This is one of those albums where I've had to forcibly extricate myself from all the irritation generated by everyone else who liked it before I'm properly able to appreciate the thing. I didn't bother buying it at the time mainly due to having got a bit bored of Mike Skinner's face looming out at me from every other page of newspapers I probably shouldn't have bothered reading in the first place. The Grauniad in particular couldn't get enough of the fucker, the most excruciating case of which I seem to recall being a twenty page illustrated feature based around Mike explaining his philosophy whilst playing board games in some local pub with his parents - and no I haven't made that up; I expect Dynasty Crew were busy that day, or maybe they were just too scary and nobody ever compared Bare Face What to Squeeze or other civilised songsmiths specialising in bitter-sweet kitchen sink balladry. Whilst not having anything against Skinner personally, and having enjoyed some of the beats he recorded for others, and at least recognising him as a force for good by some description, I just couldn't get past the Streets being rap for people who don't like rap - Stephen H. Morris for example, who in his musical history of the Medway towns compares Kids Unique to the Streets, presumably because that's what he's heard on Jo Whiley sandwiched between tracks by the Kaiser Chiefs, Editors, and all those other unlistenable indie wankers. It's rap for people who don't like rap because of all those
The irony is, I suppose, that I'm not sure the Streets quite count as rap, at least not unless we're adding Ian Dury, Bernard Cribbins, and George Formby to the canon. It's certainly urban in so much as that the influence of rap, hip-hop, garage and the rest are obvious, but that isn't quite the same thing.
Skinner spins a decent story once we've got over that thing he does of self-consciously meting out one syllable per beat, like it's some kind of reading exercise during school activities week. It sounds like he's drawing attention to his own shortcomings so as to let us know he's not taking himself too seriously and he won't be twisting his fingers into funny shapes like those rappers do, at least not unless he needs to make air quotes around any of those spicy words which kids on the street are always using; but yeah - once we're over that hump, A Grand Don't Come for Free is a highly listenable album. It's also a concept album, although the story is difficult to follow - something about splitting up with his girlfriend, having a shit day, renewing the TV licence, then finding that the missing thousand pounds was down the back of the telly all along, although where it came from in the first place is never quite clear. As belching working class concept albums go, A Grand is nothing like so rounded or satisfying as Sham 69's That's Life - and yes, I really did just write that sentence - but has some wonderfully tender moments, notably Could Well Be In, Blinded By the Lights, and Dry Your Eyes, none of which do anything which would startle Paul McCartney. The beats, as you might expect, are great, seamlessly working soft soulful acoustics together with the buzzing and bleeps of grime and the like - never cluttered, always clear and with a very much human pulse. It's a very good album aspiring to be a great album, but never quite getting there because the narrative just isn't as compelling as it thinks it is, and Skinner's voice isn't sufficiently interesting to keep it all rolling along for the duration; and it's only a great rap album if it's the only one you've heard; which is still a thumbs up, roughly speaking.