Darren Bedford reviews The Hardest Way to Make an Easy Living, the latest album from Mike Skinner aka The Streets.
“Honesty” is fast becoming something of a buzz-word when it comes to describing British music. No-one can get over Hard-Fi’s “honesty” about working-class life in suburban London. Everyone’s head-over-heels with Arctic Monkey’s “honest” descriptions of rowdy Friday nights out in Sheffield. Skinnyman’s “honesty” about the realities of council-estate living has been the toast of the British hip-hop scene for much of the past few years.
But of the current generation of innovative British musicians, no-one does honesty quite like Mike Skinner aka The Streets — the original and arguably the best. The Birmingham emcee’s unique style — a poetic combination of rapping and simply talking over a beat — combined with his Billy Bragg-like invocation of the ordinary, the everyday and the mundane have won him fans from across the musical spectrum. Arctic Monkey’s front man Alex Turner openly cites Skinner as one of his primary influences. Skinner’s third and latest album — The Hardest Way to Make an Easy Living — is as honest as the two that preceded it.
The Hardest Way… represents an interesting evolution from Skinner’s last two LPs, 2004’s A Grand Don’t Come For Free and before that, Original Pirate Material, released in 2002. The previous two albums have told frequently grim tales of decidedly ordinary everyday life — “sex, drugs and on the dole” as Skinner raps on “Same Old Thing”, a track from his first album. Many of the stories he tells on The Hardest Way… are no less grim, but this time they deal with his struggle to come to terms with his celebrity and wealth.
In many ways, this is his most honest album yet. He talks frankly about his cocaine and gambling problems (“Prangin’ Out”), and deals with the death of his father on the genuinely poignant “Never Went to Church”. On “Memento Mori”, Skinner raps about insane spending binges in Las Vegas and speeding in Ferraris across the Nevada desert. The whole album makes it clear that Skinner is a man much more at home in his local night-spot with his mates than in an American designer boutique. Celebrity has changed him, and he doesn’t like it. On “Memento Mori”, he says “I think if I could see me now from my growing past, I’d hate the shirted cunt who seems to be so fucking flash”. I agree — the council-estate scally from his first two albums was easy to like. The cocaine-snorting, heavy-gambling, binge-buying celeb who routinely trashes his hotel room is not a pleasant character, and Skinner builds him up brilliantly.
An album exclusively made up of self-reflection and analysis would be too much for anyone, so it’s fortunate that Skinner still finds time to stick in a bit of light relief: “You Can’t Con an Honest John” is a pretty amusing set of instructions for conning barmen out of money using stray dogs. Even this track, though, conveys Skinner’s discomfort with the world he’s found himself thrust into; “it’s all one big con”, he proclaims. It’s obvious he’s not just talking about the stray dog scam.
In a world where popular culture is predicated almost entirely on the carrot-on-a-stick relationship between the public and the dream of fame and celebrity (Pop Idol, Popstars, Popstars The Rivals, X Factor… the list goes on), Skinner makes it very clear that suddenly having lots of money and fame don’t necessarily equal immediate happiness. Again, it’s The Streets’ “honesty” which stop this from being a “why won’t the paparrazi leave me alone?” exercise in nauseating celebrity self-indulgence, and make it a genuinely interesting look at how wealth changes people.
Eminem — a rapper with whom Skinner had endured several comparisons — had a top-10 hit in 2001 with the petulant “Way I Am”, which saw him complain bitterly about the attention he received from both a hostile media and his own over-zealous fans. The Hardest Way… is refreshingly devoid of any of that kind of whining.
That’s not to say that the album is without its doses of pretension. Hotel Expressionism is a smug rumination about the joys of “artistically” vandalising hotel rooms and, as he made clear in a recent interview in The Observer, Skinner doesn’t have an enormous amount of concern for the workers whose job it is to clean up after him.
Musically, this album isn’t as challenging as either of its two predecessors. There’s nothing that comes close to the genius of a track like “Weak Become Heroes”, whose rising strings and soft pianos reflected its subject matter (escaping the misery of everyday life through clubbing and Ecstasy) perfectly. All of the tracks on The Hardest Way… have catchy, sing-along choruses; this is definitely Skinner’s “poppiest” album to date.
But even the relatively mainstream musical formula and occasional arrogant smugness (which, after all, is common to all successful rappers) doesn’t take the edge off. Even when he’s fitting his work into a pretty standard template, it still sounds interesting, engaging and almost entirely different to anything else in the charts at the moment.
Sheffield’s favourite sub-zero simian sons might be the chart-topping flavour of the month, but if it wasn’t for Birmingham’s finest, they’d probably never have existed.