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Street Cred


The Streets: Original Pirate Material

Locked On, 2002

Rating: 4.3



Posted: April 14, 2002

By Laurence Station

Original Pirate Material, the debut album from the Streets (a.k.a. 22-year-old Londoner-by-way-of-Birmingham Mike Skinner), is a remarkable record that elevates UK garage music (Philly-inspired soul sung against a two-step drum and bass breakbeat) to heretofore-unexplored heights. Actually, transforming garage might be a better description: While the garage blueprint is evident, the true revelation is the depth and cleverness of Skinner's top-drawer lyrical skills that pushes the form into fresh and exciting artistic directions.

Taking a "day in the life of a geezer" approach, Original Pirate Material adroitly expresses the frustration, rush, boredom and conflicting emotions of a British youth, someone living in a decaying urban environment, stuck on the dole, struggling to find work, fighting drug addiction and dreaming of a better life. While the songs clearly relate to Skinner's own experiences, what he's saying could easily apply to anyone confronted by similar circumstances.

"Turn The Page" opens the album with Skinner boldly proclaiming that he's "45th Generation Roman," establishing a broader historical link that adds weight to an otherwise inconsequential life heading nowhere. The struggle for identity proves to be Original Pirate Material's greatest strength, allowing the listener, even if he or she hasn't walked in the narrator's shoe-conglomerate-stamped footgear, a way of empathizing with the realities of life at ground (and underground) level. If environment, social standing and future opportunities (or lack thereof) define who one is, life can be a pretty bleak prospect. Thus, relating to a richer, more romantic -- albeit violent -- past helps a person cope with the monotony of the everyday, allowing him to fantasize about being a modern day gladiator, overcoming seemingly implacable foes (government laws, loutish neighborhood thugs, an indifferent music industry unwilling to listen to his demos, etc.) and come out victorious, or die trying in the process.

"Has It Come To This" codifies these themes by summing up the typical life of a geezer (British slang for a fellow bloke, or man): "Sex, drugs and on the dole," coupled with playing video games and cruising the streets to break the drudgery, all the while dreaming of making hit records as a way of escaping the "deep-seated urban decay." The song is driven by an unremarkable, straightforward garage beat, reinforcing the rut from which the narrator so desperately wants to escape.

The gauntlet is thrown down on "Let's Push Things Forward," as Skinner declares that garage can be more than mere processed beat and pseudo-romantic Craig David crooning; "content and deliverance" matter as well. Something more than just the "archetypal street sound." But by song's end Skinner concedes the likelihood that his sound will achieve "cult classic not bestseller" status.

After challenging his fellow artists to "push things forward," Skinner does exactly the opposite with the unremarkable "Sharp Darts," a lyrically average song that's all false bravado and mediocre beats -- it's the one truly derivative (and weak) moment on the album.

On "It's Too Late," Skinner expertly illustrates the potential of marrying the garage sound with emotive lyrical content. Beats like footsteps striking pavement track a narrator walking away from the site of a broken relationship, going over what could have been if he'd only done things differently. The frenzied "Too Much Brandy" follows this character as he goes on a weekend bender to Amsterdam with friends, compounding the misery of his existence but allaying the immediate pain of his broken heart.

"Irony Of It All" pits a working class drunkard/brawler against an overeducated, unemployed pot smoker; their humorous back-and-forth bantering perfectly captures the tension between liberals and conservatives occupying the same socioeconomic class, making its point that the two should be fighting for better living conditions and wages, not against one another.

"Stay Positive" closes Original Pirate Material on a downbeat note, focusing on casual drug use degenerating into full-blown heroin addiction. The way out being just to "stay positive" in a world that won't ever be any different unless one is willing to change the way he or she lives. The ultimate message being one of positive encouragement to get off one's ass and do something with his life, despite the crushing realities of an existence that make such tough-minded optimism difficult to sustain.

Original Pirate Material is a genuinely groundbreaking album, successfully integrating serious-minded and socially-conscious lyrics with the innovative noise of underground garage. It remains to be seen whether Skinner's future efforts have as much to say about downtrodden youth culture, especially if the album elevates him off of the streets that are his namesake and into a world that operates on a much loftier, if detached, level.

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 Ratings Key:
 5.0: A classic
 4.0-4.9: Stellar work
 3.0-3.9: Worthwhile effort
 2.0-2.9: Nothing special
 1.1-1.9: Pretty bad
 0.0-1.0: Total disaster

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