Imagine several hundred pallid, asthmatic amateur music critics. These guys are pissed, confused and remorseful (and verbose). Why? Because The Streets just dropped the best album of 2004 (so far), and just two years ago, those poor dumb fellows called The Streets "a novelty act." Shame on these couch-bound Pringles pirates; there's a theory that supposes these guys are the same ones that tried to convince the American public that The Vines were the second coming.
To trace their blunder, let's look at it contextually. Way back in 2002, Mike Skinner, aka The Streets, released his debut LP, Original Pirate Material, to a veritable cacophony of blinks and harrumphs. The record was an initially disarming mlange of British two-step garage, Jamaican dancehall and American hip-hop. Not necessarily an unpalatable mix, save for the ever-present speak-rapping of Skinner, possibly the most singularly British, unmistakably Caucasian voice of his generation. Here is a man that makes Sir Arthur Conan Doyle sound like Ice Cube.
Perhaps, in one's initial shock, one might make a few rash, half-witted generalizations: "He's like a cockney Eminem! That's the worst thing I can imagine." Or even, "White people aren't allowed to hold mikes anymore; it's too dangerous."
There's only one possible explanation for this kind of addle-brained cretinism: These "critics" (bloggers all) couldn't be bothered to listen to the songs. Original Pirate Material wasn't just an interesting breath of fresh air; it was a perfect generational slice of life and a brilliant collection of songs. The gentle-mannered nostalgia of tracks like "It's Too Late" and "Weak Become Heroes" mixed with the blue-collar bombast of "The Irony of it All" and "Too Much Brandy" created an incredibly potent, affecting album. It was a portrayal of young British life to beat anything released since Never Mind the Bollocks. Plus, it has "Don't Mug Yourself," probably the best single of 2002.
Luckily, there's even less to mistake about The Streets in 2004. The new LP A Grand Don't Come For Free is an even more easily verifiable masterpiece. It's a strangely shiftless, unambitious concept album, if such a thing can be imagined -- a tale of losing and winning women, drugs, friends, cell phone service and 1,000 quid. The story arc stretches from leching at a McDonald's in Ibiza to a very stoned series of evenings at a girlfriend's house.
Skinner's talent seems to grow and grow the further he gets from the hip-hop idiom (in which he was tentatively placed). And though one supposes that yes, technically, he is rapping, it sounds nothing like any MC you've ever heard, dropping lines like, "The queue is outrageous / Lady's taking ages / My rage is blowing gauges / How long's it take to validate your wages?!" Often, he dedicates an entire verse to body language: "She brings her hands up towards where my hands rested / She wraps her fingers round mine with the softness she's blessed with." He's become less an MC than a brilliant British storyteller; it's certainly easier to find parallels between his work and that of, say, Nick Hornby, than, say, Ol' Dirty Bastard. Still, if the details place the story squarely in the United Kingdom, it's remarkable how well the story translates here across the Atlantic.
This show will definitely be worth the drive to the Fox Theatre in Boulder on June 19.
-- Brian Arnot
Fox Theatre, 1135 13th St, Boulder
Saturday, June 19, doors open at 8:30 p.m.
$20 advance, $22.50 at the door