Unfolding like a soap opera flickering in the back of a bar, The Streets' A Grand Don't Come For Free is a concept album that treats its own ambition with suspicion. It tells a poignant story about money, trust, drugs, and love, but for British rapper Mike Skinner, poignancy is threaded through the everyday, lurking in feelings and interactions that could just as easily go unnoticed.
Skinner announced himself with Original Pirate Material, a 2002 debut that made him a star in England and a curious interloper to stateside rap fans bewitched by his foreign fancies. His riffs and rhymes scan as hip-hop, but his approach to droll subject mattercruising for "birds" at the pub, sifting through shake on the couchreveal him as a homegrown diarist who grew up with beats in the background. Upping his narrative ante, Skinner goes all-in on Grand, a bold follow-up that sounds beguilingly slight and dry until details start sketching its story.
After losing a batch of money in the first track, Skinner wanders through a day in the life of a spurned layabout who's suspicious of his friends, his girlfriend, and himself. In "Could Well Be In," he chats with a girl whose hair-twirling he takes as a sign of keenness. In "Not Addicted," he bets on a soccer game that ends the wrong way. Later that night, he flits about a club in "Blinded By The Lights," a sparse, moody track that gets washed in whoosh as his second dose of ecstasy kicks in. Sounding even more matter-of-fact than he did on Pirate, Skinner displays an eerie sense of economy in lyrics that make much out of minutiaenervous label-peeling at the bar, text messages gone unreturned, the steely glare of a "friend" up to no good.
Musically, A Grand Don't Come For Free traffics in sparse beats and homespun backgrounds that work like panels in a graphic novel, foregrounding plot points as they frame Skinner's alternately pissed and defeated moods. In "What Is He Thinking," martial noise underlies a tense stare-down, while the acquiescent "Wouldn't Have It Any Other Way" floats alongside an R&B voice crooning about an ashtray in need of emptying. Some of Grand sounds stunted at first blush, but its neat through-line ties everything into place by the conclusion, a devastating pair of tracks in which Skinner surveys empty cans through teary eyes. The resolution works toward a surprising finish, hitting like the last page of a book too spellbinding to leave closed.