By David Browne
Updated March 17, 2020 at 02:54 AM EDT
The Streets: Ewan Spencer

Original Pirate Material

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If you are a white one-man band and want to establish yourself in the general vicinity of the hip-hop world, your first major mistake would be to call yourself the Streets. A transparent name like that cries out for a belittling, not to mention a pummeling. Your second mistake would be to record your album on relatively low-rent gear that makes it sound as if it were created in your bedroom, instead of in an expensive studio whose refrigerators are stocked with Cristal. Your third mistake would be to hail from England, a nation not exactly known for its contributions to rap.

Straight out of Birmingham — the working-class burg that also gave us Ozzy — Mike Skinner disregards such unwritten rules and somehow manages to get away with it. Skinner isn’t a strict rapper per se; he comes from the world of U.K. garage, which blends two-step, reggae, and rap, among other genres. The scene’s best-known export is Craig David, but comparisons to Skinner end right about there. Skinner’s Original Pirate Material, released in the U.K. earlier this year and now finally arriving on these shores, doesn’t just make David seem like the sleek pop star he yearns to be. By adding grit and gutter-savvy humor, Skinner also takes U.K. garage to a new level, making for the year’s most striking debut.

His nom de studio, it turns out, isn’t so inappropriate. British pop and rock have long been known for their excursions into class warfare and consciousness. The milieu of Skinner’s songs is sex, pubs, and rock & roll — a world of drug- and alcohol-besotted lads trying to make sense of the universe while avoiding confrontations with the older louts looking to beat them senseless. ”Same Old Thing” is sung in the voice of the latter (”Seems the only difference between midweek s— and weekend is how loud I speak,” the character grouses); ”The Irony of It All” is a sharp back-and-forth between an ale swiller and a stoner punk, the former growing increasingly agitated as the pothead taunts him into a brawl. Elsewhere, Skinner’s characters settle for hazy lives fueled by Ecstasy (”Weak Become Heroes”) or resort to blotting everything out around them with heroin (the tough-love sermonette ”Stay Positive”). Small wonder that the project has been released here by Vice Records, a Brooklyn-based label recently launched by the people who brought us the clever, cheeky scuzz-culture magazine of the same name.

Skinner may not have spent a lot on his debut, but he makes the most of his setup. Like a kid trying his best to devise his own Dr. Dre sonics in the privacy of his home, he sprinkles the songs with doomy synths, percolating beats, guest vocalists, and melodic hooks. Some tracks, like the hopeful boast ”Turn the Page,” are cinematic minisymphonies. You might even sing along with ”It’s Too Late,” a tale of a bloke who destroys a relationship by screwing up one time too many. Rather than detract from the music, the low-budget production lends the album an intimacy, as if Skinner just stumbled in from a particularly late night out and wants to recount his adventures. With their references to AltaVista, PlayStation, and a ”guaranteed, accuracy-enhanced CD,” the songs are like intimacy-challenged communiques from the digital generation.

Episode Recaps

Thanks to a sense of looming violence and the stream of pop-culture imagery, Skinner’s been compared to Eminem. That take isn’t completely accurate, since Skinner isn’t as smooth, dizzying, and consciously confrontational a rhymer as Eminem. If comparisons are to be made, in fact, the best would be to an earlier generation of Brits. From his choppy, rough-hewn voice to the ”oi! oi!” phrases he tacks onto the end of his lines, Skinner comes off like a punk rocker, albeit a less angry one. He’s the first rapper, white or otherwise, to sound as if he has stubs for teeth, and he makes you listen even when his rhymes don’t make a whole lot of sense. Skinner may not be the voice of a generation — his generation’s probably too fragmented at this point to have such a thing — but he’s nonetheless a voice to be reckoned with.

Original Pirate Material

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