The Streets take you down a long and windy road

Andrew Gaug

No songs containing choruses about being “up in the club.” No tracks about the rapper’s rhyme skills being better than others. No Jazzephizzle-productshizzles. And this is a hip-hop album?

The Streets

The Hardest Way to Make an Easy Living

Released on Vice Records

Stater rating (out of five): ***

It’s obvious from the beginning that The Streets, also known as Mike Skinner, is not your average hip-hop act. His first two albums were mixtures of hip-hop and spoken word music based on everyman stories — one of them, A Grand Don’t Come for Free, being a concept album that centered around a man’s search for his supposedly stolen money. Both albums gave him a huge amount of attention and record sales overseas, while he remained more of a indie-rap, buzz artist in the United States.

With The Streets’ success in his homeland of England, Skinner realized that he could not tell the same stories of being just another regular guy getting through life, but makes his third record, The Hardest Way to Make an Easy Living — a woeful tale about the downfalls of stardom.

Noticeably different from The Streets’ other albums is the narrative and direction of the record — it doesn’t seem to have one. Skinner’s songs about depression and codependency like “Pranging Out” and the album’s title track don’t transition well with less serious songs like “War of the Sexes” and “Can’t Con An Honest John.” Skinner’s music rarely keeps a straight face for more than one song, but to go from lyrics such as “Right now logic states I need to be not contemplating suicide” in the conclusion of the opening track, “Pranging Out,” to the goofy “Cause people who hammer/don’t get to nail” in “War of the Sexes” has no flow to it.

Though the album is uneven at parts and somewhat lacking when compared to his previous work, The Streets still delivers what it’s known for: substance. Unlike rappers in the U.S. who brag about the fame they’ve achieved, Skinner loathes it. He sleeps with beautiful women in “Pranging Out,” “When You Wasn’t Famous” and “Memento Mori,” but sees it as shameful and shallow rather than something to brag about. “Two Nations” contrasts America and England from Mike Skinner’s lack of success in the States (“Understated is how we prefer to be/ That’s why I’ve sold 3 million and you don’t even know me”) to our love for violence (“I’m proud we gave you people like John Lennon / Even though you shot him as well”).

By far this is the best production work Skinner has ever done with the piano-laced ballad “All Goes Out the Window” to the bouncy, playful rhythm of “When You Wasn’t Famous.” As he’s done in the past, Skinner’s creates anti-stereotypical beats rather than creating a 10-second hip hop loop playing for four-and-a-half minutes. Instead, they are layered with synthesizers, horns and changing beats that keep the song musically interesting even if the material doesn’t hit the mark as well as it was intended.

For the first time, Hardest Way works best when it tries to keep a straight-face but throws in an occasional joke as well. Songs like “When You Wasn’t Famous” sound like just another happy, danceable song about fame, but when Skinner raps “My whole life I never thought I’d see/A pop star smoke crack,” it reveals a dark side to an upbeat tune. Other songs, such as “Hotel Expressionism” and “Fake Streets Hats,” suffer from having no sense of musical direction or subject.

For a hip-hop album, it’s miles beyond what’s been released in the past few years, but it’s certainly the most uneven work The Streets have done to date.

Contact ALL correspondent Andrew Gaug at [email protected].