I have been meaning to branch out into reviewing hip hop from the UK for quite a while now, especially since the comments section for nearly every British artist on this site is filled with suggestions for other, better rappers to write about. This is simply the first one I found in my crates that fit the theme for this month.
Mike Skinner is a producer-slash-rapper from Birmingham who was once a part of a rap group called The Streets, but decided to keep the name for himself when the group disbanded. He gained a considerable fanbase in the UK when his debut album, Original Pirate Material, hit store shelves, thanks to his unique take on everyday life and his growing distaste for what was passing as popular music at the time. Skinner specialized in what is called the UK garage sound, implementing faster-paced beats while his bars try their best to keep up.
Original Pirate Material was fully recorded in Skinner's own bedroom, which contributes to the lack of polish found on the project. Atlantic Records bought the rights to distribute the album over on our shores, and once music critics got their hands on it, the positive reviews were off the charts, because music critics love knowing about stuff that the average person doesn't. (I won't lie: I have those feeling sometimes, too.) The Streets found his album topping many best-of lists in 2002, which had to be weird for most readers, as Mike Skinner barely sold any copies of his fucking debut over here, even though his label went out of their way to market him as an alternative to Eminem solely because of the racial issue. (In reality, The Streets and Marshall Mathers have almost nothing in common, and the comparison is lazy, but it was also inevitable.)
So does Original Pirate Material stand up to the passage of time?
1. TURN THE PAGE
Original Pirate Material opens with this introductory track that isn't really a rap album intro, with The Streets spitting a one-verse wonder in an offbeat manner (and I mean that in a literal sense, as his bars and the beat appear to have been recorded on different planets), but not sounding completely terrible while doing so. Mike Skinner's delivery won;t be to everybody's liking, and for the American audience, a lot of it may require the use of a decoder ring, but the extra-long verse clashes beautifully with the instrumental, which accurately sums up what an introduction should sound like. Not bad at all, and as an added bonus, "Turn The Page" is not a cover of the Bob Seger song, so yay?
2. HAS IT COME TO THIS? (FEAT. KEITH HAMMOND)
Conversely, I thought this song was fucking awful. The "chorus", which is the very first thing you hear, will force you to find the 'skip' button with a quickness, thereby preventing you from discovering that Skinner's lyrics are also weak (which is strange, as this was fairly popular upon its release) and that the musical backing is slight (which is strange, considering that it samples Double 99's garage classic "R.I.P. Groove", which is actually pretty good). Moving on...
3. LET'S PUSH THINGS FORWARD (FEAT. KEVIN MARK TRAIL)
The second single from Original Pirate Material but the first song I had ever heard from The Streets, and yet I ended up tracking down the album anyway. Thanks to all of the critical acclaim Skinner earned when the project hit these shores, I was convinced that I had missed something. But alas, that wasn't the case, as this song was still boring as shit to me. Which is too bad, as the song is about something near and dear to my heart: why the fuck does everything have to sound the same? Why are people content with the mainstream, refusing to ever be challenged by their musical choices? Also, this song features a reference to Alta Vista, which dates it horribly. But I just couldn't get into the actual musical component, and that's a dealbreaker for me. Sigh.
4. SHARP DARTS
An unorthodox beat withstands the abuse from two verses that sound the most like actual rapping this far on Original Pirate Material, so "Sharp Darts" may be as good a gateway into The Streets as any. And on the first verse, Skinner sounds like a goddamn natural, kicking rhymes and dropping science and other euphemisms for rapping that you two can come up with. The second verse deads the momentum just a tiny bit, but this was still the best track on the project thus far. Also, it's short, so yay?
5. SAME OLD THING (FEAT. KEVIN MARK TRAIL)
Skinner brings R&B artist Kevin Mark Trail (who was a member of the original version of The Streets) back around to sing another chorus, this one faring a bit better than his work on "Let's Push Things Forward", although our host does his best to fuck everything up with his horrible ad-libs throughout the hook. Curiously, that song title makes this appear to be a companion piece to "Let's Push Things Forward", but this track is really more Seinfeld-ian in its quest to document pretty much nothing, as The Streets describes an average day in his life as it revolves around drinking, fucking, and drinking. The beat wasn't bad at all, though, and Skinner goes out of his way to make it all sound enjoyable enough. Besides, who doesn't like drinking and fucking? Rehabilitated alcoholics and sex addicts, that's who.
