REVIEW: The Streets: Original Pirate Material
The Streets: Original Pirate Material [Vice Records, 2002] (stream)
Three words? dancing to regret
"Be brave / clench fists."
On first read, these lines might be a thug's battle-cry - a call to war. There is more here, however. "Be brave" - tragedy is on its way. "Clench fists" - be ready. Make it through. Don't fall. Don't lose. Be brave. I care.
It's with these words that the searing first cut off Original Pirate Material, "Turn the Page", closes. This is the boisterous, wise, sad and celebratory debut from The Streets a.k.a. Mike Skinner, England's first bona fide hip hop breakthrough: a voice that spits out working-class experience, politics and pot, the party and tragedy of alleyways and dance-clubs. Original Pirate Material is at once dance-party and novel, a "day in the life of a geezer". In the bravado-fuelled "Sharp Darts", Skinner asks if "you need an interpreter" - and at first, the North American listener might just. Geezer, hydrator, oi, chips... its a strange and vital landscape, but these tracks are absolutely compelling, demanding quick study and winning a fierce appreciation.
There is almost too much here to address. The music is our age's familiar hip hop fare - words blister and bounce over looped sythesizers and crisp Playstation rhythms. The Streets keeps things fast and lean - UK garage, the sound of England's clubs - r&b samples are accounted for, smooth as anything on Blackalicious's latest release. What is fascinating here, however, is what's unconventional: beyond the bragadocchio and name-dropping, the dance beats and debauchery, is a palpable melancholy. English kids are as lost as their American counterparts, caught up in lives exciting and sad. Song after song attests to the inescapability of the lifestyle - but also of its consequences. "Geezers need excitement," Skinner explains, "if their lives don't provide them this, they incite violence." It's common sense, "simple common sense". The Streets blames the system, shows the reasons and the rationale, but it doesn't let anyone off the hook: "you still got choices / don't listen to them voices ... leave the forces". On paper it may be preachy, but performed, it's poetry. "I aint no preaching fucker and I aint no do-goody-goody either. / This is about when shit goes pear-shaped."
Skinner revels in the drugs, anger and vandalism - he appreciates the escape it brings, the freedom - but he cannot forget its dangers. Dizzy highs and brutal comedowns. "Don't mug yourself," he insists; "let's push things foward"; "weak become heroes"; "stay positive"; "who dares wins". Perhaps it's optimism, but more likely it's regret. Nowhere is this more tangible than on the poignant "It's Too Late".
"She'd walked away, too little too late
I step up the pace, walk past the gates, rain runs over my face
Spirit falls from grace
I purchase a hazy escape at the alcohol place in the chase
Weeping and drowning my senses
For this love game's expensive
I walk in a trance
Got a wounded soldier stance
The everyday geezers' stares throw me off balance
Now nothing holds significance
And nothing holds relavance
'Cause the only thing I can see is her elegance"
Synthesized strings preen and rise, but it's the thunder-tremble of a bass-drum which anchors the song, the rumble of an autumn that turns to winter.
Original Pirate Material attests to the vibrancy of the city even as it speaks to its tragedy. Alongside the disco funk and weathered flow, The Streets also boasts a knife-sharp wit. "The Irony of It All", with its boozing "law-abider" and a harmless, sedated pothead, is not only a hilarious condemnation of marijuana's illegality, but also among the most articulate attacks I've ever heard: "How can something with no recorded fatalities be illegal / And how many deaths are there per year from alcohol / I just completed Gran Tourismo on the hardest setting."
Though at times the dance-club feel of "Has It Come To This" or "Same Old Thing" wears thin on the attentive listener, elsewhere Original Pirate Material is a tour de force. Skinner is honest, clever, and engaging - his music knows sadness, speaks regret, but so too is it alive, exuberant and full of hope.
"Get the love of a good girl and your world will be much richer than my world / your happiness will uncurl. / 'Stop dreaming' / People who say that are blaspheming. ... Go see your mates / And when they don't look happy / Play them this tape."