A Grand Don’t Come For Free is the second album from UK garage sensation Mike Skinner, aka The Streets. When the album was released in 2004 it was received with open arms, and praise. After the comparatively moderate success of the first album Original Pirate Material many people were surprised, and even a little skeptical, but after hearing just a few of the tracks on the album, almost everyone was blown away.
A Grand Don’t Come For Free is a bit of an experiment for Skinner, as all the tracks on the album are connected, telling the story of a period in his life, detailing him losing some money, meeting a girl, losing the girl, and the subsequent emotions of all these events, this means listening to the album from start to finish gives each track an extra something and really makes you want to keep listening, to hear how the story unfolds.
Something that Skinner has previously mentioned, notably as part of the lyrics in his Original Pirate Material album, is that he is not a rapper, but an urban poet, meaning that he is really telling the story, just with a backing beat. It’s something that works incredibly well.
We open with “It Was Supposed To Be So Easy,” which gives us Skinners ‘to-do list’ with some nice Godzilla-esque horns, giving the song a suitably disastrous feel to it. But it’s the lyrics in the song, (and whole album for that matter) that really stand out. The amount of detail that the lyrics go into, really paint a picture for the listener giving an unusual amount of immersion for a record.
Following this is “Could Well Be In,” the story of a first date. The track has a great backing beat. One of Skinners talents is taking an incredibly simple beat, and making it into something really interesting. Here, we just have a repeating drum and three piano chords, but again, thanks to the strength of the lyrics, it all works perfectly. Again, the song really makes you feel that you are sat in the bar with him, and he is just telling you how his date went. Along with the incredibly catchy chorus, this song is a definite pleaser.
“Not Addicted” is an unfortunate drop in quality. A mediocre beat coupled with a tale of gambling that just fails to capture the imagination of the listener, unlike the first two tracks. The lyrics don’t seem to be as coherent as the previous songs, and it all seems a little rushed. Also the biggest gripe with the song is that it doesn’t seem relevant to any of the other events on the album. It feels like a filler track, on an album that doesn’t need any filler tracks.
However, this is instantly forgiven as soon as “Blinded By The Lights” comes on. This song has an incredible feel to it. This time Skinner is in a nightclub where he is meeting his friends and girlfriend. The story here is really well told, and I’m sure many people can relate to the song word for word. The song really gives the sense of having a night out and you can instantly imagine exactly what Skinner is feeling, with a fuzzy head after beer and narcotics, as his voice in this song is suitably slurred and the pulsing beat has an almost dreamy feel to it. This is a real contender for best song on the album… Though that is not an easy decision to make!
Now, these four songs are a very strong start to any album (well, maybe three songs, you can skip “Not Addicted”). But there are some things that can put some people off of the album. Firstly is Mike Skinners voice. He is a very English Englishman. His accent, for me, as a fellow Brit, fits the music perfectly, especially as the album is about a regular guy. However, I do know that some people don’t like the fact that it is basically just a man talking over some music. However, if you listen to the story, I can almost guarantee that you will be eager to hear the album to the end, to see how it all pans out. Also, the other thing that can be off-putting for some people outside of the UK, is the constant use of slang, and references to things that only people inside the UK might be aware of, for example, in “Could Well Be In” there are constant references to ITV, which is a TV station in England, and in the crowd pleasing “Fit But You Know It,” a lot of people don’t realize we use “fit” as meaning “hot/sexy,” so the message of the song can be missed. It’s a minor gripe, as most people will be able to figure out the slang and references pretty easily, but I know some people that were put off.
Speaking of “Fit But You Know It,” if this song doesn’t make you want to dance and have a good time with your friends, then I will assume you have no friends. It’s a great upbeat song about being on holiday. Skinner really shows off his humor in this song, and his collaborator Leo The Lion does a great job as his partner in crime, and his appearance as Mike’s mate in “What Is He Thinking” is a great example of how well the two of them work together.
Possibly the most recognized song on the album is the penultimate song, “Dry Your Eyes.” Again, Skinner uses a simple beat and two-chord guitar riff, but somehow gives off a huge amount of emotion with the simple music, and when the strings come in at the chorus, it just feels right. Lyrically, the song is incredible, telling Mikes break up with his girlfriend in excruciating detail. It’s a song that I know genuinely brings people to tears. Especially as the build up from the rest of album has been leading to this. You really feel for him, and as with a lot of the songs on the album, people can easily relate to it.
“Empty Cans“ ends the album. The song ties up all the loose ends left from the previous tracks, and as I don’t want to spoil it (it’s surely a testament to an album if you have to ‘not spoil’ the ending!) all I will say is, regarding the music, you will be amazed at how a simple piano note can change a song drastically, and I can guarantee you, that when the song has finished you will wish there was more. It’s a beautiful song.
A Grand Don’t Come For Free does an amazing thing in creating real emotions while you are listening to the album. It will make you smile, and make you think. It might even bring a tear to your eye. You will be able to relate to at least one of the songs on a personal level. And as I said before, if you’re like me, you will not want it to end, and I will go on record to say this is one of the best albums of the last 20 years, as Skinner shows off his amazing story telling capabilities, his skill at crafting seemingly simple songs, that have a huge amount of depth. He even shows that poetry, if done right, is a damn powerful tool.