Mean streets 

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Mean streets

By Gilbert Garcia

With his thick Cockney accent, working-class piss-takes, and liberal use of London slang, Mike Skinner - aka The Streets - initially comes off as something of a professional Briton. Kind of like a hip-hop-era version of Michael Caine's Alfie, minus the weakness for older birds.

What seems very broad on first listen, however, ultimately connects for its specificity. Skinner has such a natural, conversational delivery, and such a firm grip on his persona, that his tales of dead-end urban existence feel as artless as an answering-machine message.

Skinner is often called a rapper, and if the title fits, it's only because he could never be described as a singer (in fact, he occasionally mocks his own tin ear with some exaggeratedly off-key yowling). Hip-hop is his touchstone, but he's not a hip-hop artist, and he's smart enough not to try. He doesn't possess a rhythmic flow in the hip-hop sense, but he compensates with the storytelling smarts of an average bloke who always sees through his own aimlessness.

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The Streets

His preoccupations are so mundane, they feel remarkable in a musical context. He talks about returning DVDs to the store, gambling away his money on soccer, roaching spliffs with his girlfriend while watching EastEnders, pining for stuck-up hotties, and ultimately appreciating the dull contentment of life with his girlfriend. His knack for the clever, insightful turn of phrase consistently shines through: "Get there the queue's outrageous/ladies taking ages/a rage is blowing gages/how long does it take to get your daily wages?"

Unfortunately, Skinner the producer often lets down Skinner the MC. His beats are purposely nondescript, and they keep this music from grabbing you in the same visceral way the rhymes do. For that reason alone, the conflicted wandering-eye saga "Fit But You Know It" is the strongest track here, because it's got an irresistable punky drive.

Skinner's saving grace is that he doesn't make a fool of himself by attempting to compete with American hip-hop MCs. His achilles heel is that he rarely makes grooves as compelling as American hip-hop producers.

By Gilbert Garcia



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