If you don’t think pop stardom is a total drag, well then, you must not be very famous. Just ask Britney or Lindsay, Michael or Madonna. Now even Mike Skinner has lent his ‘umble mumble to this all-star chorus of lamentation. With The Hardest Way to Make an Easy Living, the 26-year-old British MC/producer, better known as the Streets, flirts with the perilous self-indulgence of celebrity autobiography. But with his knack for extracting humor from the mundane, Skinner’s the perfect poet for this snooze of a topic: Tedium is his medium. His perspective on the annoyances that beset the hapless and famous hardly differs from his insight into “a day in the life of a geezer,” which he surveyed on his 2002 debut, Original Pirate Material. Geezer’s famous now. In Britain, anyway.
Rather than get Jenny-from-the-block on us, though, Skinner focuses on the specifics of his day-to-day routine. The businessman on the title track just happens to be a musician; he accounts for cash outlays with the exasperation of any harried entrepreneur. Meanwhile, he’s accompanied by a melancholy whistle (as in “while you work”) and a claustrophobic keyboard that essentially recasts the Animals’ “House of the Rising Sun” as a labor-camp trudge. On the flashy shopping spree “Memento Mori,” a horn-spiked jaunt in which the title adage rhymes with “It’s Latin and it says we must all die,” Skinner analyzes his own materialism with the self-consciousness of Kanye West and twice the punch lines. Blocks may remain unrocked by Skinner’s beats, which hearken back to the days before two-step garage music exploded into grime. Yet they bump from just enough odd angles to highlight the tunefulness of his spoken cadence — another reminder of how hip-hop has expanded, not destroyed, our sense of melody.
But on to the sex and violence we Us Weekly readers demand of our photogenic betters! After a disjointed rant about camera phones, “When You Wasn’t Famous” gets down to its point: It’s so easy for a star to get laid that it can be frustrating when an equally famous woman makes him put in some actual effort. Skinner also doles out romantic advice on the pickup how-to “War of the Sexes” (when all else fails, apparently, blurting “Did you know cigarette lighters were invented before matches?” will hold a lady’s attention) and the heartfelt “All Goes Out the Window” (“If you never tell a lie to her / You don’t have to remember it”). And as a keyboard simulates rock guitar on “The Fine Art of Hotel Expressionism,” Skinner outlines room-trashing protocol with pedantic certitude: “Throwing the TV out the window, mate, is nothing clear of weak cliché.”
This playful attitude makes Skinner seem like he’s taking the piss even when that might not be his intention. On “Never Go to Church,” he tries to recall his late father’s life, only to conclude, “You left me behind to remind me of you.” Maybe he isn’t out to write a more human-scale alternative to Bono’s Grammy-winning dad eulogy, “Sometimes You Can’t Make It on Your Own.” And perhaps the Streets’ 2004 disc, A Grand Don’t Come for Free, didn’t deliberately set out to deflate the myth of the great ’70s rock concept album — even if Skinner’s sprawling narrative contrasted sharply with celebrated psychodramas like Quadrophenia or Ziggy Stardust or The Wall. On Grand, Skinner didn’t invite alienated kids to identify with the grandiose trauma of some gloomy superstar; he just followed a schlub named Mike who loses a wad of cash, squabbles with his girl, battles poor cell-phone reception, and learns a homely lesson about life. Voluntarily or not, Skinner levels pretensions each time his tongue scuffs a consonant, and on The Hardest Way he can’t help but let slip the real reason pop stardom’s a total drag: You’ve got the same petty problems as you did before you were famous. It’s just that more people are watching you fail to solve them.