6. GEEZERS NEED EXCITEMENT
Over here in the States, the term "geezer" is applied to elderly males who sit around in nursing homes eating handfuls of pills while watching Matlock and being casually racist, typically toward those of the Asian or African persuasion. Over in Mike Skinner's neck of the woods, though, "geezers" are regular blokes who will fuck you up if provoked, and according to that song title, they will consider themselves to be provoked whenever they get bored. So, basically, anybody can be a "geezer" as long as you have homicidal tendencies bubbling just below the surface, and if you have easy access to alcoholic beverages. The Streets relays a cautionary tale to the listener, urging them to use simple "common sense" when interacting with a "geezer", so as not to have their ass handed to them. This wasn't bad, but I wish the beat were a bit more confrontational after the dramatic tones present at the very beginning.
7. IT'S TOO LATE (FEAT. JACQUELINE RAWE)
Skinner's instrumental matches the breakup theme of this track like a glove: it's quite beautiful, actually. Our host's verses are also simple enough, as he chooses to skip straight to the point instead of being deliberately obtuse like some of the other guys I've written about so far this month. The hook was fucking ridiculous, but hey, at least The Streets was trying something different, so it's hard to fault him for that.
8. TOO MUCH BRANDY
Skinner gets completely fucked up and goes out for a night on the town with his boys, his mental state depreciating with each passing second, until his body starts rebelling against the abuse by telling our host to stop drinking the titular liquor in a sing-songy fashion. When your own body starts singing to you, and you're not performing in a talent show or getting the tires rotated on your car, that's a sign that things aren't going as well in your life as you would like. Kind of like this track in general: it isn't as good as you would have hoped.
9. DON'T MUG YOURSELF (FEAT. CALVIN BAILEY)
This was also released as a single in the UK, and it's understandable why: the instrumental is upbeat and catchy enough. It's a unique delivery system for a song where Skinner's boy Calvin basically chastises our host for wanting to call a girl the next day instead of waiting the mandatory three-day period, so as not to appear desperate. I have to say, Calvin comes off as a good friend on here.
10. WHO GOT THE FUNK?
I found this to be fucking hilarious. "Who Got The Funk?" acts as the introduction to a song that Skinner never bothers getting around to. Whether that was the original intent of if this was a fuck-up during the mastering process, only The Streets knows for sure. But either way, I thought it was funny.
11. THE IRONY OF IT ALL
"Who Got The Funk?" leads into this track, with which it shares absolutely no connection. Skinner tries to be clever with us, portraying two characters hooked on mind-altering substances: one alcohol, the other weed. They then spend the duration of the track debating each other on why one is considered perfectly legal while the other will get you thrown in jail, even though the last time you've ever read about someone smoking a bowl and then beating his spouse is fucking never. Skinner makes a few goofy points toward the end, as the pothead attempts to get the upper hand in the conversation, and the end result is a highly entertaining track that was somehow released as a single in the UK. I can't imagine this song being popular enough to play on the radio, but hey, over here in the United States they play a lot of terrible fucking shit on the airwaves, so what do I know?
12. WEAK BECOME HEROES
Sorry, but no.
13. WHO DARES WIN
Mike gives the listener a quickie before leading into...
14. STAY POSITIVE
Possibly one of the darkest songs I've ever heard with such a cheerful message. Skinner passes some good advice along to the listener over some really fucking nice musical backing, making this a very interesting way to end a debut album. Our host doesn't go as far as to describe what hitting rock bottom actually feels like, but that's just because he's trying to focus on looking forward instead of dwelling on yesterday, all while cautiously acknowledging that he can easily slip back into the darkness at anytime. Kudos on taking such a cheesy song title and actually doing something worthwhile with it, man.
FINAL THOUGHTS: With Original Pirate Material, The Streets made a name for himself in the UK music scene, but he barely made a dent in the United States. This was fully expected: Mike Skinner's thick accent is difficult for some folks to wrap their heads around, and sometimes it's hard enough to decipher the slang from our own artists, let alone folks from worlds away. But this album is actually much better than I remember it being: maybe I just appreciate it more today. Skinner's simple instrumentals are hit and miss: his best work behind the boards comes when he attempts to stretch out of his comfort zone into dramatic territory. Lyrically, though, his tales of the mundane, mixed in with political arguments and his longing for lost loves, are unnervingly clear, and for the first time since I first picked up Original Pirate Material, I find myself siding with The Streets more often than not. The dude has talent: even though I wouldn't go as far as to claim him to be the greatest UK import since The Beatles, he does well for himself on here, demanding at least one listen from any audience willing to have him. You should give this a shot.
BUY OR BURN? I would actually recommend a purchase. It won't be for everyone: hell, I'm fully anticipating some outright hatred toward Original Pirate Material in the comments section below. But the fact of the matter is that Mike Skinner has done some good work here.
BEST TRACKS: "The Irony Of It All"; "Sharp Darts"; "Stay Positive"; "Turn The Page"