Mike Skinner: How I stopped doubting and became streetwise

Chancer or genius? As Mike Skinner releases Computers and Blues, his final album as The Streets, John Walsh explains how rap's own Cole Porter finally got under his skin

Mike Skinner, the baby-faced British garage rapper who performs under the sobriquet of The Streets, has made himself quite a reputation over the years: not just for spearheading a particularly British, low-key, demotic-confessional music genre, later adopted by the Arctic Monkeys, Lily Allen and Plan B, but also as a bit of a literary artist. The lyrics of his deadpan songs about modern living – about the conceitedness of girls, kebab shops, courting rituals, bust-ups, partying, smoking weed – have been inspected for their poetic content and allusions, as though they were the work of Bob Dylan or Nick Cave.

Leading poets have expressed awe and consternation at the urban grittiness of his lines. English Literature professors have paid tribute. Prof John Sutherland of London University listened to Skinner's second album, A Grand Don't Come for Free (a concept work about the loss and retrieval of £1,000) and decided it was "constructed around Christ's parable of the lost pieces of silver" – although he added, "But to make the point is probably to invite a Skinnerian accusation of generating critical wank."

The critics' favourite savant John Gray, former Professor of European Thought at the LSE, bandied philosophical niceties with Skinner in a national newspaper after the launch of his fourth album, Everything Is Borrowed. Among the subjects they covered were death, transhumanism, pollution, Darwinism, the illusion of consciousness and their shared interest in the work of J G Ballard. It's not the kind of colloquy you associate with, say, 50 Cent or Dizzee Rascal.

I was never a big Streets fan. I thought the act lacked basic musicality, and I couldn't hack the maundering quality of Skinner's voice, which always sounded like the whine of an aggrieved teenager, no matter how closely its owner approached his 30th birthday. The chorus of his first big hit, "Fit But You Know It," struck me as moronic. On holiday with friends in the south of France, I had to listen to the friends' teenage children playing "Dry Your Eyes" (from the second album) over and over again, with its drippy strings and its maudlin lyrics, which described a parting of the ways and minutely itemised who was doing what to whom, like a slow-motion barn dance ("She pulls away, my arms are tightly clamped round her waist/ Gently pushes me back and she looks at me straight/ Turns around so she's now got her back to my face/ Takes one step forward, looks back...").

But there was something about Skinner that intrigued me – something to do with his Nick Hornby-ish sympathy with the bruised male heart. I found myself grudgingly admiring a song called "Don't Mug Yourself", in which an average geezer recovering from the night before in a greasy spoon caff ("Last night was some beer-lairyness down our way, but again we're back in the light of day") pauses in the middle of his full English to call the girl he linked up with the night before – only to be told by his friend, Calvin:

"Hold it down boy, your head's getting blurred,

I know you can't stop thinking of her,

By all means you can vibe with this girl

But just don't mug yourself, that's all, don't mug yourself..."

What impressed me about the song was a) it exactly replicated several hundred conversations in pubs across the land, in which young men gruffly offered each other relationship advice, and b) the words of the title weren't sung in any conventional way, simply mumbled by what sounded like a cast of mates beside Skinner (in the video, it's Calvin and other people in the café). It was both subtly emotional and, in songwriting terms, boldly subversive.

I got to like him more and more. His fifth album – apparently the last he'll be doing as The Streets – is out on Monday, and, with the zeal of a convert, I've been exploring Skinner's swan songs. His love of learned allusion is more overt than usual. In "Going Through Hell," we get a nod to To Kill a Mockingbird in the opening lines ("I wouldn't say a word till I've walked a mile in your shoes"), and a breezy mix of Oscar Wilde and The Lord's Prayer towards the end ("I can resist anything but temptation, lead me not into that place I can find it myself") while the central theme of conflict and male aggression is unmistakeably Skinner's own:

"If you can't win then run, you wimp, the coming of fists is the fun of the thing,

It's all just lads and the normal ambience, fall or stab and then call an ambulance."

A charming song called "Roof of Your Car" describes the sensation of driving home while stoned, flying "on the wing of a prayer on the wing of your car", minutely describing "the racket of crickets and this packet of biscuits" as his mind is gradually overwhelmed by the munchies. There is, I humbly submit, no other songwriter in the world who could come up with the line, "Like some Ballardian nightmare from 1986 let the satellite navigation system guide us to the sticks."

His ability to sustain an image can be seen in "Puzzled by People," in which a failing relationship is spelt out:

"We never had a cross word, my words got lost and you never heard,

I'm too down and you're one across the room

Beginning with I and ending in you,

Beginning in my eye and ending as an ex..."

He writes with the same vivid intensity in "Blip on a Screen" about seeing an ante-natal scan of his baby daughter ("You're growing thumbs, I'm going numb/ Tucked into your Mum, looks like it might be quite fun"), in a very graceful soul-tinged number called "OMG" about finding you've been dumped on Facebook ("An earthquake hit me. Your status had changed...") and about the myalgic encephalomyelitis that laid him low for a year in "Trying to Kill M.E."

Though the backing music mostly lacks sophistication, Skinner reveals himself as a phenomenal user of words. If Ian Dury, in his lyrics, took some inspiration from W S Gilbert, the best comic songwriter in history, I think we can assume that The Streets, or whatever he calls himself in the future, has always looked beyond the rhyming-dictionary side of rap music to a greater influence from another time, namely Cole Porter, who liked nothing better than putting five rhymes in a line ("Fly-ing too high like some guy in the sky is my i-dea of nothing to do..."). And if that strikes Skinner as critical wank, it's the price I must pay for being converted to his rare, remarkable talent.

