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Mike Skinner is a rapper in the same sense that Will Ferrell is an actor—it’s not quite the right word, but there’s just no better description of what he does for a living. Yes, the Birmingham, England, native speaks over beats, sometimes even rhythmically. But there’s a feeling of willful incorrectness to everything about his music, from his fick ecksint to the ubiquitous, stuttering, too-loud snare to the people he hires to sing his hooks—usually, they have worse voices than he does. Even less gangsta, he depicts a world governed not by self-preservation or righteous indignation or the even the code of the warrior. He doesn’t rap about comic books or cartoons, either. Skinner, you see, is a moralist.

When a character in a Streets song meets an attractive young lady in a pub, it’s a lock that his girlfriend back home is diddling his best friend. If he bets, he loses everything. If he takes drugs to be sociable, he will definitely pass out by himself in some forgotten corner of a hellish nightclub. So you can love him as a lovable loser. Or you can love him as a keen observer of the fluorescent-light-bleached nihilism of modern British life, in which irony and self-pity are the only things worth working for. Either way, you love him because, at some level, he knows that he and his countrymen and you and I are all capable of better—and that he wants all of us to achieve it.

Or at least that’s how it was with the old Skinner. On the new The Hardest Way to Make an Easy Living, the slightly raspy Birminghamese has been replaced by London’s pinched, nasal eversneer; the beats are lusher; and the narrator is a lot less easy to empathize with. From the disc’s opening track, “Prangin Out,” he’s complaining about the downside of all the cocaine he has to do to cope with his celebrity. Two-and-a-half minutes in, he wakes up and realizes he just lost a ton of money betting over the Internet while zooted, his manager punches him in the face for being such a mess, and you’re thinking, Yes! Our man is back!

But he’s not. The Streets’ previous long-player, 2004’s sophomore effort A Grand Don’t Come for Free, was an unusually accomplished concept album that sketched the life of a character named Mike Skinner, a guy who loses his life savings, his long-term relationship, and very nearly all of his friends—and then rewinds the tape on the last song and tries again, this time trusting the buddy who finds his money. After all Mike Skinner had been through, he deserved as much. Today’s model proudly proclaims that he has no idea how much money he has. He constantly wakes up with “fit things” whose names he’s forgotten. And then there’s the coke.

Jesus, the coke. Skinner circa 2006 loves that expensive white stuff so much he’s got two cutesy names for it: “prang” and “tour support.” Sure, he knows it’s turning him into a “rock ’n’ roll cliché,” but it’s not long before he’s complaining about—well, let’s let him tell it, in “When You Wasn’t Famous”: “Ah, see, right, see the thing that’s got it all fucked up now is camera phones/How the hell am I supposed to be able to do a line in front of complete strangers?”

In the past, a line like that would be about someone else—someone Skinner overheard while he was wandering around a club on Ecstasy trying to get better reception on his mobile or getting negged at the ATM. So the question is: Is our man back in character, this time at the top of the economy instead of the bottom? The first guess would be yes. But in Skinner’s every interview about Easy Living, he claims he’s deadly serious, even in “Wasn’t Famous,” which is about pulling a girl who’s as well-known as you are, then smiling wryly as you watch the big-name game who put scratches down your back the night before talking on TV about saving poor children. “Considering the amount of prang you’d done/You looked amazing on CDUK!” he tattles.

I can conclude only that the interviews are a part of the act. Not because I have the slightest idea about Skinner’s personal life. Or because I desperately want the working-class poet of Grand to turn around and tell the stuffed shirts to stick it up their jacksies. Or because “Can’t Con an Honest John” declares, “It’s all one big con.” No, I’m gonna go with character just because every other song is about being a normal, if slightly cheeky, guy—oh no, he didn’t just bitch about charging a Ferrari, did he?

That happens in “Memento Mori,” a bit of left-footed funk that reminds us not only that the titular concept is “Latin and it says we must all die” but also that “it’s a load of boring shite.” But still: For every Skinner engaging in extreme retail therapy, there’s a Skinner considering going to church to try to connect with his recently deceased pops (in the fake-gospel “Never Went to Church”). For every Skinner who’s a flop-sweaty record-company owner blowing through thousands of pounds, there’s an older and wiser Skinner advising that, in relationships, honesty is the best policy (in “All Goes Out the Window,” a sort of a “Tell Her About It” for guys with shaved heads and shell suits). And for every Skinner who details the “fine art of hotel expressionism”—pour minibar brandy into your suite’s iron—there’s a Skinner who shares a foolproof plan for conning a bartender out of 300 pounds (in “Honest John, ” which suggests enlisting a friend named, oh, Piers—“No, not Piers/Let’s call him Farquar”). That’s certainly not a sum that a guy who doesn’t know how much money he has would care about. Plus, it’s a classic morality tale: The bartender deserves it because he thinks he’s smarter than everyone else. Cool crappy-video-game noises and nursery-rhyme chorus, too.

But man, Skinner the celebrity jackass is convincing. He’s also funnier than Skinner the normal guy, who finally seems a little beaten down by the death and the dishonesty and the hopelessness of it all. Each one tends to undermine the other, which makes the Skinner of Easy Living even more problematic. You end up hating him because, as he’s so often reminded us, deep down, he knows that he’s capable of better. He used to be better at balancing humor and despair. He used to avoid saying such unironically self-pitying things as Easy Living’s final words: “Mate, sometimes, you know, it is made so hard.”

If the last Streets album ended with a cautionary tale, recounted with your choice of sad or happy ending—depending, of course, on whether our hero decides to live selfishly or to live and let live—this one concludes with Skinner’s transforming himself into a cautionary tale. In “Fake Streets Hats,” he freaks out Naomi Campbell–style on a bunch of hapless Belgians he suspects of buying counterfeit Streets gear. Then, in his hotel room the next morning, where he’s recovering after some athletic congress with a young woman whose name he doesn’t remember, he realizes they hadn’t. This ending, he seems to be admitting, is sad enough.CP