The Streets, Astoria, London

Streets take a wrong turn
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The Independent Culture

After his second album's three-million-selling, Brit-award success, he was an obvious choice to join NME's annual gig fest, even with a new album tantalisingly close on the horizon. While many groups would test songs at low-key fan dates, Skinner was happy to take the plunge in this most ostentatious manner.

A garage MC could distribute anonymous 12ins to club DJs - hardly an option for Skinner. Not after he revitalised the concept record by linking tracks on Grand... with its tale of a day in the life of an average bloke. Due out in April, the successor The Hardest Way To Make A Living is touted as the writer's celebrity journal.

Indeed, Skinner looked every inch a star as he sauntered on with the insouciance of someone strolling into his local. In keeping with his new direction, the artist had ditched casual sportswear for a Miami Vice T-shirt and white jacket combo, its sleeves rolled up to complete the picture. Having relied in the past on his easy-going charm, the Brummie rapper was eager to impress.

Always on the move, he continually fidgeted with his air horn or bantered with fans, albeit in one-dimensional geezerish fashion. Like a nervous stand-up comedian, Skinner was stuck in the rut of forgetting which city he was in, when he stopped asking which girls had received Valentine cards. Otherwise, it was business as usual as his conversational style was muffled by echoing acoustics.

Beside him, singer Leo made up for the artist's vocal shortcomings. Something of a bit-player on Grand..., he proved a stimulating live presence, happy to join in Skinner's japes. More importantly, he nailed the melodic choruses that split the star's mumbles. Meanwhile, a trio of musicians laid down a thunderous backing noise. Their keyboard sounds were a little lost, but only amid the reverberating bass and drums that clattered in all manner of ways, from skittering jungle beats to pounding funk rhythms.

All this counted for little as support to Skinner's lame rap on "Pranging About", the first new track and a brave show-opener. From what we could hear, this was his confession of naughtiness born of a post-tour comedown. Maybe its more dramatic moments were lost, but the slick backing that brought to mind pared-down Neptunes productions and Leo's sweet voice could not disguise this was uninspiring navel-gazing.

More promising was "War Of The Sexes", as boisterous as Skinner's most lairy work, while "All Goes Out The Window" was his most silky ballad yet. The performer was genuinely touching when he admitted to being able to give advice about relationships, though less adept at following it himself because he had not encountered temptation.

Less impressive was the forthcoming single "When You Wasn't Famous", which updated "Fit But You Know It" to match the more elevated circles he moves in nowadays. Skinner had bettered the older tune's melodic delivery, though Mark II lacked the clarity that made that song so compelling. While these numbers maintained Skinner's in-your-face attitude, he wisely balanced the set with fun selections from his debut album.

These were enlivened by Leo's additions, most amusing his take on Pussycat Dolls' "Don't Cha" in the bass-heavy "Let's Push Things Forward". Still, the highlights were somewhat expected. Even with a throwaway intro, "Dry Your Eyes" was as disarming as ever, then squealing feedback and thrashing power chords on "Fit..." had the whole audience bouncing as one. They may applaud him for taking on the US heavyweights, but would prefer him not to leave the burger van behind.

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