'Computers and Blues' by The Streets is released on Monday. For Andy Gill's review, see page 20



Lyrical genius: six stars who have a way with words by Luke Grundy

Jarvis Cocker

Jarvis Cocker has been considered one of pop's best communicators since Pulp's glory days. So renowned is he for his potent confrontation of the ennui of modern-day Britain in his playful lyrics, that he once delivered a lecture on the art of lyric-writing at the Brighton Festival.

"I was not born in wartime

I was not born in pain or poverty

I need an addiction, the needed affliction

To cultivate a personality"

(from "Further Complications" on 'Further Complications')



M.I.A.

Radical, witty, and sometimes downright dirty, M.I.A. (above) gives her punchy pop an intelligent, political frame. On her self-released third album, 'Maya', she combines an almost reckless rapping style with catchy hooks and a soulful delivery.

"Shirts, tops, tees, I'm always in        tight jeans

I know Billie Jean and        Bruce Springsteen

But I also know Palestine and        the Mujahideen

Playing Tekken on the weekend,        eating Mangosteen"

(from "Illygirl" on 'Maya')



Tinie Tempah

Tinie Tempah might be thought of more as a chart-topping pop star than a lyricist, but beneath the London rapper's deftly produced beats are hooks about struggle and desire. His lyrics provide an autobiographical portrait of a young artist working his way out of poverty.

"I knew that maybe someday        I would understand

Trying to turn a tenner to a        hundred grand

Everyone's a kid that no one        cares about

You just have to keep screaming ntil they hear you out"

("Written in the Stars" on 'Disc-Overy')



Arctic Monkeys

While Alex Turner's lyrical style owes a big debt to 1990s Britpop groups such as Blur and Pulp, the Arctic Monkeys frontman imbues his recognisably English dramatic settings with intricate everyday details. He tells stories to relate to, brimming with real experiences.

"I elongated my lift home.

Yeah I let him go the long way round

I smelt your scent on the seat belt,

And kept my short cuts to myself"

("Cornerstone" on 'Humbug')



Dizzee Rascal

The Mercury Prize-winning Dizzee Rascal maintains a balance that most rappers never strike. Whether joking with his listeners or delivering a sterner message, his ability to convey meaning springs from lyrics rooted in the recognisable geography of the UK.

"City wide, north, east, west and        the southside

Everywhere I go there's a goon        on the corner

Guns and drugs cause the city's        like a sauna

And it's getting warmer, and out        of order

Trying to turn a struggling mother        to a mourner"

(from "Dirtee Cash" on 'Tongue N' Cheek')



P J Harvey

Sometimes dubbed "the female Nick Cave", alternative-rock artist P J Harvey writes lyrics set in a world no one else dares inhabit, filled with dark, powerful passions and raw emotion.

"I imagine a dream

In which I'm a soldier

And I'm walking

On the faces of dead women

And everyone I left behind me"

(from "The Soldier" on 'A Woman a Man Walked By')

Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Radio
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
'Youth' cast members Paul Dano, Jane Fonda, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, and Michael Caine pose for photographers at Cannes Film Festival
film
Arts and Entertainment
Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward and Robin in the 1960s Batman TV show

Comics
Arts and Entertainment
I am flute: Azeem Ward and his now-famous instrument
music
Arts and Entertainment
A glass act: Dr Chris van Tulleken (left) and twin Xand get set for their drinking challenge
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
MIA perform at Lovebox 2014 in London Fields, Hackney

music
Arts and Entertainment
Finnish punk band PKN hope to enter Eurovision 2015 and raise awareness for Down's Syndrome

eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
William Shakespeare on the cover of John Gerard's The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes

books
Arts and Entertainment

Game of Thrones review
Arts and Entertainment
Grayson Perry dedicates his Essex home to Julie

Potter's attempt to create an Essex Taj Mahal was a lovely treat

tv
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the original Swedish version of the sci-fi TV drama ‘Real Humans’
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hugh Keays-Byrne plays Immortan Joe, the terrifying gang leader, in the new film
filmActor who played Toecutter returns - but as a different villain in reboot
Arts and Entertainment
Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jessica Hynes in W1A
tvReview: Perhaps the creators of W1A should lay off the copy and paste function spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Power play: Mitsuko Uchida in concert

classical
Arts and Entertainment
Dangerous liaisons: Dominic West, Jake Richard Siciliano, Maura Tierney and Leya Catlett in ‘The Affair’ – a contradictory drama but one which is sure to reel the viewers in
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Herring, pictured performing at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival two years ago
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
Music freak: Max Runham in the funfair band
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
film 'I felt under-used by Hollywood'
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Abuse - and the hell that came afterwards

    Abuse - and the hell that follows

    James Rhodes on the extraordinary legal battle to publish his memoir
    Why we need a 'tranquility map' of England, according to campaigners

    It's oh so quiet!

    The case for a 'tranquility map' of England
    'Timeless fashion': It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it

    'Timeless fashion'

    It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it
    If the West needs a bridge to the 'moderates' inside Isis, maybe we could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive after all

    Could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive?

    Robert Fisk on the Fountainheads of World Evil in 2011 - and 2015
    New exhibition celebrates the evolution of swimwear

    Evolution of swimwear

    From bathing dresses in the twenties to modern bikinis
    Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study

    One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
    From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

    Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

    'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
    'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

    Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

    This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

    Songs from the bell jar

    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
    How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

    One man's day in high heels

    ...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
    The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

    King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

    The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

    End of the Aussie brain drain

    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
    Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

    Can meditation be bad for you?

    Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
    Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

    Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

    Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine