England's newest superstar is the Streets, the nom de rap of Mike Skinner, a 25-year-old from drab Birmingham. A Grand and two of its singles have been big U.K. hits, but Skinner faces an uphill climb to make it here. It isn't so hard to decode cute British slang (you'll figure out that "50 squid" means money and "nowt" nothing), but the album doesn't reward short attention spans. The singles don't leap out until you hear them in context, and listening to the 11 songs out of order in search of killer hooks would be like skipping around the chapters of a novel.
Most tracks rely heavily on a single brief riff, ranging from jittery to mellow electronica, as an involving, often suspenseful continuous storyline unfolds. It begins with the narrator, Mike, losing £1,000 in his flat. We follow him as he gains a girlfriend ("Could Well Be In," a sweet, piano-based song that finds Mike nurturing a crush without the usual rap swagger) and loses her, and as he tries to forget her during a dance-floor flirtation (the comical "Fit But You Know It," one of the two U.K. hits). It isn't till the end that we find out what happened to the money and the girl—on "Dry Your Eyes," the other U.K. hit and surely a candidate for the (short) list of greatest rap ballads ever.
Being white and honest has gotten Skinner compared to Eminem, but Skinner doesn't give in to rage, his production is bare-bones, and his wordplay isn't quite as brilliant. Not that he isn't clever: "I just noticed some tan lines—on your shirt." And he rhymes "I'm acting nasty" with the singular insult "introduce it up your jaxxy." It would be a stretch to call the Streets fit for Grandma (unless she curses and takes ecstasy), but call him an NPR rapper: He respects women, he doesn't shill for luxury brands, and he deals with feelings other than anger. All this makes him refreshing, even bold.
DOWNLOAD THIS: "Could Well Be In"