NEW YORK — It’s tempting to describe “A Grand Don’t Come for Free,” the new CD by Mike Skinner, the British rapper who performs under the moniker The Streets, as a “concept album,” a “rap musical” or even — God help us — a “rock opera.” But on a recent afternoon at a Mexican restaurant in New York, Skinner, dressed in a sporty Lacoste windbreaker, shudders at the thought. “I don’t really like those words,” he says. “Kind of pretentious, you know?”
In which case he’ll probably really hate reading that the follow-up to his acclaimed debut, “Original Pirate Material,” is the record that James Joyce would have made if he were a recovering PlayStation junkie — a tragicomic gem, set to a laconic Garage beat, that turns such banalities as bad cell-phone reception into the stuff of epic poetry.
The album chronicles a year in the life of an average bloke, during which he runs a few errands, bets on football, goes clubbing, meets, cheats on and loses a girl and, in the final track, achieves an uplifting emotional epiphany. Although Skinner sees this hero as a version of himself — “That is my personality” — he says the supporting characters and situations are mostly invented. “I do overcook them,” he admits. “It’s kind of dramatized.”
Even so, Skinner’s brand of fiction is a far cry from the usual hypermasculine rap fantasies. In a genre that often seems like an elaborate mass visualization exercise for disempowered teenage boys, Skinner’s willingness to lay bare his vulnerabilities is startling. “I saw this thing on ITV the other week,” he sings hopefully in one chorus, referring to the U.K. commercial network, “said that if she played with her hair, she may be keen.”
“People have this idea that rappers are on the edge of crime,” he points out. “Kids are buying into a lifestyle thing, and I actually find that quite exciting. But I don’t want people thinking that I’m a criminal.”
Indeed, to the 25-year-old rapper, such naked sincerity is its own macho challenge. “I’m still kind of showing off,” he admits. “It’s like, ‘Look how honest I can be.’”
There is one big difference, however, between the singer and his musical alter ego: Only one of them is a critical darling on two continents. Fame hasn’t changed Skinner too much, though. He still can’t drive, and he spends most of his time tinkering with new tracks, listening to music — Kenny Rogers is a current favorite, “because all the best lyricists wanted to work with him” — hanging out with his large extended family and girlfriend, and shopping. He leans toward the casual fashion championed by Fred Perry, Lacoste and Sergio Tachini and admits he’s become a bit obsessive. “I’ll quite happily buy clothes every day,” he says.
Even so, he well remembers what life was like before The Streets were paved with gold. “I’ve been hitless,” Skinner says with a shrug. “I’m better off where I am now.”
— Aaron Gell