Fifteen-plus years after the Beastie Boys first blew up and five years into the Age of Eminem, pop-culture commentators continue to be enthralled by the “novelty” of the white MC. It’s fool’s gold — white rappers are everywhere and have been for some time now. Still, it’d be easy to misinterpret the current critical fixation on the Streets — aka skinny, white British MC Mike Skinner — as more “he raps — and he’s white!” hype, what with NME calling his debut, Original Pirate Material, “one of the landmark albums of 2002.” But if your initial urge is to smirk, turn and run away, well, resist. The Streets is for real.
Skinner’s unique appeal rests not in the fact that he’s white or even that he’s British — it’s that he’s the rare British rapper who actually sounds British, and not just because of his thick Midlands brogue (through which furthest becomes furvess, making for a perfect rhyme with nervous) or because lines like My crew laughs at yer rhubarb and custard verses don’t pop up much in, say, Nas’ work. Skinner’s beats — crafted from syncopated, minimalist British two-step — are decidedly un-American, as is his monotone flow, a bored conversational shout that makes the rapper sound like a Birmingham cabbie, forever ranting at his befuddled fares, whether or not they’re remotely interested.
Of course, we’re very interested — we can’t help but be. More than anything, Skinner’s Britishness comes through in his choice of subject matter, and it’s that subject matter that sucks us in. Seemingly sprung fully formed from the pages of an Irvine Welsh novel, Skinner represents neither the bling-bling crowd nor the anti-bling “conscious” rappers, but rather the slacker generation in the middle, the willfully idle English “geezers” who might like a Bentley, thanks much, except that then they might have to wash it. “Sex, drugs and on the dole” is how the 23-year-old Skinner describes the lifestyle, and throughout Original Pirate Material, his lyrics bring it to vivid, and often hilarious, life. Pick a bottle off the table, peel the label tell a fable, he muses in “Same Old Thing” in that distinctive speak-shout. Offer opinion for free and a solution to the latest big news story. And it’s a downward spiral: Six tracks later, he’s watching MTV until dawn, and two tracks after that he’s begging the street people for acceptance. Skinner’s so-called life is almost certainly dreadfully dull. It just doesn’t sound that way.