Inside Jobs

The Streets' and Spank Rock's disparate indoor musings.

Once asked why he used his leisure time to climb mountains, David Lee Roth answered that he needed to fill up the bucket. He didn't, he explained, want to become one of those rock stars whose lyrics reflected little beyond hotel-room and stage experience: No "Turn the Page" for him, thanks.

Mike Skinner, the English rapper- producer known as the Streets, didn't lack for material on his first two albums. In particular, his second, 2004's A Grand Don't Come for Free, rates as one of the decade's true masterstrokes. A concept album about a young hustler's missing 1,000 pounds, its narrative folded in girl trouble, compulsive gambling, and recreational drinking, drugging, and McDonald's snacking. Its electro surfaces, likewise, displayed knowledge of everything from R&B to Britpop. The title of Skinner's latest, The Hardest Way to Make an Easy Living, signals his and its problem. Off tour, bored to the point of paralysis—here, his nothing-to-do feels ominous, unlike the celebration of a pot-fueled homebody on the early "Irony of It All"—he obsesses with the dilemmas of fame, wondering how he's supposed to do coke in public when surrounded by camera phones, pondering being unknown in the U.S. while selling millions at home, and worrying about bootleg merchandise. (Finally, we learn just what he has in common with American rappers.)

Skinner is still able to build a novel, robust track and vocal hooks that are as often drawn from an interjection ("Right!") or a twist in his wry, matter-of-fact delivery as from a catchy rhyme. Even delivered across a pub table, the multiverse monologue of "Can't Con an Honest John" would grab any ear; Skinner has a Tarantino-esque flair for shaggy-dog stories—literally, in this case, as the con in question revolves around a homeless mutt. But his gift of gab isn't foolproof this time out. He's funny enough when examining the foibles of dating another celebrity on "When You Wasn't Famous." But from its tired title metaphor on down, "War of the Sexes" is hardly as charming as the dissection of male pickup psychology on A Grand's "Fit but You Know It."

The Hardest Way demonstrates a sometime failure of imagination, but not intelligence. Opening the mock "Let It Be" father remembrance "Never Went to Church," Skinner invokes "two great European narcotics—alcohol and Christianity." And the record is listenable despite its self-pity. The great Streets album, though, remains A Grand. This one does suggest that a few, er, rappelling lessons might not be out of order.

On the other hand, Spank Rock, the Philly-based duo of MC Naeem Juwan (aka Spank Rock) and producer xxxchange, lay a different spin on Skinner's existentialist complaint "I've got nothing in my life outside the studio." On "IMC," from their debut full-length YoYoYoYoYo, Spank apologizes for the state of his environs: "Excuse the mess, we're always rushin'/Only settle down for fuckin'." Lyrics also include a dis of the Black Eyed Peas' Fergie (courtesy of guest Amanda Blank) and a sort-of ode to Dixie Chicks producer Rick Rubin. Complaints about these supposed postcollegiates' borrowings from Baltimore club music seem beside the point, to say the least. Why worry about authenticity when faced with such an expert, lively meld of Twilight 22, go-go, nasty playground rhymes, and Atari machines? Once again, ladies and gents, the future.

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