A Grand Don't Come for Free - Mike Skinner's magnum opus under his pseudonym The Streets. It's all somewhat taboo labelling The Streets' sophomore album a classic, but remember it's been over 10 years now since its release with Locked On Records giving us the go ahead to review, admire, and praise. It's simplicity attracting listeners to Skinner's music, though the listeners are far from simple. UK hip-hop, the genre often associated in the scrub lands as 'grime' innit, but Skinner's hip-hop is leaned towards 2-step garage, as heard on the exceptional Original Pirate Material released two years prior to his Grand piece. His upbringing, Birmingham, rich in musical culture and multiculturalism as Skinner's musical influences would suggest - ranging from the reggae sounds introduced to the UK through Island Records' humble beginnings, to the smart rapping and production skills of the Wu-Tang Clan. His story on Original Pirate Material was street music for street people - electroheads and stoners united. It wasn't so much an album displaying the hard life youths often face in Birmingham, but the comedic and varying sounds of a period remembered mostly for Ronaldinho's chip - normal, day-to-day life for a 'lad'. Skinner took the lyrical realism to the next level on A Grand Don't Come for Free, creating a real world version of Deltron 3000's self-titled debut album; something hip-hop / music in general was in need of - the concept album hasn't been matched to this detail since.
"It Was Supposed to Be So Easy" - He failed on the DVD, he couldn't withdraw any money, or call his Mum for tea, or get his savings on the side next to the telly. Skinner doesn't have the best of days in A Grand Don't Come for Free's opening track; the protagonist tells the audience of his day-to-day failings, mentioning his initial problems such as failing to return a DVD to the video store (pre-Netflix,) and losing his £1,000. Those that have heard this album in full will know the story and know how it ends, but if you haven't... go listen to it before reading on. Musically, the opening track like most of A Grand Don't Come for Free comes second to the lyrics. This is typical garage fashion - with Skinner exploiting the simple structures, and often standard beats with his additional piano playing. "Could Well Be In" is the perfect example of this; simple beat, very thin structurally, with lyrics applied to the tone of the instrumental. It introduces the love interest - Simone - with the atypical Skinner refrain: "I saw this thing on ITV the other week. Said, that if she plays with her hair, she's probably keen. She's playing with her hair well regularly, so I reckon I could well be in." Though, the cuteness of Skinner's lyricism comes to a swift end. "Not Addicted" makes sure the listener fully grasps the lifestyle of Skinner's protagonist. He explores the degenerate lifestyle of part-time weekend bettors, contemplating whether or not to bet his bankroll on one bet through his 'instinct'. He fails to put the bet on, then explores the highs and lows of being angry not being on, then relief through the realisation of losing his bankroll.
A Grand Don't Come for Free also stepped in to the innovative foundations of the dubstep genre which peaked a few years later. "Blinded by the Lights" explores subjects untouched in Skinner's previous releases. The club becomes the setting, drugs the content - with classic Skinnerisms throughout. As a story, "Blinded by the Lights" is right up there as one of the best on this album, spoken perfectly with just the right level of confusion and club life slang. Skinner's production here is flawless, hard hitting bass synthesizers reminiscing the sound of 90s trance mixed with the 2-step beat creating an original dubstep recording with faint whiffs of ambience backing the sharper synthesizers.
Skinner is quite simply an extraordinary musician from his lyrical poetry to the raw production skills. This album acts as a compilation of all his skills and stories from what he sees and hears from his time growing up and living pre-Original Pirate Material, and post-Original Pirate Material. It's the varying nature of Skinner's protagonist in A Grand Don't Come for Free which resonates with so many listeners, At times he's incredibly lucky to be in a financial position to have his drugs, alcohol, and relationship life - explored deeply as a level of stability in "Wouldn't Have It Any Other Way", a tale of decision making and settling for the sedimentary lifestyle. Demolished on "Get out of My House" by the vocal introduction of his love interest Simone or C-Mone as the actual vocalist is known as. These are both examples of Skinner's extremely British lyrics; his use of slang terms and cockney rhyming may confuse the non-British listeners, but at the same time activates a specifically intended style of vocal delivery actually acted out in real life. This is delivered exceptionally well on "Fit but You Know It" - the ultimate lad song pre-Magaluf: "See I reckon you're about an 8 or a 9, maybe even 9 and a half in for beers time." Skinner's lyrics take place on what appears to be a holiday abroad where the beers are flowing and the birds are flying all over the pavement. It introduces the non-British listeners to the state of British women, or the perception British men have of women who put very little effort in to the pulling game, it specifically applies to cheap holidays in the sun.
