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This Englishness makes Skinner into a hero at home, and new software for us. The cultural marks are everywhere, but his rhetorical lack of arrogance seems a good place to start verifying his Englishness. In interviews, he is self-effacing and uncomfortable with hype. (In a radio interview with BBC's Steve Lamacq, Skinner criticized MCs who claim to have been making tracks since childhood.) Even more English than Skinner's self-effacement is his familiarity with the dole. Economy as both aesthetic and lifeblood, the dole has midwifed generations of English pop music, and continues to inscribe a languorous culture of creativity that the American dispossessed artist would just find kinda slow.
So let's have an English precedent for Skinner's music, the editors cry, and the writers respond with the Two Tone ska revival of the early '80s. Closer, but still bereft of cigar. Two Tone may come to mind because the electronic trombone on "Let's Push Things Forward" echoes Rico's ecstatic mark on the Specials' "Ghost Town," or it could simply be that one working-class accent suggests another. But Two Tone was all about class agitation; Skinner is fiercely himself and equally fiercely attached to his couch. Two Tone liked a bit of a dance and some beauty, especially when Jerry Dammers was in the room. Skinner is a committed wallflower and seems to have no interest in lovely faults of any kind. Clean is clean, a child of cheap digital culture and diminished markets. Why would you want to get all dirty? Digi comes cheap and we can always make another beat, bear, whatever. Cheers, mate.
The only real semi-precedent I hear is Bristola realist brand of U.K. pop that never wanted to shake the specter of class. There's the grain of Tricky's voice, which asserts its origins even when the beats fail, or Massive Attack and their glum topics, security being the theme for two hits and several videos. Just go straight to Michel Gondry's video for "Protection," still Massive Attack's loveliest moment. A camera pans in one long shot up and down the side of an apartment block while tenants fight, kids open presents, and people float to the ceiling. The elevator goes up, a kid gets dropped off, and the elevator goes down. A day in the life of the geezer.
Realism may be as received a form as gangsta sniffles, but I believe Skinner's humility, at least on record. I also find his realism pleasing, though I have no more reliable information about what Skinner does at the end of the day than I do about Cornell Hayes Jr., or Shawn Carter. So I'll let the English have the last word, represented here by Felix Buxton of Basement Jaxx, a group lodged forever between lads and students: "He's singing about things that everyone knows about, like going down the pub. . . . Unlike most British hip-hop guys who are trying to 'keep it real' and be cool at the same time, it's a bit of genuine reality. So Lauryn Hill will be pleased."
Sasha Frere-Jones is a fellow of the National Arts Journalism Program at Columbia University.