There is no doubt that Original Pirate Material has created a lot of excitement among critics, but also — and more importantly — among listeners. It has gone gold in Europe, and underground club kids jumped the October U.S. release date by downloading it over the Net. Why? Because it sounds fresh, and it is a disservice to his artistry to judge The Streets by the standards of either Detroit hip-hop or the bygone paradigms of the 1977 London underground. In the end, perhaps the best comparison we can make is one of The Streets to his real life alter-ego, Mike Skinner.
Skinner grew up on the streets of Birmingham, England, an inner-city kid and self-admitted keyboard "fiddler." At age 15, he bought an Amiga mixer and headed into the largely unexplored world of British hip-hop. Sound oxymoronic? At first listen, it is: The painstakingly enunciated cadences of a British MC leave knots in the ears of American listeners accustomed to the schmoove groove of West Coast rap. In fact, Dogg-house fans should avoid this album at all costs, leaving it instead to the metropolitan tastes of obscurist junkies and club kids slumming through the hip-hop bins at their record shop. (Of course, record store clerks will have to possess the necessary moxie to file it away under "hip-hop" for this scenario to be at all realistic.)
To repeat, then: The Streets is a lot like Mike Skinner, and Mike Skinner is a lot like The Streets. And neither one is much like anything to come out of Britain in, well, forever. Skinner mixes the UK garage sound with vocals that often have very little to do with the underlying music, but are brilliant nonetheless. Flip "birds" for "bitches," "geeza" for "nigga," and reverse the word "yo," and you might get a sense of the kinds of linguistic differences between our two street cultures.
With his debut release, Skinner has created a Sunday afternoon of an album, complete with an ennui-and-attitude mixture that draws down on the hard-partying London set whose energy he so refreshingly taps. Yet despite its labeling as a dance album, it is better listened to at home alone. It is there, nursing a Saturday night hangover, that the emotions and ephemera come to the fore, breaking out over the beats and winding down through sampled orchestral loops into — what else? — The Streets.