Welcome to Mike Skinner: the being dead famous and realising it’s “a load of boring shite” years
Much as it’s compulsory to worship the Arctic Monkeys for their down-to-earth songs with clever lyrics, storytelling abilities and nonchalant attitude towards awards ceremonies (wow, I was so disappointed by their grumpy speeches at the NME Awards), they still can’t hold a torch to one of their biggest influences, Mike Skinner.
Maybe it’s because I’m not 19, but their records just never let me deep enough into “their world” to fully embrace them like the best friend with great stories that you never really hang out with that much but it’s always a joy to see like Mike’s music does.
How does he do it? He’s a British rapper from Birmingham. Have you ever been to Birmingham? What a hellhole. How the hell does an ex-cokehead Brummy with a Rolls-Royce tailored in Aquascutum trim manage to make a third album about the pressures of fame that can simultaneously break your heart and tickle your funny bone, while making you seriously consider giving up cocaine and booze and at the same time giving you advice on girls/destroying hotel rooms, then realise that the hollow void of materialism isn’t so hollow when you’re “driving a fucking Ferrari!”? Oh, and it also finds the time to reveal a secret con trick that can make you a grand or so in a day.
Shouldn’t this be a three-part concept album on separate discs? Wow, it’s only 11 songs and they’re all under four minutes long. Way to go Skinner – but couldn’t you have told me about all this before I started to spend £200 a session on this quack in South Kensington?
There’s going to be a few reviews about this being Mike’s “self-indulgent comedown album”, but they’ll all be bullshit. This album isn’t moaning about the pressures of fame. It’s doing the opposite. ‘The Hardest Way To Make An Easy Living’ is totally free of self-pity, cliché or a thing I like to call “boo-fucking-hoo syndrome” so beloved of musicians.
Mike’s turned all the darkness on its head and made a genius, confessional, blackly comic, self-help manual out of brilliant, grimey, modern pop music (btw, can we please give Mike his dues for introducing white people to the fast-growing, exciting musical movment called grime? He was doing songs with the original line-up of NASTY Crew six months before ‘A Grand Don’t Come For Free’ came out).
As you can tell from the promo photos of Mike, inspired by Scarface, cocaine, aka “prang”, aka “tour support” occupies a lot of these songs. The highs and lows of this horrific drug are documented in all their ‘glories’, as honestly as anybody’s ever done it. There’s the opener ‘Pranging Out’, which has a beat as brash and cocaine-y as anything Harlem’s Diplomats were doing on the first Juelz Santana album (most overlooked album of the 21st century so far). The lyrics are as raw as those of that aforementioned rapper, but with Mike’s British guilt-complex working 10-to-the-dozen at the same time. Then there’s the may-or-may-not-be-entirely-true crack smoking single that’s got all the tabloids talking. The joys of coke and ketamine mixed together in small constrictive spaces are explored in the demented ‘Art Of Hotel Expressionism’, which has Mike making a “brandy iron” by pouring brandy into the hotel iron to see what the steam would smell like (“sweet”) and then there’s ‘All Goes Out The Window’, which is a sweet little Paul McCartney-doing-Timbaland beat with lyrics about how cocaine can ruin your relationship. This song is the sound of cocaine guilt, and apart from ‘We Never Went To Church’ is pretty much the only let-up from the 100 miles an hour verbal assault of this record.
Oh yeah, I have to mention ‘We Never Went To Church’ again because it’s the best thing here and I can’t listen to it without being on the verge of blubbing. With a backing track based on ‘Let It Be’ and ‘No Woman, No Cry’, it’s a beautiful ballad about the death of Mike’s dad (a couple of years ago, just before ‘Fit But You Know It’ came out).
For anybody who’s ever watched somebody they loved become mortally ill (99 per cent of people by the time you reach your mid-20s), this is a song that will make you wibble like a 10-foot giant Jelly Baby made out of too much water and not enough gelatin and which is stood on the end of the windiest pier in the world on the saddest, greyest day in history.
What else? The beats and lyrics get better with each listen. And, umm, the final song is Mike’s version of the Oasis ‘Wibbling Rivalry’ seven-inch and a perfect end to this record: “Mate, sometimes. It is made SO Hard.”
Here’s the quote for the stickers: It’s an album about fame that people who aren’t famous can relate to and be moved by. It’s a brave, raw, pioneering, hardcore grime pop album from the country’s most soulful, honest, forward-thinking young musician. He always joked his third record would be shit, but it isn’t. Now what about the fourth? Ouch. Imagine the pressure!