The Streets

A Grand Don't Come For Free

Tuesday 21st May 2019

The Streets emerged out of UK Garage and Rave Culture in the early '00s. Mike Skinner wanted to push British music in new directions and with his Mercury-nominated 2002 debut 'Original Pirate Material', he did just that. Laying the blueprint so movements like Grime and Dubstep could flourish in the new millennium.

It is his ambitious 2004 follow up album 'A Grand Don't Come For Free' that is Skinner's magnum opus though. He took an outdated, out of fashion idea; the concept album, and completely reinvented it for the 21st Century.

It's a move that would usually be considered indulgent, as was the general consensus in the world following punks redefining of the musical landscape. Releasing a rap-opera (or hip-hopera) in the age of MP3's and file-sharing was touted by many as completely audacious but Skinner pulls it off, thanks in no small part to his masterful story-telling and delivery.

Skinner draws these little vignettes of everyday urban and suburban life, unextraordinary tales so perfectly observed that they work on their own as individual tracks (three UK top ten singles feature on 'A Grand...', including a number one). As well as all coming together to form part of a larger narrative that runs through the album.

The self-deprecating nature of Skinner’s lyrics stops this iteration of a concept album from seeming hedonistic and adds to the congenial nature of his music. As we witness the story’s protagonist, Mike, lose money, lose fights and fail romantically - not subject matters traditionally found on Hip Hop records.

Skinner’s soliloquies on 'A Grand...' as always are recounted with a high dose of wit and in a conversational manner, another reason why people found The Streets music so relatable - he sounded like you, or people you know, and talked about the same things that you talked about.

By sticking with his cockney-by-way-of-Brummie natural accent, Skinner's vocal style was a far cry from the Americanised delivery of other British MC's in the UK Hip Hop and Garage scene at the time. Regional British accents traditionally don't have good flow and Skinner used this to his advantage, turning his enunciation and over-emphasis into a technique that he wielded to make his points stick in the listener's mind; rather than the lyrics being lost in the rhythm of the music.

Whilst The Streets is often lauded for lyricism, it's the production on 'A Grand...' that helps keep it grounded too. By recording it in a bedroom studio similar to the way 'Original Pirate Material' was, the album manages to retain the same DIY feel of the debut.

That said, the production on 'A Grand...' is far more considered than its predecessor, with many commenting on the use of synths on 'Blinded By The Lights' accurately representing the rush of coming up on ecstasy, the jaunty guitars on 'Fit But You Know It' shaping it into the perfect crossover song that infiltrated Indie Discos across and the orchestral parts on the heartbreaking 'Dry Your Eyes' hitting all the right emotional notes.

Much of the subject matter that Skinner raps about continues to remain relevant today, sure the reference about returning a DVD to the video shop on the album's opening track hasn't aged well, but the majority of the trials and tribulations Mike goes through over the course of the album remain as identifiable today as they did on release.

Some moments on the record you could argue have added resonance now - the vulnerability displayed on 'Dry Your Eyes', despite Skinner's reputation as 'geezer', is a particularly poignant the track that fits perfectly into current conversations around toxic masculinity and how men are being told it's ok to not be ok.

The Streets' music helped encourage people to find beauty in their own world and on their own everyday adventures, regardless of how mundane they seem. If Skinner could find it in his world of bus stops, bookies, booze, drugs, pubs, clubs and fast food, why couldn't everyone?

'A Grand...' landed with a much wider audience than 'Original Pirate Material' and has since gone triple platinum. The Streets' surge in popularity off the back of this record went a long way in helping normalise an entire generation in the eyes of the general public, at a time when the young and working class were being demonised, labelled as Chavs and slapped with ASBOs.

Renowned photographer Ewan Spencer shot the cover and it is a perfect representation of the album: Mike inserted into an everyday situation but exquisitely well observed, composed and with some little extra flourishes to make it pop.

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