It’s difficult to imagine a hip-hop album that covers such mundane subject matter as A Grand Don’t Come For Free. At the same time, its narrative drive and “concept album” credentials make it stand out from other albums in that genre, in the mid 2000s. Mike Skinner’s sophomore album was almost universally acclaimed upon release, ending up in many “Best Of” lists, including Pitchfork’s Top 200 albums of the 2000s. It’s not hard to see why- never has the dull and petty lifestyle of an English youth been soundtracked with such grace and insightfulness.
The opening track is perfectly bombastic, if only because it is juxtaposed with the failure of the narrator/protagonist to even accomplish the simplest of his chores. In bored and agonising detail, Mike lists his “to do” list as he sets about. Bringing back a DVD to the rental store to avoid a fine proves too much: the disc is still at his house. Having waited in line at the ATM, he cannot withdraw any cash due to insufficient funds. Even calling his mother to tell her that he won’t be there for tea is a long-drawn out affair: can he even find his phone in his pocket? In the end it’s all academic as the battery dies the minute he tries to call.
Today I have achieved absolutely nowt
In just being out of the house I've lost out
If I'd wanted to end up with more now
I should've just stayed in bed like I know how
At the end of this song (self-awarely titled “It Was Supposed to be so Easy”), the album’s title is explained: the thousand pound savings (in cash) that he left on his broken television set has gone missing.
Over the next few tracks, Mike meets a girl (“Could Well Be In”) and we are privy to his inner narrative, which is well-observed and instantly recognisable to any hot-blooded male who’s been on a date or two. The soothing piano hook and lush backing vocals are a pleasant break from the fumbling failure of the first track. A brief detour to the casual gambling culture of urban England (“Not Addicted”) leads to the clear highlight of the album, “Blinded By The Lights”.
The video of Blinded By the Lights tweaks the concept of the original by setting it at what seems to be a wedding reception, but is largely faithful to the lyrical content.
With a rave-y sample used to create an off-rhythm soundtrack to a night out clubbing, the atmosphere it creates is one of numbing claustrophobia. The narrator describes a lonely night in a packed club, waiting for his friend and girlfriend to turn up. As he waits, pacing around to get reception on his phone, he takes pills he’d smuggled in earlier. Underestimating their potency, he trips out once they kick in. At this point his friends show up, and he sees his girlfriend’s infidelity. He does not acknowledge it though, as he’s “mashed”.
The story continues with ups and downs, notably “Wouldn’t Have it Any Other Way” and “Fit But You Know It”. The former is another mellow exploration of his girlfriend’s living room, a cocoon of spliffs and TV dinners. The backing vocals are Michael Jackson and The Flight of the Conchords in equal measures, serenading this scene of domestic bliss. “Fit But You Know It”, probably the most well-known song that this album would produce has a glammy, “Jean Genie” riff, but Mike Skinner is no David Bowie. Loutish, shouty and confrontational; the song perfectly captures a drunken visit to a chip shop. It celebrates the culture of playing “hard to get”, not allowing oneself to pay attention to an attractive female who is all too aware of her own beauty.
Holiday indiscretions, mistakes about “being on a break”, regret, paranoia and the eventual breakup in the beautiful “Dry Your Eyes” follow. Sounding like a mix between a Coldplay ballad and “I’ll Be Missing You”, the track was another popular song. The album ends where it starts, with Mike pissed off, but continuing with his life. In a novel move, the final song is a “choose your own ending” of sorts. The first choice is a downward spiral into self-destruction and antisocial behaviour. The second tells largely the same story, but with optimistic musical queues. The story diverges when the narrator allows a friend to fix his television to make amends. They eventually find the missing thousand pounds jammed into the back of the broken television set, giving the whole narrative a happy ending.
A Grand Don’t Come For Free elevates the dullness of daily live into art, giving a grandeur to the trivial proceedings of an English youth. This particularly British take on hip-hop and bling helped raise the profile of “chav” culture, the working class, Burberry-capped and golden-chained subculture with its casual alcohol and drug abuse. Coming from Birmingham himself, Mike Skinner adopts a London/Estuary English “mockney” accent when in character. This surely paved the way for the affected Lily Allens and Kate Nashes we all know and love today. Another artist known for affecting a more working class accent is Damon Albarn, and A Grand Don’t Come For Free feels like a Blur album of the 21st century. Just as Parklife (1994) and The Great Escape (1995) combined character songs with perceptive observations of 1990s British subcultures, The Streets’ work takes a sideways look at urban life for the young.
There was a renaissance for Britpop in 2004 and 05, with the Libertines, Kaiser Chiefs, Franz Ferdinand and eventually the Arctic Monkeys all finding a wide audience. A Grand Don’t Come For Free epitomises this rejuvenation, but with more character, wisdom and wry comedy than the jaunty, knees-up pastiche of guitar pop the other artists produced. An album that is both timely and timeless, as entertaining as it is artistically sound.