The Streets/Dizzee Rascal
New York City
"Are you gonna dance now?" That's Mike Skinner, a.k.a. the Streets, one song into his encore, chastising a pair of blokes in the crowd for fighting. Their behavior, while lager-loutish, was forgivable: Skinner's songs, which run conspiratorial pub chatter over soft-shoe beats, don't naturally inspire sweaty, transcendent body-jacking. But then Skinner intoned the intro to "Weak Become Heroes," a melancholy-yet-buoyant Daft Punk rip from his 2002 debut, Original Pirate Material. Synths throbbed, drums shuffled, and rhythmic order was imposed.
On paper, the pairing of the Streets with opening act Dizzee Rascal--two young, British, critically acclaimed, hip-hop influenced, writing-producing-performing triple-threats--was ideal. But while the two have a lot in common, Skinner's work is far more accessible. Dizzee's music herks and jerks wildly, and his hyper-gnarled Londonese rhymes match its eccentric pace; in a room full of white, shaggy-haired American hipsters primed for the Streets' genial hooliganism, it was a surprisingly tough sell.
The last time he toured the States, Skinner was a sloppy mess: unfocused, mischievous, spilling beer on the audience. This time out, aided by a small, adept band, he seemed almost professional, finding the rock vamp in "Geezers Need Excitement" and setting "Let's Push Things Forward" to a vicious, skanked-out groove. And the songs he chose from his new album were the ones with teeth--the dance-floor power ballad "Blinded by the Lights" and the cheeky, guitar-driven "Fit but You Know It."
Backed only by a subdued DJ and an unfailingly polite hype-man--"What lovely people," he noted--the 19-year-old Dizzee came out spitting as quick as Twista on the teenage pregnancy tale "I Luv U" and the boastful "Stop Dat." He's a gifted rapper, both technically and lyrically, but perhaps he was too quick for the room. Even when he cut his rhyme speed in half over instrumentals from inescapable American rap hits--J-Kwon's "Tipsy" and T.I.'s "Rubber Band Man"--the audience remained thunderously mute, barely registering his presence. The chilly reception was a shame--on songs like "2 Far" and "Vexed," Dizzee renders his England in verse even more vivid than Skinner's. It wasn't until the closing song, "Fix Up, Look Sharp," that the crowd finally caught up, loudly chanting the sampled Billy Squier hook: "I got the big beat / I get on down." Close, but not quite.