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The Streets’ Mike Skinner makes music the same way Britain’s best folkies and free-jazzers did back in the ’60s: by more or less ignoring us American types. The 25-year-old Birmingham native’s critically fêted, recorded-in-a-closet debut, 2002’s Original Pirate Material, resembled traditional Yankee hiphop in architecture only: The ex–Burger King employee rapped inasmuch as he rhymed without singing, and though Pirate’s electronic tracks were beat-focused, the album largely referenced U.K. garage, a skittery post–drum ’n’ bass genre that never gained much traction over here. “I produced this using only my bare wit,” Skinner mumble-bragged on opener “Turn the Page,” and not without good reason: The Streets’ whole aesthetic sounded as if it were pieced together from his overactive Brummy imagination, as if the guy had read an article on hiphop and immediately gotten to work.
Without even considering its title (yes, we have no bling-bling) or its descriptions of making tea, betting on soccer, and getting pissed at the pub, American heads will likely find Skinner’s latest LP, A Grand Don’t Come for Free, as unfamiliar-sounding as his first. For starters, Grand eighty-sixes Pirate’s more impressionistic approach in favor of a picaresque, full-length narrative—a concept album, if you will. We’re still talkin’ day-in-the-life stuff, but this time Skinner goes for a cumulative effect. Over the disc’s 50 minutes, Grand’s protagonist misplaces £1,000, meets new girlfriend Simone, vacations in Ibiza, cheats on Simone, and gets his scrawny ass dumped. All of this, of course, is written by and about the same young man who once told The Sun, “I don’t like there being drugs I’ve not tried.” Skinner downs Kronenbourgs, smokes weed, pops E, and generally consumes anything he can get down his cakehole.
As a unified experience, Grand makes for a naturalistic and even kind of suspenseful listen. But the album often behaves more like Britpop than hiphop. The forniriffic first single, “Fit but You Know It,” with its Bowie-rip guitar and oompah-punk beat, is too indie-rock by half. Skinner has lamented that anyone would compare “Fit” to Blur, but it sounds just like it anyway. And the Skinner-Simone courtship track, “Could Well Be In,” traffics in the kind of earnest, three-chord mood-manipulation that Radiohead wannabes love so much. Speaking of which, the acoustic-guitar-dominated Skinner-gets-dumped ballad “Dry Your Eyes” sounds just like Apple’s mom’s favorite band—so much so that the original version allegedly featured Coldplay’s Chris Martin crooning the chorus: “Dry your eyes, mate/I know you want to make her see how much this pain hurts.”
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According to Skinner, Coldplay’s label nixed the singer’s contribution—and wisely so: At the song level, Grand works much better when Skinner gets down to hiphop basics. The guy’s still got weird flow—his lines are sometimes overstuffed, sometimes too Spartan—but there’s something undeniably charming about hearing him do the narration thing over the aggressive rhythms of “Not Addicted,” “What Is He Thinking,” and album-closer “Empty Cans.” That’s not to say Grand’s best music sounds more American—actually, those tracks play like an homage to the hard Atari crunk of fellow Brit Dizzee Rascal. But the album’s version of hiphop is definitely more orthodox than Pirate’s.
Along with all the conventional pop, that’s exactly why the new disc is a letdown: Pirate’s appeal had everything to do with Skinner’s otherness—and not just because no one was expecting an authentically British take on a genre that seemed consummately American. Skinner, no doubt, wanted to push the Streets forward, to move outside of his own head. But you have to wonder whether he really should have taken a route so well-traveled. In the end, A Grand Don’t Come for Free amounts to little more than a side trip.
The music of red-state-raised sampler virtuoso RJD2 suggests nothing so much as the mid-’90s golden age of British indie Mo’Wax. Like that label’s more intrepid producers, the man born RJ Krohn plundered all the instrumentation he needed for his 2002 debut, Deadringer, from his own vinyl collection, assembling drum breaks, horror-movie synths, and spectral voices into tracks that sound as old as electricity and as new as your iPod. More than one writer referred to the Philadelphia–by–way–of–Columbus, Ohio, producer and DJ’s first album as “instrumental hiphop” despite the presence of its three MCs—an oversight that no doubt says more about the solidity of RJD2’s skills than the quality of his friends’ rhyming. But at least folks got the “hiphop” part right. And RJ was willing to concede as much, even if he also claimed to aspire beyond it.
Rap-free though still not instrumental, RJD2’s second and latest full-length, Since We Last Spoke, is many things in its 46 minutes, but seldom does it evoke Deadringer’s diamond-in-the-rough R&B. RJ, who actually plays some real instruments this time around, has said that he simply wants to make “good pop music.” And it would appear that Deadringer wasn’t nearly inclusive or buffed enough: Spoke encompasses Deep Purple–lite riffage (the title track), soft-focus ethnic forgeries (“Ring Finger” and “Since ’76”), and get-WJZW’s-programmer-on-the-phone smooth jazz (“To All of You” and “Iced Lightning”)—just the thing for an evening at home with Sting.
And evidently, MCs are no longer pop enough, either. Of Spoke’s scattering of nonsampled vocal tracks, none even remotely imply the funk. “Making Days Longer,” for example, is more or less New Wave balladry: The Brit-accented vocalist sings ever so confessionally (“It’s strange the way you make me feel”) over stiff electronic beats and loopy keyboards. And “Through the Walls” is full-blown ’80s pop-rock, its trebly, urgent guitar, stupid-simple drums, and breathy, lovesick vocals (“Girl, I know you won’t come back/Got to get ahold of this”) a reasonable approximation of a Cars–Rick Springfield supersession.
But there’s nothing super about Spoke. Its core concept, that pop qua pop is some kind of advancement over hiphop, is flawed. The album is eclectic, sure, and more accessible than its predecessor, too. But whatever RJD2 gains in diversity, he loses in depth. Perhaps Deadringer is only a great genre record, not a great record, period. But Since We Last Spoke isn’t even that: It tries to do too many things to be anything good at all. CP