Art by Stephen Winchell, words by Jeremy D. Larson
With Not Fade Away, we take a look at the legacy of some of the greatest albums of the past few decades – some iconic, some lesser known – as they celebrate significant anniversaries. Today we look back at The Streets’ ambitious 2004 album A Grand Don’t Come For Free in a special presentation.
The album turns 10 this week. Stephen Winchell, a Chicago-based illustrator and creator of the comic Little Boys Room, drew 11 strips, one for every track on A Grand Don’t Come For Free. The album tells the pseudo-autobiographical tale of its narrator, Mike Skinner, as over a short period of time he loses £1,000, his girl, his two best mates, and no small amount of brain cells and dignity in the process.
This was The Streets’ sophomore album, which received almost universal acclaim from critics worldwide upon its release. Its four singles all charted in the UK.
~ In 2004, The Streets (aka the Birmingham via Brixton rapper Mike Skinner) built a world around miscommunication: Bad cell phone reception, dropped calls, lapsed dates with girlfriends, skeezy PUA tricks at bars, awful betting advice, misremembered bank statements, misread looks on faces. Skinner is ships in the night with his entire life. I got to say it was a bad day.
In 2002, Skinner proclaimed, “I make bangers, not anthems” and then he went right back on his word with A Grand Don’t Come For Free. It’s a loser’s anthem, Dirtbag’s Delight, as Skinner becomes a whipping boy for fate in a 50-minute comedy of misfortune. But, you know, in a funny way. It’s funny in the way that it is cosmically absurd that this many things successively going wrong in his life. It’s like if The Out-of-Towners featured a wise-cracking stoner, and instead of going from Ohio to New York, it’s going from his sofa to literally anywhere else.
Skinner’s wan personality lives in his cadence, and he has the rare ability to not telegraph meaning in his verse. He adapts his voice to the story and doesn’t ride the beat by rote. When he’s a little stoned and determined to do some errands on “It Was Supposed To Be So Easy,” he speaks in fragments: one thought, then another, then another backtracking on the first. When he’s desperate and drunk at a late-night chicken joint on “Fit But You Know It,” he fires off iambic verse with a schoolboy lilt. “Dry Your Eyes” is all but cried into the microphone. It’s dubious in the traditional sense of flow and identity, but peerless in the sense of building a character that people want to invest in (even if that character is only fully invested in himself).
Not only his rhymes, but Skinner’s own production sets a backdrop for every seedy locale, and pulls out the emotional tenor of the scene. “Wouldn’t Have It Any Other Way” wraps around an R&B vibe as one last romantic daydream before the other shoe drops. The 1-3-4 pulse of “What Is He Thinking” captures the terror of being on the precipice of horrible truth, making it both a heartbeat and a bull pawing the ground. His commitment to this form also created “Blinded by the Lights,” an accidental proto-trance-rap track predating the new school of guys like AraabMuzik, Lunice and Hudson Mohawk —just by virtue of connecting the song to the story.
So a concept album is, in its definition, abstract, and one that rarely finds firm ground in rap. A Grand… jukes around Trapped In the Closet or Dr. Octagonecologyst comparisons because the plot is rather mundane, isn’t it? Boy loses money, boy loses self, boy loses girl, boy finds money, boy finds another girl, boy finds self. Yes, come for the plot of the album—a farce about inertia—but stay for post-bong-hit ruminations that run deep: Maybe these mobile phones that keep failing me are indicative of how I poorly I communicate; Maybe my inflated sense of self isn’t tenable beyond roaching a spliff on the sofa watching TV; Maybe bratty insouciance is not a real-world commodity; Maybe the one thing that isn’t supposed to be so easy is keeping a relationship together.
Skinner codes every track with his cockney dialect: “squid,” “quick snap,” “fair play,” “rammo,” “shrapnel in my back pocket,” and the incredible kiss-off to his girlfriend Simone, “I’m never gonna darken your towels again.” It’s all delivered with the kind of clockwork banality that makes our anti-hero so effortlessly approachable. We get tossed-off lines like, “It’s hard enough to remember my opinions, never mind the reasons for them,” and the casual way he recreates a phone conversation on “Such a T—” sounds so easy, even in its stilted flow. It’s an anti-performance in an anti-mask, words that create bleak realism over an ideal fantasy. People actually questioned whether this was “rap” when it was released, when authenticity was never even a question: Skinner was just being himself, the way the best rappers do.
“I see the character on the album as being me,” he told The Guardian in 2004, “with my opinions, and reacting the way I would react, just in a fictional situation. Apart from that, there’s nothing all that different about it – the songs are just songs, the beats are just beats.”
There’s a moment, when he talks about why he didn’t come around to see his girlfriend Simone, where he says, “You knew I need that medication for my epilepsy now.” It’s a striking line of clarity in a fit of self-righteousness and pointed assholery. These are the lines that bend the Skinner character out of being pathetic and into having pathos. It’s at this point in the album, after getting smashed on vacation and fails spectacularly at flirting with some over-tanned girl, that you add up his dumb luck, his weed-solipsism, and his endless myopia as someone you actually kinda care about. This birdbrain, you want him make it through to the other side. Because it’s always fun to root for the losers. “What it was,” he told The Guardian, “was that I didn’t want to lie in the way that rappers lie.”
The way Skinner says, “Please, please” in the second verse ranks among the realest, most devastating moments in rap and in music.
What’s amazing listening to this album today is how much I still care about what happens. Not in the plot so much, but the tiny moments that give the album its beauty marks and scars. Little things like the orchestra swelling when Scott raps about telling Mike that Simone was cheating on him with Dan — just like an old ’30s MGM melodrama. Like how petulant he sounds when he says, “My rage is blowing gauges/ How longs it take to validate your wages?” The tender delivery of “Dry Your Eyes” is sequenced perfectly in the album. And just how consistently funny the album is without pointing out humor or bracketing it in a skit. If you want to know where A Grand Don’t Come For Free left his mark the most, just spin Danny Brown’s last two albums, the hyper-personal, druggy, electro-scuzz tales of XXX and Old. He takes most of his cues from Skinner.
“You’re the one who’s got your back until the last deed is done,” raps Skinner on the epilogue to the album, talking to himself, of course. Considering the amount of times Skinner gets fooled by the world on the album, no wonder he’s going to try to disconnect from it. The album seeps with British disillusionment, ecstasy, heartbreak, beer, weed and fraternity. For Skinner, lessons go unlearned, misdeeds go unpunished, but, hey, the eponymous grand is found and the TV gets fixed in the process. The price for just getting back to square one is few months muddling through the stupid, balmy world and having it chew you up and spit you back out. Let’s have a toast for the douchebags, because for them, nothing comes for free.