Streets ahead

by Stephen Tall on June 11, 2006

thegrauniad’s Weekend Magazine last Saturday carried a diverting interview with Mike Skinner, aka The Streets, probably this country’s most brilliantly acute lyricist-cum-rapper. His Mercury award-winning first album, ‘original pirate material’, declared war on pop pap:

You say that everything sounds the same
Then you go buy them! There’s no excuses my friend
Let’s Push Things Forward.

As a fan of pop pap myself (Girls Aloud and Robbie nestle alongside the more down wiv da kidz Franz Ferdinand and The Killers on my CD racks), I was relieved and disconcerted in equal measure to read that his favourite ballad is ‘She’s Like The Wind’ from the Dirty Dancing soundtrack.

What marks Skinner out from the urban crowd – and why he has rightly been likened to Eminem – is his ability to speak uncomfortable truths, and then to undercut his knowing crassness with some blisteringly self-deprecating jokes.

The lightest, funniest track on OPM is ‘the irony of it all’ in which he mockingly stages a drugs debate between a boorish boozer, Terry:

I’m a law abider
There’s nothing I like more than getting fired up on beer
And when the weekends here I to exercise my right to get paralytic and fight

and a hemp-high liberal wiener, Tim:

… we’re friendly peaceful people
We’re not the ones out there causing trouble.
We just sit in this hazy bubble with our quarters
Discussing how beautiful Gail Porter is.

The follow-up concept album, ‘a grand don’t come for free’, took The Streets to another level, earning high praise from a slightly unlikely source, John Sutherland (again in thegrauniad):

Skinner’s world, one has to say, is horrible. … It lacks culture, learning, grace, courtesy, spirituality, style, ceremony, direction, aspiration, occupation. All it has is vitality. … There are no doubts about his artistic ability. This second album (as hard to pull off as a successful second novel) should establish The Streets as a significant voice in British music (it’s not easy to see a big breakthrough in America).

It’s a rich album crammed with brutal honesty, from the observational comedy of ‘Could well be in’:

I saw this thing on ITV the other week,
Said, that if she played with her hair, she’s probably keen
She’s playin’ with her hair, well regularly,
So I reckon I could well be in.

… to the blokeish detachment of ‘Fit but you know it’:

See I reckon you’re about an 8 or a 9,
Maybe even 9 and a half in four beers time.
That blue TopShop top you’ve got on IS nice,
Bit too much fake tan though – but, yeah, you score high.

and the soul-bearing vulnerability of being dumped, in ‘DRY YOUR EYES’:

Please let me show you where we could only just be, for us
I can change and I can grow or we could adjust
The wicked thing about us is we always have trust
We can even have an open relationship, if you must
I look at her she stares almost straight back at me
But her eyes glaze over like she’s lookin’ straight through me
Then her eyes must have closed for what seems an eternity
When they open up she’s lookin’ down at her feet.

But the latest album, ‘the hardest way to make an easy living’, is the best yet, despite the partial (and boringly inevitable) critical backlash.

All the old Skinner tics are there in abundance: for example, the sweary undercutting of his lifestyle, now as a rich celebrity, in ‘Memento mori’:

Memento mori, memento mori
It’s Latin and it says we must all die
I tried it for a while but it’s a load of boring shite
So I buy buy buy buy buy buy

… the faux laddishness:

When you’re a famous boy, it gets really easy to get girls,
it’s all so easy you get a bit spoilt.
But, when you try to pull a girl, who is also famous too,
it feels just like when you wasn’t famous.

… and the smart-arse bon mot:

In spread betting it’s easy to draw a small fortune start
With a big fortune and lose into a small fortune.

But it’s the latest single, ‘never went to church’, which is the stand-out track – a soulful eulogy to Skinner’s dad, who died two years ago, and whose influence clearly endures:

I never cared about God when life was sailin’ in the calm,
So I said I’d get my head down and I’d deal with the ache in my heart,
And for that if God exists I’d reckon he’d pay me regard,
Mom says me and you are the same from the start.
I guess than you did leave me something to remind me of you,
Everytime I interrupt someone like you used to,
When I do something like you you’ll be on my mind or through,
‘Cause I forgot you left me behind to remind me of you.

But, despite my fandom, I was a tad perturbed by his closing quote in thegrauniad:

There are two lines on an axis. One of them is creativity and the other is skill. And I think that throughout your life, you are gradually losing creativity and gaining skill. And I think that at some stage, they say it’s around 29, that’s when it happens; I’m still getting there, still getting better, to the point where they’ll meet.

So, another 9 months to go, then it’s downhill all the way for me…