Original Pirate Material
First Appeared at The Music Box, February 2003, Volume 10, #2
Written by T.J. Simon
Sitting atop many criticsí "Best of 2002" lists is a bizarre and ambitious album by a London chap named Mike Skinner who records under the moniker The Streets. Not knowing exactly what to make of him, hapless but impressed American journalists tagged Skinner as "The British Eminem." Unfortunately, itís a comparison that misses the mark of what Skinner has accomplished on his debut disc Original Pirate Material. The Streetsí debut is an electronica album, a cultural artifact, a rap release, a poetry slam, and an anthropology lesson all-in-one. Itís also the most artfully done, but ultimately inaccessible, mainstream album in years.
To review The Streets in the same milieu as other rap albums is missing the point. Skinner doesnít rap as much as he tells stories in a staccato and affected talking style ó imagine a hyper-fast spoken word performance over electronica DJ music. In England, this sub-genre is known as garage, and the words and music donít match up in any kind of discernable way. Skinner reportedly wrote, produced, and arranged all 14 tracks of Original Pirate Material in his basement recording studio, and his talent as a DJ/producer is comparable to Moby or Fatboy Slim. From the groove of Who Got the Funk? to the funky percussion on Turn the Page, Skinnerís ear for good music makes the listener want to hear what this kid could put together in collaboration with a more adept and traditional MC on the mic.
Lyrically, Skinner dissects the culture of the poor, violent, white underclass of London in the same manner that N.W.A. sought to make some sense out of the poor, violent, black underclass of Los Angeles on its groundbreaking 1988 album Straight Outta Compton. The Streets explores the lifestyle of the blokes ("geezers" in local slang) whose idea of a good time is pouring several pints down the hatch and fighting like wildcats over a soccer match. Skinner delivers this cultural exploration in a thick cockney accent using local idioms that donít always come easy to Yankee ears (and, unfortunately, lyric sheets are not included with your purchase). It takes several careful listens to pick up what, exactly, Skinner is talking about, but once you parse it out, itís some pretty interesting stuff. On Geezers Need Excitement, Skinner does his best to explain what exactly makes the geezer subculture tick, and on Donít Mug Yourself, he devises a strategy for calling a girl he met at a pub the night before. The albumís best track is The Irony of It All, which lampoons the hypocrisy of ale-guzzlersí indignation over pot smokers pursuit of happiness.
For most listeners, Original Pirate Music is just too much darn work. Most folks outside of blue-collar London could spend a dozen listens with the CD and still not understand what Skinner is trying to get across. However, if you love the esoteric, youíll probably enjoy The Streets just fine. On one self-referential track, Skinner even refers to the difficulty listeners will have in pigeonholing him when he sings, "You say that everything sounds the same, then you go buy them. Letís push things forward." While Original Pirate Material is not an easy listen, it is a unique and madly brilliant release that stands out among the many other discs fighting for shelf space.
Original Pirate Material is available
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1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!
Copyright © 2003 The Music Box