Recording under the moniker the Streets, the British producer and rapper Mike Skinner brought hip-hop back to its novelistic roots, to what OutKast once referred to as “Da Art of Storytellin.” On his 2002 debut, Original Pirate Material, Skinner didn’t rhyme exactly (he rapped conversationally, not in couplets), and his music wasn’t really hip-hop, either. (It’s known as “U.K. garage,” a dance-music subgenre that combines hip-hop, house, and drum-and-bass; the “Pirate” in the title refers to the radio stations in London that play garage.) But Skinner’s songs—constructed from autobiographical observations, some deadpan, others almost slapstick—have more in common with hip-hop’s first-person narratives than with dance music’s purposeful sense of anonymity.
As good as Original Pirate Material was, Skinner could easily have been a one-record artist. His obsessions were so singular that his persona seemed likely to harden into caricature on a follow-up. But on A Grand Don’t Come for Free, Skinner shows he has plenty of new tales to tell, many of them based on his struggle to reacclimate to regular life after the (relative) highs of (relative) stardom. “It was supposed to be so easy!” Skinner mock-moans on the first track—and the rest of A Grand builds on the theme of disenchantment. The exuberant ecstasy culture described on “Weak Become Heroes” from Original Pirate Material is now, on the new track “Blinded by the Lights,” a panicky haze of impure pills, paranoia, and social isolation. Skinner’s jokes are fewer here, too, but they’re more complex than the punchy one-liners of Original Pirate Material. The thrills of the U.K. garage scene have ground down into stasis, a life of ATM queues, argumentative girlfriends, and nights smoking marijuana and watching East Enders.
Despite all this, A Grand doesn’t feel like a comedown. Skinner’s finely honed sense of place still has a nearly hypnotic effect. And he’s smartly forsaken familiar garage sounds like sandpapery, skipping snares and robotic bass lines for simpler (and often more effective) beat making: His new songs are carried along by a single horn blast or a piano note.
Much of pop—hip-hop in particular, obviously—aims for authenticity but ends up in cartoonish posturing. Skinner, though, is real life’s real deal, an artist who knows that, if rendered honestly, even mundane experiences can produce the most powerful music.