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 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')
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 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')
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')
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')