First order of difference between Original Pirate Material and A Grand Don’t Come for Free is punchline factor, or lack thereof. The first Streets album was stuffed with great one-liners, the kind of instant catchphrases that turn word-heads into alphabet soup. Grand‘s choruses sink in gradually not instantly, largely because British rapper Mike Skinner’s not action-painting a world with every other line. He can’t afford to—he’s got a story to tell. Original Pirate Material worked like a concept album thanks to its accreted details; this one piles those onto, yep, a plot. You know the score: Boy loses cash, meets girl, loses girl, gets pissed (both senses). Often, his cell phone shorts out; he also has problems with his television set. Skinner spent the debut making the ordinary sound oddly glamorous; here, he makes it sound . . . ordinary. What could be more quotidian than a single, “Fit But You Know It,” that depicts the dynamics of checking someone out in a fast-food line in roughly the time it takes the situation to play out? Or a chorus that goes, “I saw this thing on ITV the other week/Said, that if she played with her hair, she’s probably keen/She’s playing with her hair well regularly/So I reckon I could well be in.” Stress every syllable equally, like they’re hopping in place—there you go.
What hasn’t gone away is Skinner’s ability to put you right there, in the middle of the action, and that goes for his production as well as his lyrics. Which brings us to difference number two: If you thought Pirate a tad deficient musically, you will not be amused with Grand‘s bareness. Your non-amusement will be your loss, and also your misunderstanding, because Skinner’s songs use music as atmosphere, suggestion, backdrop—a scrim to paint a world on. “Could Well Be In,” is little more than plaintive Casio-on-“piano” chords, ticking drum machine, and invisible string sample, but its silences heighten the delicacy of the situation. He uses few props and makes the most out of all of them.
Which brings us to difference number three: Skinner’s got less traditional-sense “flow” this time around, but Grand sounds, feels more hip-hop somehow. Note that background-scrim business: Skinner’s loops rarely vary, but they suggest the chip shops and darkened apartments of his London terrain just as cannily as Premier or RZA or Dre tracks suggest theirs. Not that Skinner is competing with his American idols or even the U.K. grime contingent at this point; the closest this album comes to that is the tempered bass swarms of “Get Out of My House,” a duet with Simone—her character name, at least—that’s a domesticated (har har) version of Dizzee Rascal’s gender spat “I Luv U.” More squirrelly, though—Skinner’s dips and stammers in the background are rhythmically savvy but not necessarily “funky,” at least in the traditional African American sense. Gone are “Sharp Darts”-style attempts at full-on rap rollers, however brief; everything here centers around his cadences, alternately pliable and stick-straight. Nothing seems forced, even when Skinner enunciates “That blue Top Shop top you’ve got on eeez nice” in “Fit” like he’s pogoing harder than the song’s jumping-in-place guitar, like a rivet gun with mild Tourette’s.
He’s also turning into quite the loverman. Grand‘s best moments involve a relationship the narrator treasures for—you guessed correctly—its routine: “Wouldn’t Have It Any Other Way” makes sharing a spliff on his girlfriend’s couch sound revelatory, the song’s cheap piano vamp and r&b scats intensifying the smallness and goodness of Skinner’s small, good thing. “Dry Your Eyes” is less title than instruction, especially when he croaks an utterly bereft “I’ve got nuffing.” But he knows that we can always use more good stories, even if we can guess how they end.