Mike Skinner, a.k.a. the Streets, could be the most gifted rapper London has ever produced, except that he doesn’t really rap–he pontificates, spins spoken-word yarns, and kicks running commentary. Hip-hop–and Britain’s equally bling-fixated 2-step-garage scene–has shaped Skinner’s sound, but he’s too earnest to reproduce their bluster. He’s an observant, asphalt-level “geezer”–Brit slang for everyman–set apart by the sharpness of his lens, not the force of his flow.
On Original Pirate Material, Skinner nails the quiet desperation of the white working class like a pub-hooligan Marshall Mathers, with all of Slim Shady’s good humor and none of his insanity. The worst Skinner might do is swig too much brandy and “wonder whether that beautiful bird’ll ring” or smoke a bowl or three and bond with his PS2: “I just completed Gran Turismoon the hardest setting / We pose no threat on my settee.” Or maybe he’ll just talk your ear off, in free-associative rhymes that touch on “deep-seated urban decay,” floating through wheat fields, and reading Carl Jung.
The music on Pirate Material, all produced by Skinner, is rarely short of poignant, whether it’s a spooked Wu-Tang-style piano on “Stay Positive” or the drowsy ska horns of “Let’s Push Things Forward.” But sometimes Skinner grabs you with nothing but an evocative rhyme: “Turn left up the street / Nothing but gray concrete / And deadbeats.” As always, the Streets is watching.