Skinner's protagonist often comes to his senses throughout A Grand Don't Come for Free. He's constantly making self-reflecting comments, questioning his own thoughts and desires. "Such a Twat" has an angrier tone - the fun and games of "Fit but You Know It" are coming back to haunt Skinner, and what seems like the listener for partaking in his moments. This track acts as a buffer for the remaining tracks bringing A Grand Don't Come for Free to a close. "What Is He Thinking" carries on Skinner's self-inflicting anger. It's passionate spoken word questioning, in a Silent Witness / Midsummer Night Murders fashion - loosely. Skinner comes to the conclusion of his 'mates' betrayal, in a typical human hypocritical fashion after the events of "Fit but You Know It" and "Such a Twat". His passionate love for Simone falls to desperation on the penultimate track "Dry Your Eyes", the soul searching tear-jerker on A Grand Don't Come for Free - it just had to have one to complete the story, and Skinner executes it well. Acoustic guitar, the repetition of the word "please" and even more realisation that the protagonist's life has taken another, massive hit - leaving the listener in a state of mourning for his woes.
The closing track is a remarkable end to Skinner's sorrowful concept album. It's a classic The Streets track, Utilising basic structures to create a masterpiece right after delivering what’s come to be known as The Streets' most known and successful single "Dry Your Eyes". On the album closer, the audience is exposed to different endings. The first ending is what Skinner's previous 10 tracks would realistically ask for - confusion, self-inflicting anger, and the passage the protagonist would rightfully take in the real world. The second ending is what the listener wants, what Skinner's protagonist wants, and what would be considered unnatural, and fanatical for its fairytale ending. It's seen as an anomaly on A Grand Don't Come for Free because of its length (8:15,) and content. "Empty Cans" involves the listener more so than any of the previous tracks, its intention is to close the album, and complete the story arc in a typical Hollywood linear cycle. The first half of "Empty Cans" doesn't do this - and it's not the only reason why A Grand Don't Come for Free ends there. Skinner's not finished. The sound of a vinyl being rewound can be heard before the same opening to "Empty Cans", only with piano accompaniment - heard previously on "Wouldn't Have It Any Other Way" when the protagonist was last in his comfort zone. Of course, he does end up in his comfort zone as expected. The second half of "Empty Cans" brings together the characters, finally united as one. It closes A Grand Don't Come for Free with an answer to the £1,000 problem. Again, he thinks, deciding on allowing his mate back into his life to have a look at his TV: "It's the end of something I did not want to end, beginning of hard times to come. But something that was not meant to be is done, and this is the start of what was." Skinner delivers this with such conviction. He really does make you want to get up off your arse and do something, be it reconciling with a lost friend, or completing a set goal you made five years ago. The ambient synthesizers and piano increase in volume, the strings enter, and the bass becomes more dominant. Skinner finds his grand, completing the cycle he started in "It Was Supposed to Be So Easy". Choosing to forgive his mate, and realise his life can only be decided and looked after by him, and as he says it, the refrain enters, bringing together the cinematic vibe A Grand Don't Come for Free cries out for in its raw percussion and spoken word poetry. And it's in the dying seconds of "Empty Cans" when the protagonist finally sounds at peace - which resonates with the audience who have been involved in Skinner's first hand events throughout the album. It's not only a complete circle for Skinner's story and The Streets, but for you and I who put so much time and attention in to this music; music, it's so much more than that on A Grand Don't Come for Free, that's why it's a classic, and that's why it deserves all the plaudits - truly innovative right from the start.