A low synth tone plays. The beat kicks in. The sampled strings begin. The same violin sample creates a haunting feeling.
“That’s it, that’s it.”
Mike Skinner starts rapping in a calm manner. The lyrics introduce himself in a way that’s different from what you usually expect. The tropes of rap songs which are aimed to present the rapper as the best-of-the-best are twisted on their head in “Turn the Page”. The aforementioned brief mainstream success of the garage scene is decimated, with Skinner portraying himself as the figure that will rise to move things on to the next stage of this music scene. But it’s done with an elegance and poetry that just feels different to the usual word play you expect.
He never loses control, remaining docile and straightforward as the imagery of a long and bloody war of music lets you know that you’re listening to something special. The beat keeps building layers and layers of strings before Skinner tells you to “be brave, clench fists.”
The album that follows provides a view of working-class UK life on a round trip from Birmingham-to-Brixton. It’s undoubtedly British, with Skinner not masking an accent with a faux-US twinge that many artists try to achieve. There’s short-form Cockney-rhyming slang used throughout the album, aiming to show a true-to-life portrait of life. It’s closer to the spirit of N.W.A’s “Straight Outta Compton” and it’s depiction of the artist’s lives than perhaps many of Skinner’s peers.
There’s an interesting line with the content of the songs on this album, with Skinner flipping between the auto-biographical, to storytelling with characters and general poetic musings all scattered about in the running order. Whilst a couple of songs do contain some of the rap tropes of self-aggrandising, albeit in an unique way, others are short stories that show a relatable snippet of life.
As great as it is to hear about traumatic childhoods, living on the street and making money by selling drugs; “Original Pirate Material” feels more relatable to its target audience. “Don’t Mug Yourself” is a great little song about the hazy morning after a night out where you’ve had a chance encounter with the opposite sex. But the way it’s portrayed is a humorous lad-ish conversation that still lingers on the side of a hangover. Yet to write the album off as songs full of lad like “banter” does it a disservice.
Throughout the discography of The Streets, Skinner isn’t afraid to open up the more emotional side of himself and can get quite deep. “It’s Too Late” sees the opposite of “Don’t Mug Yourself” play true, with the song’s narrator being responsible for taking a relationship for granted despite showing a gradual self-awareness. Common themes that are played through other albums, but will really be a focal point of this disc’s sequel.
Musically, the beats feel simple, but they’re extremely effective. They nail the tone the song is aiming for perfectly. The aforementioned “Don’t Mug Yourself” captures the feeling of a hangover, whilst the repeating samples of “Geezers Need Excitement” help propel the story that Skinner is telling about the inevitable build-up of violence. “Geezers” is a perfect example of the tone of the music helping to amplify the message that Skinner is telling: the continual need for “Geezers” to show that they’re the alpha male, trying to maintain an illusion of masculinity. The album immediately undercuts this with the light sadness of “It’s Too Late”.
The shifting in tone ensures that you’re never complacent in what the album is. It doesn’t try to maintain a confident swagger in front of it’s mates, it knows when to be introspective. It knows how to take a step back and see the reality of what’s happening. Closer “Stay Positive” flips on the message of the opening song, showing that you’ll need a positive outlook to negotiate the bad things that life will throw at you.
That’s not to say that it’s all doom-and-gloom. There’s plenty of light-hearted humour to tell more stories. “Too Much Brandy” is more comedic way of telling the story of a drunken night out. Skinner throws his wit and more of a rhythmic delivery from what we’ve heard on the album so far. It feels natural and shows he has a few more vocal skills that you’d initially given him. The pinnacle of the ‘comedy’ songs reach its peak with the brilliantly layered “The Irony of It All”, featuring the old booze vs weed debate with Skinner playing Terry and Tim.
On the surface it’s the legality of alcohol despite the related deaths and behavioural issues that are caused by it. Terry works hard but likes a drink and gets quite violent whilst out on the lash. On the flipside, ex-University student Tim uses his degree to make bongs and smoke weed and watch TV all day. It feels as if it’s initially pro-drugs, but a couple of listens highlight the issues with both arguments. Terry’s drinking slurs his speech and affects his memory but boosts his confidence to overdrive, whilst the impression you get from Tim is that he’s far too relaxed and is just wasting a good education. It’s all entertaining and funny to listen, but there’s a deliberate idea that Skinner gets across; and it makes the album fun to revisit.
There’s an ongoing debate about whether this album is The Streets’ magnum opus, or whether it’s the follow-up “A Grand Don’t Come For Free.” There’s no denying that this album is genuinely brilliant; and if in a certain mood – could be Skinner’s best work. But it will forever end up second place from it’s sequel, but not in its shadow. Rather than get overlooked by a better album, “Original Pirate Material” steps stays out of giant shadow cast by its peers and puts up its own fight.
As debuts go, it’s one of the best entries into the music world. If you’ve never listened to a Streets album before, you can’t go wrong with starting from the beginning. Fully recommended.