By Rob Mitchum
Examined by American-rap standards, it’s all too easy to find targets in The Streets’ sound, between Mike Skinner’s anti-flow, his raggedy-edged loops and his magnifying-glass self-obsession. But occasionally these flaws can also be unique strengths, with Skinner’s amateurism lending his songs a punk-like immediacy while his bizarre slang (“pranging?”) and crooked accent renders them irresistibly exotic. Despite his fame, Hardest Way reveals that Skinner has grown little as an artist or a person; he’s still the class clown of U.K. rap, appropriating “House of the Rising Sun” and “Let it Be,” and complaining about the trying demands of celebrity.
Though let’s not be dismissive: Skinner knows what he’s doing, and the inventive beats and inspired hooks of Hardest Way are no lucky accident. “When You Wasn’t Famous” rides a squeaky loop that coasts like Timbaland remixing the Lion King score, while “Memento Mori” is built on a skittish slot-machine riff punctuated with horn stabs. Vocally, Skinner refuses to take the most obvious route, sometimes oblivious to the very rhythm he produced for himself. Like a daredevil, he’s not afraid to fall on his face (and he does, from time to time), but on “Fake Streets Hats” and the title track, his snotty, deceptive clumsiness sticks a perfect landing.
By Jamin Warren
British hip-hop will be a total red herring. It’s the unique fetish of insular bloggers and rock critics; the latter group generally doesn’t even “do” hip-hop unless its Kanye, Gorillaz or SNL skits with Parnell and Samberg.
Mike Skinner (aka The Streets) is a progenitor of the American lovefest with Brit-rap. Fans gushed over him, strangely, for doing things he’s neither pioneered nor is the best at. They adored his bellicose drunkenness; they swooned over his DIY ethic and garage influences (he makes his own beats!); they loved his “honesty.” Even a warm-weather hip-hop fan could identify these traits as staples of the genre. Moreover, the nod to Skinner as “the thinking-man’s rapper” only pushes the mildly racist impression that popular American emcees are comparatively less sharp.
It seems silly, but one spin of The Hardest Way is proof positive: frosty mugs, forgotten females, over-dubbed and off-key vocals, and his patented “I am talking now” rap-schtick. Skinner’s three-minute tutorial on how to con a barkeep into buying a stolen dog is hardly titillating. No doubt, Skinner occasionally overachieves (“Two Nations,” “Memento Mori”), but he’s only average. Let’s not freak out over an accent and a pint glass, or lower the bar when someone flies from Heathrow, OK?
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