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The Streets: Original Pirate Material

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The Streets

Album: Original Pirate Material
Label: Vice/Atlantic

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As soon as his early singles started popping up on import mix-discs, Mike Skinner (who raps under the name The Streets) signaled a departure from the standard MC patter and deliciously vacuous pop vocals that govern England's two-step garage scene. A consummate lifestyle narrator who favors premise over pose, Skinner came out of nowhere as a droopy-eyed spokesman for a culture's worth of pub-going "geezers" and their soft-and-hard ideals. Narrative sweep and gameful rhymes earned Skinner the mantle of "the English Eminem," but hip-hop's fixation on pride-in-ownership proselytizing gets cast in a harshly reductive light by an album as rich and singular as Original Pirate Material. Now hitting the U.S. after garnering hype and a Mercury Prize nomination in England, Material presents Skinner as a pen-wielding sage haunting the clubs and couches of post-rave London. Over skeletal two-step beats and expansive hip-hop bangers, he toasts tales of "deep-seated urban decay" and the good life as defined by good weed and good video games. Marked by the string-swept gladiatorial intro "Turn The Page" and the bitingly funny boozer-vs.-pothead PSA "The Irony Of It All," Skinner ranges from high poetics to daily drudgery, both fitted to a flat vocal delivery rounded out by earnest ambition and comely slang ("'round here we say birds, not bitches"). Beats built around anthemic rave rewinds and the ghost-town trumpet of The Specials point to a distinctly British brand of hip-hop, but Skinner's lyrics are best at expanding the genre's hold over stateside concerns. Doing well by hip-hop's ability to paint a culture with rhymes and flows, he dots his mates' malaise with memories of halcyon rave days, wrapping recollections of his first Ecstasy hit and floaty musical transport into a spellbound bit of nostalgia on "Weak Become Heroes." Heard as a rap album, Original Pirate Material provides a compelling picture of the style wrapping itself around a different milieu. But taken on his own terms, Skinner reaches too deep and true to sound like anything but a remarkable talent in any genre.