If you think New York makes you stressy, just listen to Thomas Jefferson, from his Notes on the State of Virginia: “The mobs of great cities add just so much to the support of the government as sores do to the strength of the human body. . . . Let our workshops remain in Europe.” What Jefferson had in mind, as quoted in Joseph Rykwert’s A Seduction of Place, was “a square of building alternating with woodland.” The suburbs, in other words.
Cities, you see, are full of people like Mike Skinner: English, modern, urban, lazy, and they’re never in the workshops where they’re supposed to be. Doing musical business now as the Streets, Skinner flips Jefferson a bird with the cover of his debut, Original Pirate Material: a huge white block of council flats looming in the night. Completing our sociological dig, Skinner posed for the July issue of British music mag Q eating takeout doner and drinking lager. Twenty-first-century geezer, flat rat, dole baby, down the pub till Beckham turns to dust.
Skinner’s first person narratives are so allergic to exaggeration that his filing with U.S. hip-hop (still selling the real and delivering the fantasy) can only be attributed to the fact that he chooses talking over singing. Calling him garage or two-step doesn’t work much better. Skinner’s backing tracks stand on two-step’s skinny legs, but he’s talking all the time, and that’s a dancefloor buzzkiller. Original Pirate Material is England’s first great hip-hop record mostly because it isn’t a hip-hop record. It’s hard to say exactly what it is. Skinner’s tracks work more like the graphics behind TV newscasters, declaring sponsorship and changing only when the story changes. Skinner doesn’t play off his rhythms much—and since he uses the same pace and cadence for every song, you’d be forgiven for thinking that he recorded his vocals without ever hearing the beats. This feels less like disdain for music itself than for the prettifying that music can effect. Above everything else, Skinner wants to be straight with you.
Right—softshoe and character are just posh artifices, so let’s stay democratic and give the people the floor, represented here by citizen Jack Webb of the U.K., posting on Amazon: “Each track consists of an either senseless or boring tune and a techno-ish drum loop backed by some obviously too-bored-to-work, cockney teenager talking about [homosexuals], newsagents, pubs, beers, shagging birds, etc.”
Skinner’s approach to The Album, as a serial narrative experience, invites this kind of dismissal. He’s after the texture of flatness itself, of urban life, of a TV screen: crisp and sharp but without any dynamic movement. Laziness is about all he brags about. Skinner’s life seems to verge on absolute stasis, like a character in one of Michel Houellebecq’s dystopian novels, popular right now in England. (Coincidence?) Skinner orders in, drinks joylessly, wonders if friends are simply soldiers of convenience. He rhymes as if he’s on the carpet, using up his nighttime cell minutes, waiting for the dawn to bring his dole check. He doesn’t drop his first comic narrative (“Too Much Brandy,” self-explanatory) until track eight, and coupled with “The Irony of It All,” it proves Skinner to be one funny geezer, but laffs are not his thing. Skinner finds everyday life pretty goddamn fascinating all by itself. And so do we, especially when it’s someone else’s.
The most repeated word on the whole album isn’t “fuck” or “flip” or “hot” or “vodie oh vodie”: It’s “geezer.” That indicates not a high testosterone level but Skinner’s research topic. The pullquote from “Has It Come to This?” is “sex, drugs and on the dole,” but Skinner seems expert only about the lattermost. His advocacy of “football and smut” in “Same Old Thing” is more convincing than his allegation in “Let’s Push Things Forward” that “around here, we say birds, not bitches.” His one “birds” song is “It’s Too Late,” a love-gone-wrong tune happily unburdened by acrimony or misogyny. Skinner worries about the relationship—”I thought things were OK”—and even sings a little for the chorus, which aligns him momentarily with sensitive U.S. indie hip-hop types like Slug and Aesop Rock, but back home, Skinner is an old-fashioned pop star. (That may reveal more about economies of scale on island nations than it does about taste.) “Don’t Mug Yourself” is Skinner’s tough-guy advice on birds (“your head’s getting blurred”) but it’s still predicated on the fact that he “can’t stop thinking of her.” That’s not very hip-hop, is it? (For those still committed to hardness, he does say earlier that he’d be willing to shag a girl.)
It gets even less American. In “Geezers Need Excitement,” Skinner talks himself out of a fight with someone, and his idea of a battle rhyme is pretty polite: “The jury found unanimously against you,” from “Sharp Darts.” All of which makes you wonder why people have mooted Skinner as the English Eminem. Both pretty boys and good enunciators, they’re otherwise unlike, in several ways. Skinner is an idea guy, uninterested in the burrowing syncopation that drives Eminem’s word choice. Rather than hawk evidence of his uniqueness, Skinner wants to make clear that he’s simply one of a larger social group. He doesn’t do role-playing, except for “The Irony of It All,” a hoot and one of the best tracks, but before it’s funny, it’s a carefully scripted dramatization of two social groups—the lad and the student—clashing. (Europeans do types; Americans do family.) Skinner doesn’t have a crazy alias and isn’t particularly angry or conceited. So how much more non-American can “hip-hop” get before we cry uncle?
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 Bristol—a 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.