Can a British gent who spits Cockney-accented rhymes about geezers, blokes, and ”full English breakfasts” be the future of hip-hop? Nah. But Mike Skinner, a.k.a. the Streets, who recently released his second acclaimed album, ”A Grand Don’t Come for Free,” is definitely the future of SOMETHING. Skinner’s conversational, beat-skipping rhyming style can be jarring to U.S. ears (and probably won’t be winning over too many Lil’ Jon fans). But with the uncharacteristically guitar-heavy single ”Fit But You Know It” getting rock-radio spins here, more and more Stateside listeners are catching on. Here’s why you should too.
He’s made the hip-hop ”Quadrophenia.” ”Original Pirate Material,” the Streets’ debut and EW music critic David Browne’s choice for the best album of 2002, felt like 14 compressed short stories. But the semi-autobiographical ”A Grand Don’t Come for Free,” with its evocative lyrics, packs in enough plot for a novel. It chronicles 24 hours or so in the life of a British working-class guy named (surprise!) Mike, who’s desperate to recover a money-filled envelope that disappeared from the top of his telly. In the process, it brings British youth culture to gritty life, much as the Who did for mods and rockers in 1973’s rock opera ”Quadrophenia” — even if that’s not exactly a touchstone for the artist himself. ”Aside from the Prince Paul album [1999’s ‘A Prince Among Thieves,’ billed as the first ‘hip-hopera’], I’m not sure I’ve ever heard a concept album,” Skinner muses. ”I’ve seen the film of ‘Quadrophenia,’ but never listened to the soundtrack.”
He really CAN rap. Last year, Vibe magazine gave the 24-year-old Skinner a dubious honor called the ”Put Down the Mike, Whitey” Award, comparing him to rap-defiling Caucasians such as Limp Bizkit’s Fred Durst. But the truth is, Skinner’s not trying to flow like Nas or Jay-Z — at least not anymore. ”I started trying to sound like the Wu-Tang Clan and Redman and stuff,” he admits. ”But I came to realize I didn’t just want to be a U.K. version of an American rapper.” So instead, inspired in part by Nas’ vivid depictions of life in New York City’s Queensbridge projects, Skinner began trying to represent his real life, from playing Playstation 2 to smoking pot with his girlfriend. In the process, he began using a rhyming style and beats inspired more by the dancehall-inspired U.K. club music known as garage (no, not garage rock) than by any American MC.
He sings too. With ”A Grand,” Skinner has begun singing more of his own choruses, in a charmingly shaky tenor that — perhaps because of the accent — evokes the Kinks’ Ray Davies. Witness ”Fit But You Know It,” a bouncy ode to a conceited woman that sounds like U.K. punk-rock from an alternate universe. ”Obviously I’ve not got a very good voice, but I think I get the message across,” says Skinner, adding that he’d like to sing on a rap-free album — although not anytime soon.
He can teach you cool slang. ”Fit But You Know It” may well transplant the Brit slang ”fit” (it means ”hot”). The new album also includes other terms — like ”geezer” (the equivalent of ”dude”) — that Skinner can imagine Americans picking up. But Cockney rhyming slang may not go over so well: ”If you say ‘boat,’ you mean ‘face.’ [Because] ‘boat race’ rhymes with ‘face.”’ But, Mike, we say, that makes no sense. ”It does in England,” he replies.