Blended genres: Hip-hop, soul join electronica

The Streets
A Grand Don't Come for Free
Vice/Atlantic records

It's not uncommon for artists to find themselves in the constant struggle between remaining true to the roots of their music and expressing themselves as individuals. A recent example of this can be found in a UK sensation, The Streets.

In an interview published this month in URB magazine, The Streets' Mike Skinner expressed a longing for his music to be embraced by the underground Garage music community.

The Streets' sound is deeply rooted in UK Garage music, a hybrid of drum 'n bass, hip-hop, and dancehall. Although his first album, Original Pirate Material, earned him the prestigious Mercury Prize for best album (the British version of a Grammy), his polished sound was not as well received by the community that supports the music that's the basis for his production style.

Nevertheless, his popularity grew. O.P.M. became an underground classic stateside, prompting the somewhat hurried follow-up release, A Grand Don't Come For Free.

That album picks up where O.P.M. left off– with Skinner penning engaging stories in his sometimes offbeat rap/spoken-word Birmingham slang-heavy dialect. Whereas on his first album the songs stood alone as singular portraits of a day in the life of an average bloke, the new album is a complete seamless story that listens like Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels for the blind.

At the risk of spoiling the plot for the virgin listener, A Grand Don't Come For Free starts of with The Streets lamenting how bad a day he's having. Things only get worse as he finds out he lost 1000 pounds (money, not avoir du pois), gets kicked out of his girlfriend's house, cheats on her, becomes suspicious of his friends, makes amends with his lady, and finds his money.

All this takes place over a curiously ecclectic kaleidescope of sleepy minimalist Garage beats seasoned with long string phrases, brooding piano chords, video game pops and bleeps, throw-back guitar riffs, and singing-by-himself-in-the-shower-style hooks. It's obvious that he chose the minimalist route so that the listener is forced to listen to the intricacies of the stories he weaves.

After one gets accustomed to his heavy accent and begins to decipher, through the context of his rhyme, the thick Brit street slang he spews, you find this pale-face griot to be quite the narrator. His attention to detail becomes more apparent after repeat listens as various plot intricacies are unveiled.

So if you're looking for danceable club tunes similar to the first album, or a groundbreaking Garage production, you'll be disappointed. Do prepare for head-bobbing, mid-tempo music. Alone, the music would border on boring but when combined with The Steets' scrutinizing meanderings it becomes the perfect album for a long drive or lonely afternoon.

I can't imagine the UK Garage community is any more accepting of Mike Skinner after A Grand Don't Come For Free. Truthfully, that fact is nothing for him to shed a tear about. The Streets is not simply a Garage artist, he's an artist.

A Grand Don't Come For Free transcends his genre and embraces something more universal. The album is as much folk as it is electronica, hip-hop and, soul. As far as songwriting goes, few contemporary artists can match him word for word or capture the up and down sides of urban living like The Streets can.

The Streets