There’s been a huge wave of UK artists crossing over to American success lately. Amy Winehouse, Duffy, Estelle and Adele have all had a degree of success on these shores, although not commensurate with their overwhelming success in their homeland. A British artist that I’ve been enamored with for quite some time is Mike Skinner AKA The Streets. For lack of a better description, Skinner’s a rap artist. However, unlike most British emcees, who seem to be trying their best to sound American, Skinner’s music is decidedly British…and even if he were to try to Americanize his sound, there’s no way in hell he’d be able to cross over with that impenetrable accent. Nevertheless, Skinner’s built up a cult following over the course of four albums-each of which has something worth recommending on it.
Over time, Skinner has also adjusted his world view. While his first album, Original Pirate Material,was the story of an everyday guy going through everyday paces, his second album, A Grand Don’t Come for Free, was the story of a kid who suddenly made something of himself and wasn’t quite sure what to do about it. Third album The Hardest Way to Make an Easy Living pointed out some of the vapidity of celebrity (while simultaneously revelling in it), while Skinner’s fourth effort, Everything is Borrowed, presents a mature man, looking at the world in front of him and trying to make sense of it. This maturation from album to album has been extremely rewarding, and Borrowed turns out to be yet another fine effort from Skinner.
The chorus of the album’s title track, the first song on the album, sets the tone. “I came into this world with nothing, and I’ll leave with nothing but love-everything else is borrowed”, he sings in his heavily accented, nasal voice. Like many rappers, Skinner sings the choruses for most of his songs. Unlike many rappers, though, there’s an innocent charm in Skinner’s voice that equalizes the fact that he really can’t sing. His lack of a solid singing voice really comes through on the drippy ballad The Strongest Person I Know, a song even sappier than Skinner’s version of Elton John’s Your Song that appeared on a BBC compilation album last year.
Throughout Everything is Borrowed, “big issues” are tackled. The hilarious Heaven for the Weather sounds like an outtake from The Electric Company, although it’s doubtful that any children’s show song would boast a chorus like “I wanna go to heaven for the weather, but I wanna go to hell for the company”. The Way of the Dodo is part dance instructional/part environmental anthem, where Skinner proclaims that the Earth will be around long after we as humans have gone the way of the titular extinct bird. On the Flip of a Coin and I Love You More (Than You Like Me) both discuss relationships in touching fashion. While the latter song talks about male/female relationships, the former song is sung/rapped from the perspective of a father who is proud of the man his son has become even though he really wasn’t there to help the kid grow.
For my money, no song on Everything is Borrowed beats the final track, The Escapist. The song just seeps Zen to me. Maybe it’s the video, which follows Skinner on an endless walk (you really should check it out on YouTube. The scenery is absolutely breathtaking), but The Escapist is the perfect song for sitting in solitude, taking stock of your life and just letting everything go. Everything from the choral vocals to Skinner’s off-kilter spoken-word ramble is note-perfect.
It’s hard to pin Skinner down to a specific genre. He’s not alternative rock, he’s not altogether hip-hop, and the “two-step/garage” title is way outdated-not to mention the fact that it doesn’t fit. The songs on here jump from a rock-ish feel to dreamy pop, and every single instrument on this album is live, a rarity for a hip-hop album from any country. Everything is Borrowed has a homespun feel that gives it a certain intimacy-although I’m sure Skinner has made enough money to record in a top-of-the-line studio, the album still has a “basement” quality to it. Of course, genre specifications and intimacy don’t mean squat if the album isn’t good, and Everything is Borrowed is the fourth superior effort from The Streets. Even if he continues to be the U.K.’s best kept secret, he’ll also continue to have a fan in this Yank.