By Mark Guarino
At a time when rappers are so easily defined by their wardrobe or jewelry comes Mike Skinner, an impudent 24-year-old from Birmingham, England who looks like he might be your caddy, drinks like Dean Martin onstage and raps about how cell phone static and getting dumped by your girlfriend are the two most unfortunate hassles of everyday life.
Skinner is The Streets, a critical favorite ever since his debut album, a basement tape called “Original Pirate Material” (Vice), was released two years ago. He is an unorthodox character compared to the large pool of fashion-conscious braggarts that dominate the hip-hop mainstream. Even though his thick cockney accent sets him apart at first listen, Skinner is at heart a storyteller whose first person narratives move the listener inside the action. He raps conversationally, sounding closer to Lou Reed, and the tales of petty thievery, girlfriend woes and drug malaise on his second album, “A Grand Don’t Come For Free” (Vice), are cinematic in scope with novelistic depth. It is a blue collar coming of age story very similar to “Quadrophenia,” Pete Townshend’s rock opera three decades back.
At Metro Wednesday, Skinner ditched drum loops and DJs in favor of a drummer, bassist-guitarist, keyboardist and big-voiced soul singer Leo Ihenacho. Although songs from his first album like “Has It Come To This?” were more easily categorized by the subgenre “U.K. Garage” — a dance-oriented amalgam of hip-hop and drum-and-bass — the newer songs relied on more song-oriented conventions like pop choruses, guitar solos and heart-torn balladry.
In the 80-minute, 14-song set, Skinner flexed his dexterity, working through an R&B lullaby (“Wouldn’t Have It Any Other Way”), thrash rocker (“Fit But You Know It”) and pop ballad (“Dry Your Eyes”). His street tough, stream-of-conscious style was buttressed against Ihenacho’s silky croon that gave the songs a rich hue. Throughout the show, they became each other’s duet partner and comic foil, flipping lead vocals back and forth in a battle for contrast.
The songs were designed to show the sensitivity of a slacker. But onstage, Skinner played up his inner Beastie Boy. A contraption holding ready-to-pour vodka and brandy battles were on hand so he could dispense drinks for the audience. He also readily handed out backstage passes to front row ladies that caught his eye. And when he struck thug poses and faux break danced, it was intentionally comic.
He was a clown who realized the joke wasn’t on him but on the rigid expectations of his genre. The complexity of his narratives may have been too dense to translate very well onstage, but even when he blew off steam, it felt like a blast of fresh air.