascal. Unlike Dizzee, whose rhymes focus more on the harsher aspects of British street culture, Skinner focuses on a more middle-class stoner/raver existence, spinning tales of lost money and returned DVDs (opener "It Was Supposed To Be So Easy"), failed relationships ("Get Out Of My House" and "Dry Your Eyes") and clubbing ("Blinded By The Lights"). You can debate the sociological and anthropological merits of the two approaches, but Skinner needs to be the more engaging rapper to avoid sounding too self-absorbed. On that count, his laid back, conversational delivery succeeds.
In fact, it's Skinner's delivery that makes A Grand Don't Come Easy worth looking into. The beats aren't as strong here as they were on his debut, so Skinner lives and dies by his delivery. It's a clear sign of his ability that even in the album opener, when the tempo is strange and the backing track is kind of dull, you feel compelled to listen because you want to know what he's saying. What more could you possibly want from a rapper?