Most of the time, Mike Skinner doesn’t have a great flow. Is he a rapper? His style is closer to spoken word than hip hop, sometimes. He’s more Mike Doughty than Eminem, as far as white rappers go, though he sticks to narratives instead of pretentious beat poetry. And OK, maybe one man’s trash is another man’s treasure, as he’s got weird rhythm and a charming British accent and is more emotionally accessible than Kanye West. I liked The Streets well enough – Fit But You Know It is the most banal banger in recent history, and it’s all the better for it. But he has a niche, and he’s very good at what he does, and deserves to be compared to no one else but himself. I never knew that niche needed filling, and so as I look back on my years of fondness for The Streets, an affection that led me to camp out in the front row of the Intonation Festival for his headlining set and listen to his singles on repeat, I realize that I never really listened much to his albums – I like The Streets, but just don’t make me listen to him.
Maybe what it is, is that I find his tales of everyday life in Britain a little boring. Maybe it’s because I find Britain a little boring. I find it all so sober – without the rampant excesses our completely deregulated media enjoys, what’s left? Monty Python? Coldplay? Ricky Gervais? BBC.co.uk? Quality stuff, to be sure, but it’s all a little, you know, British. Call me an Anglophobe, I’ve been called worse.
So I guess it’s with that disclaimer I can say that this is the best Streets album yet. He’s still British, and he’s still got his “unique” flow. But Mike’s getting a little bit philosophical on this album, and he’s got some incredible production to back it up. He’s tossed the banal to the curb for this album – no songs about pop stars smoking crack or losing a wad of cash, here. The title track, which opens the album, has some incredibly sappy (I came to this world with nothing/And I leave with nothing but love) and overtly existential (Just when I discovered the meaning of life/They changed it) lyrics but goddammit, he sells it. He spends the better part of the album musing on death or suicide or the afterlife or whatever other morbid topic he’s come to peace with. His storytelling is risky, but pays off in a big way. Such introspective, melodramatic topics are usually better found on, say, a Dashboard Confessional album than anything resembling hip hop – but he’s so earnest and insightful it works. Take “On The Edge Of A Cliff,” easily the high point of the album, where he talks about contemplating throwing himself – you guessed it – off the edge of a cliff over a positively uplifting beat, and he’s trying to shake an old man with some words of advice. The advice comes in as the track loads up on soaring guitars and the old man reminds him how many generations of ancestors for billions of years had to contribute to produce him, that his existence is the improbable result of an enormous amount of people. Lump all of it together and it becomes quite possibly the most inspirational moment in hip hop of the year.
Elsewhere, the record is an overall step up – “Alleged Legends” covers some of the same territory “Never Went to Church” did on his previous record, but is a much better track – and has any artist in the game been as pragmatically anti-religion as Mike Skinner is? The track is practically a manifesto for the modern apathetic, a skepticism about the fundamental concepts of religion in general and a general nonreligious life philosophy. It’s Jesus Walks for the heathen set. I’ve heard it all before, but never in hip hop. The companion song to this is a fantastically upbeat sex-drugs-rock-and-roll anthem “Heaven for the Weather,” where a chorus sings “I want to go to heaven for the weather / and hell for the company / I want to go to heaven for the weather / but hell seems like fun to me.”
The problem with being so completely emotionally open and plainspoken is that sappiness gets a bit more unbearable. What works on Alleged Legends doesn’t do so well on “The Strongest Person I Know,” which hasn’t anything to save it from its blatant sappiness. Really, though, this is the only misstep on the album – he succeeds with the end-of-the-world sentiments of “The Way of the Dodo” and the triumphant, peaceful capper to the album, “The Escapist,” is a similar triumph, highlighting some of the fantastic production that backs the album the whole way through. In his previous albums, the lyrics were always the focus and the production was generally an afterthought – for good reason, as his treatment of the banal and his awkward flow have always been what attracts people to The Streets. Here, he’s tightened up his flow a bit (though I wouldn’t call him Twista) and jettisoned a lot of the banal elements, and he’s tried to compensate with the production to excellent effect.
This is The Streets album for people who don’t like The Streets. I have no doubt that people who like The Streets will like it too, though they’ll probably like it less than A Grand Don’t Come For Free. But this is the album that convinced me to give him another shot, to maybe listen through his first three albums to see if I like them any better. If I don’t, well, I can say without hesitation – this is the best album he’s ever written, and if you don’t mind a little (a lot) of introspection, it’s well worth your hard-earned money.
Posted by Joe Kaiser at Sep 21, 2008 11:13 PM