Mike Skinner’s The Streets project hit the streets of London in 2002 with the innovative Original Pirate Material. With Original Pirate Material, Skinner spun tales of urban decay and club culture over a blistering bed of UK garage, jungle, and dancehall beats. The results were unique to say the least, and earned the project four nominations at MTV’s 2003 Brit Awards. Skinner is no Eminem on the mic, but perhaps that is a good thing. Skinner’s limited vocabulary and slurred delivery are eloquent in their simplicity. Not that I can understand his every word; Birmingham-accented English takes a wee bit getting used to. In Skinner’s lexicon, “geezers” are thugs of sorts and women are “birds, not bitches.” At times I feel like I’m watching Trainspotting. I know vaguely what’s going on, I’m just not sure of the specifics.
Two years later and I still can’t understand Skinner. No matter. A Grand Don’t Come For Free is an odd follow-up to a best-selling international debut. For starters, it’s a concept album of sorts. The album begins with a shoebox of money (1,000 quid) mysteriously disappearing from Skinner’s apartment right in front of his “mates.” What follows is more or less a chronological tale of love and loss, although Skinner does address other topics such as gambling addiction (“Not Addicted”) and the loneliness of clubbing on ecstasy (“Blinded By The Lights”). Unfortunately, many of the love songs seem uninspired at best and lack the sharp production and wit of Original Pirate Material. An exception is the tragic yet hopeful “Dry Your Eyes,” in which Skinner’s character realizes he’s screwed up once too often and this particular relationship can’t be repaired.
“Empty Cans” finds Skinner drowning himself in sorrow, unsure of whom he can trust and how to move on in life. There are two hypothetical endings, one in which Skinner gets beaten up by a TV repairman, and one in which his friend Scott comes over to fix the television set and finds the lost money lodged inside of it. My interpretation of all this is that Skinner’s friends ripped him off. At the end of the album, when Skinner’s character is at absolute rock bottom, Scott decides to give the money back to save a damaged friendship and help his “mate” get back on his feet. As a “concept album” I’m not sure if I can recommend A Grand Don’t Come For Free. After several listens I don’t feel much closer to unraveling the plot of this British soap opera, and I don’t really care. Only about half the album is listenable, but even the best tracks lack the innovative beats and storytelling skills of The Streets’ debut. A Grand Don’t Come For Free would have made for a fine EP, but as a full-length fails to deliver.
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