A Fable

"I really despise musicals and operas and poetry. I wanted to make a great rap album, and inadvertently I've made an opera, a musical and poetry."

So said Mike Skinner, a.k.a. the Streets, in the pages of NME about his new album, A Grand Don't Come for Free. And he's kind of right -- it's not exactly a great rap album, but it's a great something. What is it? A hip-hop play? An English Seinfeld set to music? A Shakespeare romantic tragicomedy set to a UK garage beat?

Well, for one thing, it's one of the few realistic rap albums you'll ever hear. Skinner wanted to make a rap record about real life, not some cartoonish vision of hip-hop land, that place where murder has no consequences, every woman is a freak or a ho, and drinking a half-gallon of Hennessy leaves no hangover. "When you listen to 50 Cent, you're hearing a guy who you imagine goes around getting shot, and he doesn't really -- well, he did, but now he's doing pretty much the same as I am: being interviewed, collecting awards, going to parties," Skinner told the London Observer. "And the big question is: how to hang on to that excitement you had before becoming successful, without pretending you're still doing things you're actually not?"

A Grand Don't Come for Free is also a first-rate love-and-loss story. By turns exhilarating, entertaining, embarrassing and utterly devastating, Skinner convinces with his tales of the travails of his narrator, "Mike," and his lady love, Simone. There's the giddy elation and anxiety of the first date in "Could Well Be In," the bleak night in the downtown nightclub of "Blinded by the Lights," when the first suspicions about the new girl start to creep in -- not to mention the two hits of speckled E Mike took too fast in the erroneous belief that the first was a dud. "Wouldn't Have It Any Other Way" finds Mike trying to convince himself that he'd rather be at home "roachin' a spliff watchin' EastEnders or The Bill" rather than going to the pub with his mates. (Though Skinner claims in the NME interview that "the general vibe is that, for once, I really would rather stay in," he's lying. He sounds far too conflicted in the song to really mean that, and later developments bear this out.)

Next up comes the freakin' comedic "Get Out of My House" -- Mike and Simone's first blazing argument, complete with all the twists, manipulations, cheap shots, lame-but-satisfying retorts and devious psy-ops any self-respecting member of a long-term relationship will find painfully familiar. "So there you go. Eh? Don't try and give me none of that shit," Mike says on the outro. "'Cos you're not exactly…fuckin' y'know…It's hard enough for me to remember my opinions without remembering my reasons for 'em…You're confusing me now. I'm not gonna give you an example -- I can't remember an example. You do it all the time, you know, that thing that you do…I can't remember when you last did it, can I?" Skinner's thrown out of the house, with these words echoing in his ears: "I'll be proper angry if you're not back later on your knees."

And he does come back, but "Fit But You Know It" -- which despite Skinner's vehement protests does sound a lot like Blur -- finds our hero on holiday with his mates in Ibiza trying to get off with a tan-lined tramp. Somehow, and despite the allure of chat-up lines such as "I reckon you're about an eight or a nine, maybe even a nine-and-a-half in four beers time," Skinner has no luck, at least within that song. By the end of the next song, though, we know that he succeeded, because he's now feeling really guilty and calling himself "Such a Twat." Best to leave the love story here, so as not to spoil the ending -- suffice to say that "Dry Your Eyes" sounds like the one tune that could conceivably be a hit stateside.

So that's the main thrust of the plot of A Grand Don't Come for Free. Meanwhile, Seinfeld-like, there's a parallel plotline regarding a missing thousand pounds. The grand vanishes from his living room on one of those disastrous days where every simple errand turns into an Alamo-like doomed epic, as chronicled on the hilarious "It Was Supposed to Be So Easy." Mike suspects his mates of swiping the grand, and paranoia ensues.

But in addition to the love story and Seinfeld perspectives, the album can be seen as a window on the world of English youth in craphole towns far from London's glamour. I'm married to an Englishwoman and I lived for a couple of years in Lancashire -- in the decayed red-brick mill town of Preston, and the seedy beach resort Blackpool -- and this CD takes me right back there. There's the surface-value stuff -- the slang, such as "50 squid" for fifty pounds; "fit" for sexy; "smackin' glasses down at George Best's best session rate," which translates as, well, partying really fucking hard. Non-Anglophile Americans would be well served by a lyric sheet with footnotes, and since that is not forthcoming, it seems unlikely that the Streets will ever have more than a cult following here.

Then there's all the detail -- when he's hurt Skinner "sits in and drinks Super Tennent's all day," which refers to an evil brew about twice as strong as American malt liquor. He whiles away another day trying and failing to place a bet on a football match -- in England, there's a betting shop on the corner of just about every major intersection, in which you can spend many a meaningless day wagering your dole money on anything from soccer to elections in Bangladesh.

There's the drab dead-end aspect to all of their lives -- neither Mike nor Simone nor any of their mates seems to have anything on their minds other than getting fucked up, be it on weed, E or booze. The characters are not thugs or gangstas, but nobody has a plan. Nobody seems to have a meaningful job. And nobody seems to care about any of that -- that there's a whole world out there beyond what's on telly tonight, the next buzz and the next romantic conquest, which is exactly the way my workmates thought at the landscaping service I toiled at for a few weeks, and at British Telecom, where I worked a mail clerk McJob for a summer. (Every Friday, all of us would kick off the weekend by getting positively hammered at lunch -- so if you're a Brit and you mysteriously never received a phone bill sometime back in 1994 -- my bad, I probably shoved it in the franking machine upside down some lush Friday afternoon.)

One wonders how Mike got the grand that went missing, and where all of them got the ubiquitous cell phones that feature in just about every song. But dreary lives or not, Skinner does such a great job sketching life in the British twentysomething wasteland that the young and impressionable no doubt will be intrigued by England. The Specials' "Ghost Town" hardly painted a pretty picture of Maggie's England, but I still wanted to go there, and nothing on this album is as downright frightening as that song.

Skinner gets a lot of shit for his supposedly weak flow. It's not weak -- it's just different. Rather than trying to weld his Midlands accent to an African-American chassis, he was smart enough to arrange his beats around the way British people talk. (Or rather the way they think -- there's an exceptional stream-of-consciousness, thinking-out-loud quality to his rhymes.) Judge him by the standards of Jay-Z, Ludacris or Rakim, and you might well deem his flow feeble, but look at him as somebody who creates a uniquely English style of hip-hop, and his flow looks downright formidable. And even if you still think his flow sucks, you can't deny that his use of language is as inventive as anybody's on either side of the pond.

But back to Mike, Simone and the rest of the characters on the album. Their lives may suck, but at least they have each other, right? Well, no, and that's the point. If the album can be summed up as being about anything in one word, it's self-reliance. You have to look out for No. 1, and let the rest take care of itself. Neither your mates nor your girlfriend is responsible for your happiness -- you are. So on top of everything else this album is a fable, complete with moral. And if it's not the work of a genius, I'll be a monkey's uncle.