Review Summary: For Tomorrow: A Guide to Contemporary British Music, 1988-2013 (Part 77)
Mike Skinner’s rapping ability never got the credit it deserved. Even his supporters feel the need to shrug and confess that he isn’t a very good rapper. This is part of a larger issue in rap music where rapping ability is determined by degrees of separation from Nas, a criteria that is currently holding non-Kendrick California and all of Atlanta back from the respect they deserve. Thing is, if you want to call Mike Skinner’s rapper technique bad
you need to be able to explain why it hurts the music. Would The Streets have been better if Skinner had been spitting “lyrical spiritual miracle” bars?
It’s Skinner’s deft way with syntax and patterning his speech somewhere above the tempo (and occasionally disregarding it altogether) that, coupled with his deeply lived in writing style, makes his best music sound like engaging conversation between you and him. Its that ability that reduces an idea as pretentious as The Concept Album into a lively story your friend couldn’t wait to tell you. A Grand Don’t Come for Free
has a plot and Skinner’s commitment to following that plot is commendable. Almost every song advances that plot in someway and no matter how many times I listen to the album I always find myself compelled through it. To wit: Mike loses 1000 pounds (the currency, not the weight), starts dating a girl, gets stood up by girl, moves into girl’s flat, fights with girl, oi oi oi, the twist, the break up, and the two endings. So it’s a testament to Skinner’s songwriting ability that individual tracks from such a densely plotted album can be separated and consumed on their own but snap straight into the album proper when consumed in full.
Opening with the terrifically funny “It Was Supposed to be So Easy”, A Grand Don’t Come for Free
begins with one of those mornings where the few simple tasks you gave yourself to do don’t get done because God hates you. Sporting some of Skinners deftest rhymes (“Get there the queue's outrageous, ladies taking ages/My rage is blowing gauges, how longs it take to validate your wages?”) over faux-magistral horn blasts, “It Was Supposed to Be So Easy” gets the plot off to a cracking start with one of the albums best songs. “Could Well Be In” is a pitch perfect document of a first date going very well. Constructed entirely of little details (A stirred straw, nervously spinning the ashtray, the barman wiping down the bar) and featuring one of the album’s best hooks it functions entirely on its own while engaging and furthering the plot at the same time with a little recap on the first track’s events.
Skinner’s unimpeachable way with the slimmest of details comes into full effect on “Blinded by the Lights”, detailing a trip though a nightclub that most of us wouldn’t remember with a narrative eye so detailed we slip right into his sneakers. From the big details (“Should be a good night in here, Ramo in the main room”) down to the way his ecstasy looks (“These look well speckly, bit of green and blue”) and tastes (“That's proper rank, that tastes like hairspray”) he does half the heavy lifting while the strobing synths and tense strings do the other half. “Fit But You Know It” is a hilarious treatise against Skinner himself as he fumes at a girl for not telepathically knowing he wanted to flirt with her (“just another case of female stopping play”). “Such a Twat” lets us in on one side of a cell phone conversation with interruptions for Mike can shutting his front door and the call getting dropped (“‘Ello? ...ahh, ***ing phones man!”).
The tense confrontation and big twist “What is He Thinking” bleeds out into “Dry Your Eyes”, and if “Dry Your Eyes” is not the best breakup ballad of all time it has a shot at being the most deeply felt as Skinner recounts, in achingly perfect detail, a second by second breakdown of a breakup. There’s bargaining (“I can change, I can grow, or we can adjust [...] We can even have an open relationship if we must”), desperate begging (“There's things I can't imagine doing/Things I can't imagine seeing/It weren't suppose to be/Easy, surely, please please/I beg you, please”), and finally anger (“You're gonna let our things simply crash and fall down?/You're well out of order now, this is well outta town”). The chorus rests a hand on your shoulder and reassures you with platitudes that suddenly hit hard again. Chris “The Coldplay” Martin actually recorded a version of the chorus that went unused and, really, the song is better for it. Chris Martin showing up in the 3rd act would have been a wholly unwelcome superstar cameo, as is, the anonymous chorus adds resonance to the track by sounding like it could have came straight from a close confidant. “Dry Your Eyes” is a moving conclusion to a relationship but it’s not quite the end of the story.
A Grand Don’t Come for Free
closes with the stunning “Empty Cans” [spoilers ahead].
There we find Mike. £1000 and a girlfriend poorer, sitting in his flat getting drunk on his own. The beat is brittle, terse drums and error message synths, and the hook is edgy.He calls up some TV repair company to fix the broken panel on the back of set but when the guy takes a look at it, he finds something else. Before he can relay just what that is, Mike assumes he’s trying to rip him off, they fight, and Mike ends up £1000, a girlfriend, and a fixed TV poorer with only a swelling lump on the side of his face. Drinking in the corner, blaming everyone else for his misery.
Or not. Just as the song ends, the tape catches, rewinds and starts over.
At first, the song appears to be taking the same path. Mike’s pissed and the beat is dour. But a crucial change happens in the fourth bar. During the first verse, the fifth bar goes “It’s not my fault there’s wall to wall empty cans”, but during the third verse the fifth bar goes “It’s all my fault there’s wall to wall empty cans”. The difference is incredibly small but incredibly crucial. Just as Mike decides to make that change, to accept responsibility for the mess he got into, the song starts to lift. A piano appears, letting sunlight in through the blinds. He decides to let Scott come over and take a look at his broken TV and when he does, he finds Mike’s missing £1000 which had fallen behind the back panel.
Really, “Empty Cans” conveys the same moral that Original Pirate Material
closer “Stay Positive” did. That other people can’t always have your back because they have their own business to take care of, that at the end of the day your responsibilities are wholly your own and you’ve got to handle them yourself. This advice is pragmatic but in context comes off as blindingly optimistic. Mike’s tenderly hopeful hook (“The end of the something I did not want to end/Beginning of hard times to come/But something that was not meant to be is done/And this is the start of what was”) coupled with the stunningly evocative closer lyrics (“Condensation floating off my breath, squinted out the sun/My jeans feel a bit tight, think I washed them too high/I was gonna be late, so I picked up my pace to run”) draws the story to a masterful close.
Singles aside, A Grand Don’t Come for Free
doesn’t really work as a collection of individual songs. But as a long player it’s some of the quickest 50 minutes you’ll ever hear. The album just flies by, so compelling in its structure that you can’t help but listen to the whole thing end to end. There’s a healthy variety of beats, from the house evoking “Blinded by the Lights” to the “Parklife” bounce of “Fit But You Know It”, that shift texture and style frequently enough to entertain musically as well as lyrically (And the hooks certainly aren’t “appalling”, Playlouder). A Grand Don’t Come for Free
was hugely impactful upon release and, even if its critical reception faded a little since then, it remains as thrilling as ever, a masterful storyteller coming into his own and a daring rebuke of both genre conventions and sophmore album expectations.