Streets Is Watching (PBS)
Mike Skinner's 2002 bedroom-rap debut, Original Pirate Material, presented life in Birmingham, UK, as a dreary fluctuation between grinding boredom and self-destruction. His subsequent efforts were suitably pessimistic: The second was a druggy day-in-the-life concept album; the third, a dour dissection of fame. Now, on Everything Is Borrowed, he sounds relieved. But it creates a Bruce Banner–esque riddle—do we like Skinner when he's happy?
Although it's more gratitude than porcine-in-shit glee, he's nonetheless used that happiness to string together an array of songs that tightrope between monumental schmaltz and heartfelt pop. The skeletal bounce of garage has been exchanged for orchestral arrangements that crest and fall in tidy, three-minute intervals and cling to sing-along hooks—pivotal, emotive, and often captivating—reinforced with enough vocal layers to strengthen Skinner's pedestrian crooning. It makes you forget the British tongue is better designed for charming the pants off American maidens than kicking listenable raps: While a typical gooey Dirty Southern delivery elongates syllables into melody and smoothes out the edges of oblique rhymes, Skinner's clipped cadence bobs above the beats with a casual acknowledgement of the knotty rhythms swirling beneath. Think of it as spoken-word poetry, without the annoying scent of Nag Champa.
Although Skinner's chimney-sweep dialect dirties up the pretentiousness, he still can't conceal Borrowed's intense interest in existentialism. "On the Edge of a Cliff" finds non-secular spiritualism in the process of natural selection: "For billions of years/Since the outset of time/Every single one of your ancestors survived," he sings over stadium-ready horns with after-school-special earnestness. He explores another cute bit of philosophy on "Heaven for the Weather," a jolly, piano-backed number that suggests hell might be an enjoyable place to spend eternity: "We don't go 'round here putting poison in wines/But we enjoy what we like, which is not just always right."
In addressing lofty subjects like the afterlife, the Bible, and the eventual extinction of mankind—instead of merely spinning yarns about scumbag friends and unfaithful girlfriends—Everything Is Borrowed shows an expanded worldview, but Skinner sacrifices a part of his world in the process. Without the weight of Birmingham bringing him down, his soaring songwriting abilities feel a little lightweight.
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